The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with these sensational titles. 3D text jumping out, set against the backdrop of space, Bernard Herrmann’s score at its loudest; the titles suggest the film is going to be something grandiose. It is and it isn’t. For the first act, director Wise moves quickly, short scenes setting up the world’s reaction to a flying saucer circling the planet. Newscasters report, air traffic control investigates, people worry.
And then the ship lands. The special effects in Day the Earth Stood Still are excellent without ever being sensational or outlandish. There are only a couple major effects sequences–the space ship landing, the titular incident–otherwise, the film’s rather quiet. It starts big, then Edmund H. North’s script starts closing it in, making it smaller and smaller until it can fit into a house. Specifically, into second-billed Patricia Neal’s boarding house. She’s just a resident, a widow living there with her son, Billy Gray.
They’re there, listening to the radio, when a new boarder arrives. That boarder, Michael Rennie, is the space man, escaped from the Army hospital (some grunt shot him after he walked out of the space ship and got out a gift for the President). At that moment, the film changes. Or, more accurately, perturbs in an unexpected, gentler direction. Rennie’s quiet, reserved, inquisitive, and gentle. Sure, he’s got a giant robot with laser vision, but Rennie just wants to see what humans are like.
Rennie’s mission to Earth is simple. He wants to address the world leaders. The United States government, its nipples hard at the thought of a prolonged Cold War, is no help. So Rennie decides he’s going to try the scientists, starting with Sam Jaffe. Only Jaffe’s not home when Rennie comes to visit.
Until the middle of the movie, North’s script never takes the focus off Rennie. Gray’s around a lot, but he’s never the focus. It’s Rennie, the alien, who acts as the viewer’s guide through the film. And the film keeps the viewer informed about Rennie’s plans and, often, his thoughts. Eventually, Neal has to take the lead–she’s got to stop her idiot boyfriend Hugh Marlowe from dooming the planet–and she stays in the lead until the end of the film, but the first half is all Rennie.
Besides the big Earth standing still sequence, there’s also a big chase sequence at the end involving a military dragnet. Wise and editor William Reynolds are methodical with it, tightening the net around Rennie in real time, tightening viewer expectation as it progresses. The viewer knows to be concerned more than Rennie, who’s cautious but not enough. He’s kind of powerless, after all. Interplanetary traveller or not, the film establishes right off he can be hurt. It also establishes most Earthlings are more than happy to shoot first and not ask any questions at all.
But the film’s never cynical. It can’t be with Gray around. He’s thrilled to have a new friend in Rennie, who acts as babysitter so Neal can hang out with Marlowe. She just thinks Marlowe’s pushy, not an abject tool. Gray and Rennie’s day out, which includes the first visit to Jaffe’s house, also has the unlikely duo visiting Gray’s father’s grave in Arlington Cemetary. The war isn’t mentioned but it’s omnipresent, kind of like government bureaucracy; the film does extremely well with its Washington D.C. setting and some of the city’s locations. The scene at the Lincoln Monument is particularly effective.
Gray’s lack of cynicism stands up to a lot of pressure, including some from Neal–her rejection of cynicism is what hands the film off to her. It’s too bad the film drops Gray in the second half; Day only runs ninety minutes, there’s not a lot of room. It’s either got to be Gray and Rennie or Neal and Rennie active in the main plot.
Much of that main plot takes place indoors, in the ordinary. People are scared, unsure about what’s going on with the flying saucer and the spaceman on the loose (Rennie’s incognito at the boarding house). Wise and cinematographer Leo Tover have these confined–but never cramped–shots inside. Outside they open up, especially when they get to do location shooting, but inside… well, Rennie wanted to find out how people lived, didn’t he?
The Day the Earth Stood Still is always methodical and never ponderous. Wise, screenwriter North, editor Reynolds, they all keep things moving. It’s fantastic but in a mundane, thoughtful way. Just like Rennie. He keeps an even keel throughout his adventures on Earth, no matter how dangerous things get for him.
Excellent performances from everyone–Rennie, Neal, Gray, Marlowe, Jaffe–it’s not a big cast. It’s a big story, sure, but the film keeps that story contained. The human element is most important; even during the big effects set pieces, Wise makes sure the human reaction is present. He ably scales the human element when needed. Confined to big, big to small. It’s reassuring. Just like Rennie.
Day is a fine film. It’s got its limits, but Wise and company accomplish what they set out to do. Though, maybe, not what those 3D opening titles suggest they’re going to set out to do.
Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on a story by Harry Bates; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Reynolds; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Julian Blaustein; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe (Professor Jacob Barnhardt), and Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley).