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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Rennie’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 18th 2001:

A few years ago a major British newspaper ran one of those regular filler pieces on ‘The (X-Number) Greatest Movies Ever Made’. In addition to this they got some celebs to suggest amendments – overlooked classics, over-rated turkeys, that sort of thing. Imagine my pleasant surprise when Kenneth Branagh plumped for Robert Wise’s 1951 The Day The Earth Stood Still as an addition to the list. You may have seen it – is it really as good as all that?

It’s a deceptively simple story: life on Earth is shattered when a flying saucer descends on Washington DC, not far from the White House. From it emerge humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie in a role he could’ve been born to play) and hulking robot Gort (Lock Martin). Klaatu is shot and wounded by the trigger-happy army that have surrounded the ship, and ends up in hospital. He reveals he’s come to Earth to deliver a very important message – but Terran politics make the World Summit he insists upon impossible. Wishing to learn more about the world, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and taking the name Mr Carpenter moves into a boarding house where he befriends a young widow and her son (Patricia Neal and Billy Gray). The army continue their increasingly desperate hunt for the alien visitor, not realising that his death will trigger a planet-busting rampage from the implacable Gort…

Watching TDTESS these days is to be transported back to another age, so different is this from any modern genre movie. By modern standards it might seem incredibly sentimental and square – but it has a conviction to it, and the performances are so good, that you really never care about whether it’s old fashioned or not. Michael Rennie’s trademark reserved detachment was never better utilised. It’s a remarkable performance, mixing compassion, optimism, exasperation, and – above all – gravitas. In many ways it’s the foundation of the film, setting the serious tone essential to its success. This is helped by the direction, which is semi-documentary in places – there are frequent montage sequences displaying the impact of the film’s events on ordinary people around the world (a very refreshing change from modern Hollywood’s belief that the world stops at the US’s borders). It’s not all doom and gloom – there are many effective lighter moments, often lampooning the parochial attitudes of the US itself.

Technically, it’s a very accomplished piece of work by 1951 standards. The optical effects are more than adequate to tell the story, and the ‘big scenes’ – the army on the move, Klaatu’s neutralisation of the world’s electricity – are well staged. Special mention must be made of Bernard Herrman’s ear-opening score, making significant use of the thelemin (an early synthesiser). Truly eerie in parts, it’s been much imitated, but never bettered.

And yes, for those who look for such things, the parallels with the Christian story are clear and frequent. But they neither add to nor detract from the message at the heart of the movie: that the human race must learn to live peacefully – or face the prospect of not living at all. Maybe it’s a trite and obvious message, but it’s one that as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. More’s the pity.

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