Rialto Pictures has just released the director’s cut of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).
Roeg made the film just before the Star Wars (1977) onslaught that changed the way Hollywood movies were made and distributed. Like George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) and Shane Carruth’s criminally overlooked Primer (2004), Roeg relied on intelligent writing, exquisite cinematography and bravura editing over computer-assisted special effects and marketing reports.
MR. MacMILLAN: You work for me, don’t you?
JOSH BASKIN: Yes.
MR. MacMILLAN: I thought so. What, are you here with your kids?
JOSH BASKIN: No. I was just looking around.
MR. MacMILLAN: Oh. Me too. I come here every Saturday. Can’t see this on a marketing report.
JOSH BASKIN: What’s a marketing report?
MR. MacMILLAN: Exactly.
Mr. MacMillan (Robert Loggia) in a chance meeting with his new employee, Josh Baskin (Tom Hanks) in Big (1988).
See “The Man Who Fell to Earth” trailer’ HERE.
David Bowie stars in the role of Thomas “Tommy” Jerome Newton, who falls out of the sky into a lake in the southwestern town of Haneyville. Where he comes from, the Earth is called “Planet of Water.”
Tommy shows up at the home of big-time New York patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) with fistfuls of Benjamins and market-ready patents.
While Farnsworth doesn’t immediately realize Newton is not from around these parts of the solar system, he does recognize Tommy’s advanced technology patents will not only generate a fortune, but change the world for the better, to boot.
Tommy wants to remain insulated from the world and makes an offer to Farnsworth be his frontman, like Robert Maheu’s relationship with Howard Hughes. Farnsworth accepts the offer and commits himself entirely to Tommy and his new company, World Enterprises.
The encroaching media frenzy starts to wear on Tommy, so he travels to New Mexico, where he meets hotel worker Mary-Lou (Candy Clark).
Tommy’s inner gyroscope handles interstellar overdrive better than the ups-and-downs of Earth elevators, which give him motion sickness. Mary-Lou mothers Tommy back to equilibrium and introduces him to television and gin ‘n tonic.
They move in together and World Enterprises takes off like a late 90s tech stock, except that the business actually creates products that don’t require doctored books to show revenue.
Money + secrecy soon draw interest from a range of concerned parties: from the CIA to Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn), a college professor in mid-life crisis who passes time chasing his female students.
Calling the newly restored version of The Man Who Fell to Earth the “director’s cut” is somewhat misleading. Like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Roeg’s film as originally released in most of Europe was the director’s cut. The versions released in the U.S. were both altered over concern about sexual imagery.
In Roeg’s case, the distributors also wanted to “fix” the problem of unconventional narrative structure.
Sex combined with experimental narrative, they worried, would leave American audiences befuddled and mystified. More importantly, Roeg’s cinematic cubism might depress ticket sales.
To remedy the situation, they hacked off 20 minutes of film like machete-wielding meth freaks fleeing a marauding mob of Amazon jungle voodoo zombies on a moonless winter night. It was like taking a scissors to Juan Gris’ “Violin And Checkerboard” – cutting, pasting, and recombining the painting until the composition adhered to 18th century concepts of time and space.
Nicolas Roeg’s first film saved by cynical PR
Roeg’s first movie, Performance (1970), stared Mick Jagger, who, like David Bowie, was also a famously androgynous English male rock star.
Warner Brothers didn’t know what to do with the film. According to the British Board of Film Classification, they “were expecting a Rolling Stones equivalent of The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night (1964).” What they got was something quite different.
The film had already been shot when the Charles Manson gang committed their first murder on July 25, 1969, five days after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
The killing was committed on orders from Manson by Bobby Beausoleil, who Kenneth Anger had cast in the title role of his 1967 underground short, Lucifer Rising. After abandoning the project, Lucifer Rising became Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), starring Keith Richards and Jagger, who also composed the music score.
It’s amazing how much of the popular culture of the times Roeg transmuted into his films, sometimes before it happened.
While Warner Bros. considered destroying the negative at one point, Manson might have felt at home with the sadism and mind games portrayed in Performance.
News of the Tate-LaBianca murders a month later and the Manson Family murder trial flooded the media up until the trial judge handed down four death sentences in April 1971.
At Warner, cynical heads prevailed. Jagger’s connections to Altamont and Charles Manson were too media-friendly to pass up. It was a public relations gold mine.
Extensive edits were made, but Warner execs didn’t understand the film. It was like a special-occasion spiff-up of an alcoholic uncle suffering from advanced Tourette Syndrome. Performance received a fatal “X” rating and virulent critical opinion upon release.
Nicolas Roeg’s cinematic street cred
Nicolas Roeg was brought into the film at the request of another first-time director: Donald Cammell. Unlike Roeg, who had already been writing, producing, and especially working with the camera for 20 years, Cammell had been only marginally involved in filmmaking.
By the time he co-directed Performance, Roeg had already earned cinematography credits for Petulia (1968), Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966). He also did uncredited camera work for Freddie Young on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Shivago (1965), which both earned Best Cinematography Oscars.
The San Francisco connection
Bowie’s character is a cross between Howard Hughes, Peter Townshend’s Tommy, and San Francisco native Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple Computer in 1976. Both the Apple I Computer and The Man Who Fell to Earth were released that same year.
Walter Tevis, author of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” grew up in San Francisco’s Sunset District listening to fog horns until he was 10 years-old. He reportedly cited the experience of his confinement in Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home due to illness as an influence on the novel. He rejoined the family a year later in Kentucky.
Tevis published “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” his second novel, in 1963.
Media oversaturation was an issue even back in the ‘70s. Reportedly, Tevis took the name of Buck Henry’s character from Philo T. Farsworth, who built the first all-electronic live camera-to-screen system. When he demonstrated the device at his Green St. research lab on September 7,1928, the Chronicle described it as “a queer looking little image in bluish light now, one that frequently smudges and blurs, but the basic principle is achieved and perfection is now a matter of engineering.”
Did you know?
- Before writing “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Walter Tevis wrote his first novel, “The Hustler.” The classic pool-hall saga recounts the fictional rise and fall of gifted cue-shark “Fast” Eddie Felson, who learns the hard way winning without character gets you only so far. Paul Newman portrayed Felson in the brilliant 1961 film version.
- Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell made a cameo in the film playing himself. Lovell was also the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 8 during the first-ever manned moon orbit.
Playdates and locations HERE.
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