“There’s… there’s a fly, floating around in my milk! It’s a foreign body in it, you see, and it’s getting a lot of milk. That’s kind of how I feel. I couldn’t help but soak it up.”
That was David Bowie’s response when Alan Yentob asked him how he became so immersed in American music and culture, during the BBC’s Cracked Actor documentary in January 1975. Bowie, like his alien alter-ego Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), saw himself as a stranger in a strange land from the back of a limousine travelling between dates on the summer 1974 ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour. His eventual casting in the film would see Roeg use the same limousine and Bowie’s driver Tony Mascia to transport Newton across New Mexico.
The Man Who Fell To Earth held up a mirror, of art reflecting life and vice versa, to Bowie’s paranoid, lonely, fractured persona—and forty years on, as StudioCanal release their 4K restoration of the film in the year many are still mourning David Bowie’s untimely death, it’s as vital and dynamic a piece of cinema as it ever was. A carnivalesque “game with time”, in the words of its screenwriter Paul Mayersberg.
Cracked Actor was certainly the catalyst to Bowie winning the role of Newton. Agent Maggie Abbott saw the documentary and rushed a copy to Roeg and producer Si Litvinoff, who were still looking for a lead actor to play their eponymous alien. Litvinoff first met Roeg on the set of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and before Kubrick eventually made it, he had secured the rights to A Clockwork Orange in the hope he could get Roeg to direct.
Roeg eventually worked with Litvinoff on Walkabout (1971) and in 1974, as they were trying to set up Out Of Africa, he showed Litvinoff the screenplay of The Man Who Fell To Earth. Written by Paul Mayersberg and originally intended as a television adaptation of Walter Tevis’ acclaimed 1963 novel, Litvinoff took it to Paramount who agreed to fund it if other co-production money could be found. In another example of foreshadowing, Mayersberg’s first draft screenplay featured Bowie’s lyrics.
Abbott convinced Roeg and Litvinoff to look at Bowie after their original choices Peter O’Toole (Bowie later confirmed Roeg seeking O’Toole for the role was apocryphal), and very tall actor-turned-author Michael Crichton (he of Jurassic Park fame), proved either unavailable or unsuitable. Both agreed that there were aspects of Bowie’s submergence into, and isolation within, American culture, his use of performance and characters to project versions of himself and his physical state, generated by his diet and drug-fuelled paranoia, that resonated with the central character of their film.
Abbott received a cool reception from Bowie when she took the screenplay to him but Roeg, convinced he was perfect for the role, was patient. After arranging a meeting in Greenwich Village that Bowie forgot about, Roeg waited several hours until his star had finished that day’s recording sessions to secure his participation. The meeting lasted minutes but Bowie was on board even though he later confessed he hadn’t read the screenplay and had extemporized about the role during his conversation with Roeg.
Shooting on location in New Mexico with a British crew, thanks to British Lion stepping in to back the film when Paramount bowed out, Roeg defended his casting of Bowie to executives who were worried about his performance. The director had no qualms: “I really came to believe that Bowie was a man who came to Earth from another galaxy. His actual social behaviour was extraordinary. He brought with him a trailer full of books and things; he hardly mixed with anyone at all. He seemed to be alone, which is what Newton is in the film—isolated and alone. I can’t imagine anyone else in the part. David Bowie is Thomas Newton.” Later, looking back on his relationship with Roeg and the crew while working in New Mexico, Bowie recalled the experience as “skimming along through some kind of parallel interpretation of the film itself… fragile, fragmented and dislocated. I loved working with him. I wanted desperately for the shoot not to finish.”
Despite its elliptical, fragmentary structure, the film’s premise is relatively clear. Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), travels to Earth on a rescue mission to aid his dying planet. His superior technological knowledge, and the unique patents it generates, allows him to play and control financial markets and create a vast conglomerate, World Enterprises, with the help of lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Amassing the financial benefits of the consumer products he has introduced, he sets out to create a space programme that will enable him to return to his drought-stricken world and bring his family back to Earth.
However, he becomes the victim of his own success and that of human corporate greed, competition, and xenophobia and is kidnapped by agents of the military-industrial complex, who have been tracking him since his arrival, before he can launch his ship. He is subjected to interrogation and examination in order to verify his alien origin. In the process, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), whom he first befriends in a New Mexico hotel and shares an intimate relationship with, and Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), the former chemistry professor he initially recruits and trusts with the creation of the space project, are either forced to sell out or willingly hand him over to the authorities.
It is, indeed, the story of a foreign body, of Bowie’s projected ‘other’ Newton, soaking up and at the same time being absorbed into mainstream human society. Roeg uses this story as a framework to explore what it is to be human, the relationship of the body to landscape, time and space, and the eventual corruption of an identity—be that human, alien, or a parallel to Bowie’s own spiral into cocaine and occult-influenced paranoia. The film is bursting with allusions to Christ-like fallen angels, the Icarus mythology and reclusive and vulnerable figures like Howard Hughes.
As John Izod notes, Newton becomes victim to “the beauty and the viciousness of the world into which he falls”, full of child-like uncertainty upon arrival only to be “rendered impotent by humanity” by the film’s close. Graham Fuller also suggests: “Newton is Alice, and late twentieth-century America is a corrupt Wonderland defined by a government that orders Farnsworth’s execution; by television culture which enslaves Newton, and by the panaceas of sex, which Bryce indulges in with his students, and alcohol and religion, which enable Mary-Lou to stave off self-awareness.”
Roeg explores the film’s commentary on media, particularly television, and its intervention and shaping of world affairs. He suggests it seduces and alienates in its desire to educate, entertain and inform. Its world of surfaces and appearances is as kaleidoscopic, Graham Fuller notes, as Roeg’s own “dense tapestry of dissociative visual and musical allusions” that construct the film.
Newton observes, “Strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life on Earth but the mysteries remain.” Human society is seen as mysterious and abstract to Newton, truth is either absent or obfuscated through advertising and marketing, simulating life and clouding identities.
The media invades and corrupts Newton’s mind as much as the alcohol and sex pollutes his, Mary-Lou and Bryce’s bodies. Newton’s progress through the America of the 1970s, which is as much Bowie and Roeg’s own interpretation as Englishmen abroad, details the homogenising effects of American culture and, under its influence, the deterioration of his own identity as he becomes less real, less ‘alien’.
It’s also ironic that Newton accumulates his financial power through the patents for book publishing, self-developing film cameras, music players, and television commercials. Both human society, exemplified in chemical scientist Bryce whom he later hires to work for him, and his stranded alien family observe and receive messages from him because of this media power. However, Newton’s messages are abstract, at a distance, in the space between his simulated human identity and the alien it obscures, which the film shockingly reveals in an arresting sequence as Mary-Lou meets the ‘real’ Thomas Newton in her bathroom. That reveal, as Newton peels away his human skin and eyes, multiplied and reflected in a number of mirrors, is an appropriate visual summary of the film’s theme about identity.
As soon as he reveals that identity, and shows his true self to Mary-Lou, then the film closes the distance between human disguise and alien self. At the end of the film, as scientists bombard him with x-rays that only he can see, he literally becomes fused into human form. The attempt to see beneath his skin has condemned him to his humanity and the scientists only find familiar flesh and bone. For Newton, identity is much more than flesh and his seeming outward appearance.
Mirrors, cameras, x-rays, masks, and reflections, litter the film and underpin the theme that appearance and disappearance are everything, and as the film draws to a close, and Newton is abandoned and lives a reclusive existence, we begin to wonder if he is simply delusional and whether his alien identity and the vision of his alien world and family are just figments of his eccentric imagination.
Unidentified state and corporate interests also seek to resist the ‘otherness’ that Newton defines, the queerness of his identity that threatens the conservative status quo that Peters (Bernie Casey), who represents these vested interests, describes as: ‘This is modern America and we’re going to keep it that way.”
As modern America, and its scientists, lawyers, politicians and law enforcement, catch Newton within their network of suspicion and treachery, Roeg concentrates on the visual and aural journey, the collisions of cinematic space and time showing us the truly alien world that we call our own in contrast to the now barren and dying alien planet of Newton’s origin. The film becomes a puzzle box of imagery, contrasting the urbanised cities with the rural landscapes of America, slipping backwards and forwards in time, between the rational and the spiritual aspects of life and death on Earth and Newton’s alien world.
The symbolism of Icarus descending from the heavens is of major importance, appearing in a reproduction of Bruegel’s painting in one of Newton’s World Enterprises books and transformed into the funnel of water that erupts from a lake as Newton recalls his splashdown on Earth. Water, the precious commodity on Newton’s planet, is also a key symbol that John Izod sees as ‘the means to preserve corporeal life’ that he fails to secure through the human temptations that throw him from his purpose.
It reinforces the idea of Newton as a Christ-like figure, who knows “all things begin and end in eternity”, that humanity refuses to acknowledge as they laboriously commercialise, monetise, and dehumanise everything around him. Newton’s potential as the outsider who will disturb or threaten the world order, the lives of human beings and the established binaries of gender, politics, and religion is neutralised by these very controlling forces.
Bryce and Mary-Lou become disciple-like figures to the Christ-like Newton and their Passion play, where both are symbolised as Judas and Mary Magdalene, forms the latter half of the film, again emphasising the religious symbolism within the narrative. There is a hint that Newton is not only a visitor from outer space but also has emerged from deep time, perhaps his flight is from a future Earth suffering environmental collapse. Did his ‘feet in ancient time’ walk the past as well as the future Earth? The scene where Newton goes to church with Mary-Lou and is welcomed with a sing-a-long to ‘Jerusalem’ suggests Mayersberg and Roeg were alluding to William Blake’s fears about the all-too-easy suppression of the individual spirit through the effects of institutionalised religion.
Mary-Lou (the name alluding to both Magdalene and the mother of Christ) offers nurturing and understanding to a fragile and vulnerable Newton and there is a visually arresting scene where she, while working as a chambermaid, picks up the unconscious Newton, who has blacked out after an elevator ride, and cradles him like a doll or a child and carries him to his hotel room, suggestive of the tending of the body of Christ either as an infant or recovered from crucifixion.
She looks towards the heavens and asks, “when you look out there at night, don’t you feel that somewhere there’s got to be a God?” and is unaware that she is in the presence of an entity from ‘out there’. It ushers in the themes of a faith found wanting, wherein she and Bryce are driven to betray him ‘out of a desire to reduce someone thought to be superior to one’s own mediocrity’ that John Izod parallels with the film’s depiction of Newton’s reduction to a base human form.
Bryce’s later betrayal, made even greater when he flatly denies to Mary-Lou he has seen Newton when in fact he witnessed various scientists attempting to remove the alien’s human disguise, is cleverly alluded to by Roeg’s use of a scene from The Third Man (1949). This classic British film, wherein the central character Holly Martins also betrays an old friend, Harry Lime, is cross cut into a scene of Bryce and Mary-Lou, in a restaurant wondering if they were right to hand Newton over to the authorities, and another sequence where Newton watches the film as he is examined in a laboratory. Meanings are conducted across the scenes and from The Third Man, echoing its dialogue, in a typically elliptic bit of editing from Roeg.
The film also plays with ‘otherness’ and depicts a number of forms of sexual congress between men and women, men and men, alien and human and old and young. Tevis’s novel often inquires into Newton’s sexual preferences, with characters often surmising that he is homosexual even though he claims to be married with a family. In Roeg’s film, when Newton reveals his true form to Mary-Lou she is only temporarily revolted by his ‘queer’ alien body and its ejaculatory fluids and returns to his bed later in the film, as an older women, for one of the film’s more mocking and arresting sex scenes where she attempts to seduce him and at gunpoint he reduces her to a plaything.
The film’s themes of queer sexuality are not deliberately projected onto Newton, even though the liminal state of his body and gender are foregrounded (indeed, like all of Bowie’s own characters he offers a gesture towards difference), and the queer themes hinted at in the novel are instead focused on Newton’s lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and his partner Trevor. We see both men living a comfortably domesticated life, which Buck Henry noted as quite provocative for a film of this era, where Newton’s beneficence provides them with huge financial and commercial power.
Gerard Loughlin notes in The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology that one of the most striking moments in the film, where Peters’ henchmen not only kidnap Newton but also throw Oliver and Trevor out of the window of a multi-storey building, also suggests that the threat of deviant homosexual financial power and lifestyles is vanquished by dominant heterosexual family life. As the two gay men are hurled to their deaths out of the building, Roeg tracks one of their bodies flying through the air and cuts to a shot of Peters diving into a pool, then emerging to embrace his glamorous and beautiful wife and, later, say goodnight to his children.
Bowie’s constantly changing, fragmented and disturbed persona is a perfect match for Newton’s oscillation between alien and human selves and Bowie’s androgynous appearance emphasises the alien ‘otherness’ of the character and the constant fight to retain the true self as various societal and institutional forces wreak havoc upon it. There is an ironic touch in the film’s conclusion that Newton becomes a reclusive recording artist whose album ‘The Visitor’ is stacked up at discounted prices in huge hypermarkets where Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ album is also on sale. Newton hopes that the record will be played and might eventually be received by his marooned family out there in space and time. Bowie was also, it seems to me, trying to send us messages from other worlds and dimensions.
Talking of music, it’s notable that musical director John Phillips provides an ironic counterpoint to Roeg’s visual sensibility. It’s already present in that bizarre shot of an inflatable fairground attraction threatening to break from its moorings (unplanned and caught on camera by Roeg during shooting) as Newton travels from a desolate mining town into American suburbia. That Newton then encounters an incoherent drunk after his arrival and becomes such by the film’s conclusion is a fine moment of foreshadowing. The soundtrack brims with Phillips’ own takes on folk, jazz, and rock and juxtaposes this with avant-garde compositions from Japanese percussionist, keyboardist, composer and experimental artist Stomu Yamash’ta, classical works, popular ballads and electronic soundscapes.
The original idea was for Bowie to provide the soundtrack and British arranger Paul Buckmaster did work with him on several demos. However, very little was usable. Eventually, some of the work appeared on the 1977 album ‘Low’ and according to Bowie: “The only hold-over from the proposed soundtrack that I actually used was the reverse bass part in ‘Subterraneans’.”
Roeg, without his score, turned to Phillips. While editor Graeme Clifford used Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ as a temp track during the editing process, Phillips compiled and recorded the music in a whirlwind of ‘narcotic and sexual excess’ that resulted in an eleventh hour ultimatum from Roeg to stop ‘pissing off the engineers and get it finished.’ It was never released as a soundtrack album, which was the original intention, but the tapes have recently been recovered and for this 40th anniversary release StudioCanal have included all the Phillips compositions on a CD in the collector’s edition Blu-ray release. A separate soundtrack album (including the Yamash’ta tracks and a selection of the classical works and ballads) has also recently been released by UMC.
Within the combination of music and visuals, the film’s underlying sense is elegiac, one suffused with melancholy and nostalgia. As Newton and Mary-Lou travel the New Mexico landscapes in a limousine, Roeg provides views of trains (another recurring symbol of travel and nostalgia), farmland, mountains and a wonderful sequence where Newton appears to time travel and he and his limousine are seen speeding along the road witnessed by perplexed 19th-century farmhands.
Phillips adds in moving songs such as ‘Try to Remember’ by The Kingston Trio when a horse gallops by their side and the landscape dissolves momentarily into the surface of Newton’s world as the ghostly figures of his wife and children invade his memory. It’s a beautiful summation of memory, loss and change and of time passing. The music’s sense of regret adds further nuance to the film as it also slowly shows Bryce and Mary-Lou submitting to the ravages of time while Newton remains young.
All this seemed lost on Cinema V’s Donald Rugoff, the film’s American distributor who secured the rights for $800,000. After the results of a test screening for Dartmouth students and advice from a Colorado psychiatry professor, he trimmed the film by 23 minutes. As Candy Clark observed of an already disorientating film experience: “You really couldn’t make head or tail of the cut version. It was hacked in two days. They hired some people who edited commercials to do it. And this is after Nic Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford had spent nine months cutting it. I was due to go on the road for Cinema V to promote it, but I bailed out after a day. It was making me sick.” The cut scenes were later restored.
The Man Who Fell To Earth shows Roeg taking his non-linear narrative approach of Don’t Look Now (1973) and fragmenting it even further. His rapid intercutting of material epitomises his obsessions with time shifting through the story. Allusions and associations challenge the perception of what is past, present and future and acknowledge Roeg’s own view of cinema as a ‘time machine’. At the heart of his masterful use of montage and mise-en-scène, the spectacular manipulation of landscape and light, there are exceptional performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn, and Buck Henry. These compliment the luminous presence of Bowie who dominates the film as a haunted, otherworldly spectre. As Roeg reflected: “I’ve never seen him as good in any other film he’s made since, probably because he wasn’t acting. The Man Who Fell To Earth was the perfect non-acting piece. I mean, how does an alien act?”
For its 40th anniversary Blu-ray release, the film has undergone a 4K restoration and continues to reveal its multi-layered mysteries in a vivid, beautifully detailed transfer. The collectors’ edition includes both the documentary Watching the Alien and interviews with Roeg, Mayersberg, Clark and cinematographer Tony Richmond from StudioCanal’s previous release of the film.
New to this release are interviews with costume designer May Routh, stills photographer David James, fan Sam Taylor-Johnson and producer Michael Deeley. There is also a new documentary, The Lost Soundtracks, featuring interviews with Paul Buckmaster and author Chris Campion. A 1977 French TV interview with Bowie is also included. Exclusive to the collectors’ edition is the John Phillips CD, a booklet, a set of art cards, the press book and an A4 poster of the new theatrical release artwork.
Some material here has been reworked from my original 2011 review of the film for Cathode Ray Tube. For this expanded article, I am indebted to the following authors, essays, and articles for quotes:
- ‘Loving the Alien’, Graham Fuller (The Man Who Fell To Earth Criterion Collection DVD, 2005).
- David Bowie, Buck Henry and Nicolas Roeg commentary (The Man Who Fell To Earth Criterion Collection DVD, 2005).
- ‘David Bowie – the inside story of The Man Who Fell To Earth‘ (Uncut, April 2015).
- Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview, Jason Wood (Wallflower Press, 2006).
- Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind, John Izod (Palgrave Macmillan, 1992).
- The World is Ever Changing, Nicolas Roeg (Faber & Faber, 2013).
- David Bowie: Critical Perspectives, edited by Eoin Devereux, Aileen Dillane, Martin Power (Routledge, 2015).
- ‘Bowie and the missing soundtrack: the amazing story behind The Man Who Fell to Earth‘, Chris Campion (The Guardian, 8 September 2016).
- ‘How we made: Paul Mayersberg and Tony Richmond on The Man Who Fell to Earth‘, interviews by Phil Hoad (The Guardian, 25 June 2012).
Cast & Crew
director: Nicolas Roeg.
writer: Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel by Walter Tevis).
starring: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry & Bernie Casey.