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October 19, 2005

Invaders from Mars

William Cameron Menzies - 1953
Image Region 1 DVD

Last July, I wrote about The Red Shoes in response to reading a list created by Martin Scorsese of films featuring the best use of color.

This is his list:

English Language Films (in alphabetical order)

Barry Lyndon (1975, Dir. Stanley Kubrick; Cin. John Alcott)
Duel in the Sun (1946, Dir. King Vidor; Cin. Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan, Hal Rosson)
Invaders From Mars (1953, Dir. William Cameron Menzies; Cin. John F. Seitz)
Leave Her to Heaven (1946, Dir. John M. Stahl; Cin. Leon Shamroy)
Moby Dick (1956, Dir. John Huston; Cin. Oswald Morris)
Phantom of the Opera (1943, Dir. Arthur Lubin; Cin. W. Howard Greene, Hal Mohr)
The Red Shoes (1948, Dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger; Cin. Jack Cardiff)
The Searchers (1956, Dir. John Ford; Cin. Winton C. Hoch)
Singin' in the Rain (1952, Dir. Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly; Cin. Harold Rosson)
Vertigo (1958, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock; Cin. Robert Burks)

International Films (in alphabetical order)

Contempt (1963, Dir. Jean-Luc Godard; Cin. Raoul Coutard; France/Italy)
Cries and Whispers (1972, Dir. Ingmar Bergman; Cin. Sven Nykvist; Sweden)
Gate of Hell (1953, Dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa; Cin. Kohei Sugiyama; Japan)
In the Mood For Love (2000, Dir. Wong Kar-Wai; Cin. Christopher Doyle, Mark Lee Ping-bin; Hong Kong)
The Last Emperor (1987, Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci; Cin. Vittorio Storaro; Italy/United Kingdom/China/Hong Kong)
Red Desert (1964, Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni; Cin. Carlo Di Palma; France/Italy)
The River (1951, Dir. Jean Renoir; Cin. Claude Renoir; India/France/United States)
Satyricon (1969, Dir. Federico Fellini; Cin. Giuseppe Rotunno; Italy/France)
Senso (1954, Dir. Luchino Visconti; Cin. G.R. Aldo, Robert Krasker, Giuseppe Rotunno; Italy)
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Dir. Sergei Paradjanov; Cin. Viktor Bestayev, Yuri Ilyenko; Russia/Ukraine)

I never saw the original Invaders from Mars, but I did see the previews to Tobe Hooper's remake about twenty years ago.

If the story seems cliched, this is probably the film that provided the template for future science fiction films. While nobody thought to control the phone lines in this film, allowing the military to save the day, there were a couple of little twists with the characters that were interesting. A major plot point is that people who have encountered the Martians turn into emotionless slaves, doing subversive work on behalf of the invaders. Menzies shows in close-up, the wicked smile of a young girl who has just set fire to her own house. Conversely, it is revealed that her seemingly emotionless scientist father is exactly that, an emotionless man untouched by the Martians.

I had no idea who Helena Carter was, other than that she was not the wife of the director of Mars Attacks. Those who love Fifties television may get a chuckle out of seeing uncredited cameos from the future Mel Cooley or Lumpy's dad and yes, Beaver's mom. One of the "mutants" was the same actor who played Gort, the giant robot, in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Menzies, who was the production designer on Gone with the Wind, has shots of a small bridge that are framed to look similar to shots of Tara. A sense of unreality is created with some sparsely decorated interiors and long hallways. In terms of use of color, much of the film is in shades of dark blue, black and brown, with the Martian and his "mutants" in green with ray guns that emit a red light. Even though care is shown in the color and composition of the film, some of the effects are spoiled by the screamingly obvious zippers on the back of the "mutants" rubber suits.

Maybe I'm missing something that Scorsese appreciates, but I would cite other films for their use of color instead of Invaders from Mars. A film I would nominate for best use of color is William Wellman's Track of the Cat, a film that appears to be in black and white except for the extremely limited use of other colors. The film, a commercial failure, was John Wayne's gift to Wellman after the success of The High and the Mighty. A boy's nightmare about Martians is somewhat amusing, but the real goods, both in story and artistry, are seen in the figure of Robert Mitchum, a dark figure in a red coat, almost lost in a white plain of snow.

Posted by peter at October 19, 2005 05:29 PM

Comments

It's a great list, and I am very glad Scorsese included Leave Her to Heaven and Gate of Hell, both of which I love. But I would also do some seek-and-replace with the list. For example, I'd pick Huston's Moulin Rouge and not Moby Dick. The color in the opening sequence alone is astonishing. In Huston's autobiography he talks about watching Gate of Hell several times before filming that movie, and working with Oswald Morris to get a similar effect. (He talked about how they did it and I have totally forgotten.)

Posted by: Campaspe at October 19, 2005 10:10 PM