Mars Attacks … Sort Of

The Day Mars Invaded Earth is pretty small-scale as far as that whole Invasion thing. When the U.S. sends a probe to Mars, Mars sends back, via the probe’s transmission, some floating energy that talks. Well, it does a bit more, actually: it replicates the shape of the scientist in charge of the mission and then warns him, in exquisitely modulated tones, that the Martians are pissed off by Earthlings butting in where they don’t belong, and now Consequences will follow. No space ships, tripods, or octopi-shaped aliens unleashing blasts from a death ray. Instead, we get interstellar doppelgangers. Polite, well-dressed doubles, with a faintly contemptuous attitude, akin to an extraterrestrial Clifton Webb. Their plan, as the main doppelganger courteously explains, is to take over our planet by replacing all its terrestrial inhabitants with Martian lookalikes. In other words, we’ll all get to be Clifton Webb.

Which I think just might improve the place. (But then, I wrote a whole post on the thrill of contemplating Clifton Webb as a Sex Object, so that could just be Me.)

Shot independently in Cinemascope in 1963, The Day Mars Invaded Earth is not well known, but is well-thought of in some quarters (Joe Dante at Trailers From Hell likes its “noirish feel”). Watching it, you can marvel at how its makers, with a tiny cast, a nonexistent budget, and basically one set, attempt nothing less than a saga of interplanetary conquest. The film’s got that cultish aura that often adheres to such cheap, obscure productions, the feeling that its cut-price workarounds must mean it’s a discovery. The director Maury Dexter, for example, compresses the film’s substitution plot into one shot by having the scientist-protagonist (Kent Taylor) exit screen right while the camera pans screen left until it stops at the scientist’s double sitting in puzzled dignity at his desk—done without a cut within the film’s Scope frame (although I did get an odd image of the stiffish Taylor racing round the walls to get back to that desk before the camera did).

The film’s biggest asset, though, is that one set, which is a doozy: the Greystone mansion and estate, especially its 55-room main house and its 16-acre yard. Practically all 16 of those fabulous acres seem to be on view here: the camera roams past stone archways, circles round a large, vacant swimming pool, wanders down yew alleys and across grassy terraces, and takes in swaths of trees, lawns, fountains, balustrades, pathways, and drives, all of which looks too broad, too vast and empty, for mere human occupancy —it’s as huge and uninhabitable as the Gobi Desert. It’s like the producers, after no doubt spending a big chunk of their miniscule budget to rent this parkland, wanted as many of those dollars to show up onscreen by covering as much literal ground as possible.

My entire apartment could fit into ONE archway.

At least they got their money’s worth. The landscape becomes participant as well as setting, its very vastness creating its own ambiance of dread. Within those endless acres the handful of actors are dwarfed and isolated, insignificant entities lost in seemingly interminable vistas of grass, foliage, and stonework. Whether or not the filmmakers intended as such (or merely wanted to flaunt their set), the effect is unnerving. Within all this fraught emptiness you sense how fragile is our notion of identity, how easily the meaning of self is diminished and overwhelmed. Hence how easy it would be to replace us—because how little of us there would be to replace.

Adding to the overall creepiness is Dexter’s way of starting a scene, particularly inside the mansion’s empty rooms, as though Something is watching and waiting for a character to enter. As Taylor wanders the mansion’s silent halls, the camera observes but never follows. It doesn’t move yet it’s always already there, in another room, just before he comes in. Dexter pulls a minor jump scare when, in the house’s famous bowling alley, a bowling ball suddenly rolls down a ramp, seemingly on its own. Taylor tries (uneasily) to laugh it off; but then a wall panel rises and there’s Taylor’s double, smiling and suavely calm—a detached, distant Self, amused at a private joke at Taylor’s expense. Thus the invasion: no weapons, no battles, no laser beams or bombs. Just this polite fellow explaining the Martians’ purpose: they’re not invading for conquest but for self-defense. Humans blundered uninvited onto his planet, and he wants to make damn sure they don’t come back. “We’re not here out of vindictiveness,” he claims. Instead, he cheerily promises that “when the time comes we’ll try to be what your people call—humane.”

Depending on your mood and tolerance, such techniques can be subtle and unsettling, or slow and baffling. The film is not for all tastes. Unlike, say, the big-budgeted production(s) of The War of the Worlds, in which the Martians blow up entire cities (money does have advantages), TDMIE must settle for the smaller family unit, weaving its 1950s sci-fi plot into a 1950s marital melodrama, of how Taylor doesn’t spend enough time with his family. To its credit, the film transmutes familial tension into psychological metaphor, in which outside invaders stand for inner alienation. The family members keep running into each other’s doubles on the estate, yet cannot tell the real from the fake—the familiar becoming thus literally an Other.

There are of course the usual plot gaps and illogical twists—why, for instance, when you know something can create doubles of you and your family, do you split up the group? There’s also the usual padding to extend the running time, such as jargon-filled discussions or explanations of scenes we’ve just watched; sometimes the film feels like an extended Twilight-Zone episode. The movie’s at its best in the creation of mood rather than story; unfortunately, mood alone can’t fill 70 minutes of running time. But TDMIE does manage to turn its limits into something offbeat and unexpected, creating, without special effects, a landscape of estrangement and fear. The Aliens are not found in rubber-suited monsters but within ourselves.

One other asset is the presence of Marie Windsor, playing Taylor’s worried wife, in what seems an atypical role for an actress associated with noir femme fatales. Windsor downplays her (considerable) glamour; she wears flat shoes, sensible dresses, and a most unbecoming hairstyle (I suspect it’s a wig), and attends to her home and children with housewifely solicitude. She does have one Windsor moment though, in which, playing her double in one scene, she gives her husband a dirty look. I mean, a REALLY dirty look.

 

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