“This is a terrible film,” said Fiona, mid-way through STRANGER FROM VENUS. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that this low-budget British sci-fi effort wasn’t exactly ROME: OPEN CITY, but it had started so promisingly. Within moments of the first UFO sighting, we got a quick scene of the great John Le Mesurier as an archetypal Man from the Ministry, on the hotline to somebody or other, saying something or other… we were too thrilled to really pay attention to the words uttered. But after those all-too-brief seconds, Le Mes departs the film, never to be seen again, and interest markedly slumps. To offer us John Le Mes and then take him away again so suddenly is a like a cruel cinematic version of orgasm denial.
On the plus side, we then get Patricia Neal, her presence calculated to affirm with every passing moment that this is not THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Though it closely resembles it in many ways, all of them making for an unflattering comparison. As in Robert Wise’s terrific picture, a stiff-necked extraterrestrial lands and delivers a message of peace — backed up with apocalyptic threats.
Like every other sci-fi movie made in Britain, the setting is a pub, in this case a roadside inn where the stranger takes up residence while demanding a congress with the world’s leaders. There’s a time limit on all this since his ability to breathe our earthly air will eventually give out, when he runs out of oxy-gum or something. Despite all this suspense, the film manages to be sluggish, with numerous scenes devoid of any discernible dramatic tension, and most of the plot consisting of desultory waiting.
As a result, the high-points are early on: director Burt Balaban (of the Balaban dynasty) shows a penchant for filming his cast from the back, which becomes a full-blown fetish when the Venusian interloper enters, his face hidden from us for long minutes. Eventually, the agreeably chiseled features of Helmut Dantine are revealed, and Patricia is of course drawn to the sexy stranger from Planet Lurve. His cheekbones call to her cheekbones.
Space Helmut has an important message to deliver but can’t do so just yet, so there’s plenty of time for (excuse the expression) mooning after Patricia, and the fact that she has a fiancée who is a government official (the heavy, space-gauntleted hand of coincidence lies heavy upon the scenario) adds complication, but none of this adds up to either romantic agony or mild curiosity for the viewer. The ending manages to preserve the status quo while (somewhat) questioning it, making this a half-hearted bit of liberal fantasy that can’t quite bring itself to be surprising or radical or scary or exciting. The climax hinges upon the theft of Space Helmut’s communication device (a flat cylinder looking suspiciously like a make-up compact) from an army tent, an operation so tedious the film doesn’t even bother to present it.
The very end is quite nice, actually — bittersweet, I suppose you’d call it. But I still feel like we’re owed an apology for the premature withdrawal of Le Mesurier.