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The Man Who Fell to Earth

Most rock stars can count their voice or stage presence as one of their most valuable assets — David Bowie's career is best captured in his eyes. Struck in a schoolyard fight as a young boy, David Robert Jones was nearly blinded. After a year of recuperation the iris of his left eye was darkened greenish-brown, while the pupil was permanently dilated; neither matched his perfectly blue right eye. Nonetheless, Bowie's eyes have always been the one immutable feature of his shape-shifting persona, featured prominently on album covers and even put to occasional thematic use (such as with his 1972 album Aladdin Sane). Perhaps then it was inevitable that David Bowie would draw the attention of Nicolas Roeg. The most avant garde director of 1970s cinema, critics have considered Roeg's films alternately confounding and groundbreaking, in part because of his disinterest in narrative conventions. But Roeg also has been attracted to performers as much as actors, making his directorial debut with Performance (1970) starring Mick Jagger. Unconcerned with genre or locale, Roeg's subsequent pictures were shot in Australia (Walkabout, 1971) and Venice (Don't Look Now, 1973). Taking up Walter Tevis's novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roeg's production crew arrived in the arid New Mexico desert to tell the somber story of an extraterrestrial who appears on Earth to save his dying planet. David Bowie had barely done any acting before taking the role, but Roeg wasn't alone in believing he had found the perfect alien — Bowie accepted the part without even reading the script.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) opens as its title suggests, with an interplanetary vehicle piercing the earth's atmosphere, a splashdown in a New Mexico lake, and one lone visitor walking up an isolated road to the nearest small town. He is Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), a pale, thin man with orange hair and an English accent, bearing a British passport. After putting together enough cash to travel to New York (by hocking several gold wedding bands), Newton hires industrial attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). The somewhat-serious Farnsworth at first finds his frail guest eccentric at best, but before long he discovers that Newton has the scientific schemas for nine basic patents, potentially worth as much as $300 million. The secretive Newton then authorizes Farnsworth as his sole representative to create World Enterprises, a global corporation with holdings in everything from camera film to auto fuel. However, Newton's central project is known only to his secluded New Mexico employees — a spacecraft that can begin secretly ferrying his own people to Earth. One of these employees, Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn), can't help but be suspicious — a former academic, he was drawn to World Enterprises simply because he found the company's radical innovations hard to believe. Having met Newton, he's even more convinced the man is unreal, or at least not human. And he's determined to prove it.

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Novelist Walter Tevis loved gifted losers — his first novel, The Hustler, was adapted for the hit 1960 film starring Paul Newman, and while his follow-up The Man Who Fell to Earth seemed light-years away from the pool halls of Tevis's youth, their thematic parallels are notable. Like 'Fast' Eddie Felson, Thomas Jerome Newton is a man who must conceal the depth of his knowledge in order to achieve his goals. Both men also find solace in drink, and they have torrid relationships with women they keep at arm's length (in this case Candy Clark as Newton's wife on Earth, Mary-Lou). An English professor, Tevis filled his novel with literary references ranging from the myth of Icarus to the Rumplestiltskin fable. Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg further infused the script with more contemporary references, including The Great Gatsby, the life of Howard Hughes, and even Pete Townshend's Tommy. Throughout, Bowie appears feasibly extraterrestrial — his lank frame and androgynous features are supplemented by being "a bit out of it" (by his own admission) during the production because of his own fractured personal life (reportedly complicated by alcohol and cocaine, reflected in his songs at the time). Supporting players Henry, Torn, and Clark work well together, particularly as they age over several years into mere echoes of their former selves. If The Man Who Fell to Earth contains any flaws, there are perhaps two — moments of sex and nudity that may have marked "serious" films of the New Hollywood but seem disruptive by contemporary standards, and several small mini-montages in the story that look somewhat dated and too formalistic. Nonetheless, Roeg's previous career as a cinematographer is apparent, and if his artistic conceits can be regarded as a director emphasizing image and tone over lock-step narrative progression, they are supported by beautiful shots of New Mexico's varied landscape under broad blue skies. Bowie's fans would soon become familiar with the picture, even if they had not seen it — withdrawing into his own relative seclusion in Berlin after filming completed, his next two albums (Station to Station and Low) featured publicity stills from the movie on their covers.

Criterion's two-disc DVD release of The Man Who Fell to Earth offers a pristine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a source-print that's virtually flawless, offering a rich, colorful image. The original Dolby 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is the only audio option, which is free of defects. Among the supplements, Disc One offers commentary with director Nicolas Roeg and stars David Bowie and Buck Henry, ported from the 1992 Laserdisc release. Roeg and Bowie are reflective and amusing, while Henry (recorded separately) offers several witty anecdotes and observations. Disc Two follows on with a new interview featuring screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (26 min.), a fascinating 1984 radio interview with novelist Walter Tevis (24 min.), new interviews with co-stars Rip Torn and Candy Clark (24 min.), additional interviews with production designer Brian Eatwell (24 min.) and costume designer May Routh (19 min.), four stills galleries, and a collection of trailers and promo spots. The booklet in the dual-DVD keep-case includes an essay by Graham Fuller, while the exterior slipcase packs in both the film and Walter Tevis's complete novel — perhaps the best bonus of all.
—Robert Wederquist

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