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Man Who Fell To Earth, The (1976)


Main image of Man Who Fell To Earth, The (1976)
Directed byNicolas Roeg
Production CompanyBritish Lion Film Corporation
Produced byMichael Deeley
 Barry Spikings
From the novel byWalter Tevis
Screenplay byPaul Mayersberg
Director of PhotographyAnthony B. Richmond

Cast: David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton); Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce); Candy Clark (Mary-Lou); Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth); Bernie Casey (Peters)

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Mysterious stranger Thomas Jerome Newton seemingly appears from nowhere to achieve fame and fortune thanks to his scientific brilliance. But who is he, and where do his extraordinary abilities come from?

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Nicolas Roeg's first film shot in America, The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) is a complex, difficult film which is as much about the reactions of a foreigner to the country as it is a traditional narrative. Typically, Roeg takes a straightforward source - in this case, Walter Tevis' novel - and cuts it up to suit his favoured style, which proceeds through the non-linear connection of images and ideas.

As with Mick Jagger in Performance (d. Donald Cammell/Roeg, 1970), Roeg uses David Bowie as much for his stage persona as for his acting abilities, although Bowie gives a fresh, naturalistic performance. The qualities of aloofness, strangeness and sexual androgyny which Bowie projected in his stage persona are integral to the scheme of the film, which demands Newton to be both recognisably human yet entirely alien.

Assisted by a script from his recurring collaborator Paul Mayersberg, Roeg uses his typically dazzling editing style to mix past and present, deliberately disrupting a traditional sense of time passing. He also makes notable use of the recurring images of water and, memorably, of Newton sitting, drugged, in front of a wall of television sets, whose programmes often ironically counterpoint the storyline.

Underneath the surface, this is a hackneyed moral tale of purity corrupted by experience, but it is distinguished by its style and the extraordinary images concocted by Roeg and his cinematographer Anthony Richmond. America seems a rich and strange country, impossibly overwhelming. The deserts of New Mexico are a potent image of aridity, reflected in flashbacks to Newton's planet. However, the repetitive use of explicit sex, although often amusing, seems included more for commercial than artistic reasons.

In its examination of loneliness and lost love, this is Roeg's most moving film. Like Chas in Performance and John in Don't Look Now (d. Roeg, 1973), Newton is an outsider in an alien world, whose inability to understand his new environment seals his fate. His quest for water is destined to fail because, to the outsider, America is too much of a distraction, and human frailty seems to infect everything it touches.

Mike Sutton

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Video Clips
1. Trip to the country (4:18)
2. Newton's departure (2:00)
3. Poor Tommy (2:34)
Original poster
Production stills
Bowie, David (1947-)
Mayersberg, Paul (1941-)
Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)