David Bowie starred in quite a few movies during his career, including Labyrinth, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and Absolute Beginners. Perhaps none is more metatextual, however, than Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Based on the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell To Earth is the story of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who lands on earth near the small town of Haneyville, New Mexico. He makes his way to New York and solicits the services of a patent attorney named Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry, who also appeared in The Linguini Incident with Bowie). Leveraging alien technology, Newton quickly amasses a large fortune as the head of his own company called World Enterprises. He embarks upon a relationship with Mary-Lou (played by an exceptional Candy Clark), a woman who works as a bellhop and maid at a local hotel. Eventually, Newton hires Dr. Nathan Bryce (played by the reliably bizarre Rip Torn), a disgraced university chemist, to help him develop the technology for space travel. Yet, like so many stories of alien visitors to Earth, eventual human betrayals lead to Newton’s downfall.
The Man Who Fell To Earth was Roeg’s fifth film, arriving three years after Don’t Look Now. Opening with Newton’s actual fall to earth, the film immediately establishes an unsettling tone, thanks to eerie music from Japanese composer Stomu Yamashta.
Despite his otherworldly entrance, Newton does not look like the typical alien. In fact, he looks an awful lot like The Thin White Duke circa 1976: tall, gaunt, and alabaster pale, with vivid red and blonde hair. He is dressed somewhat like Alain Delon in Le Samouraï minus the trench coat. Still, an actual extraterrestrial could not stand out more than Bowie/Newton does in a town like Haneyville, which looks much like a wide, dusty spot in the road.
It’s hard to watch The Man Who Fell To Earth and not think about Bowie’s early fame with “Space Oddity” and the character of Major Tom, although here the reverse situation applies. (It’s also hard to watch Newton’s struggles with alcoholism and not think about Bowie’s concurrent battles with cocaine.) Additionally, there is the alien quality of this ethereal-looking (and sounding) creature in rural America.
The contrast between Newton and Mary-Lou is both fascinating and frustrating. One can easily see why they would be attracted to one another, but there is still an undercurrent of unease. Is Mary-Lou really in love with “Tommy” or does she see in him a means to escape Haneyville? And does Newton have feelings for Mary Lou or is she just his earthly “beard”? After all, he does have a wife and family on his home planet.
So much of the narrative context of The Man Who Fell To Earth is implied; Roeg’s touch is stylistically obvious, though the film’s exposition is subtle. In fact, we never actually learn why Newton has come to earth until the film is nearly over, although we have our suspicions. This makes the tone of the film both enigmatic and engaging. We watch every nuance and analyze every line of dialogue looking for clues. The multiple TV screens that hold Newton’s constant attention are also a source of subtext, particularly in a scene that cuts between Mary-Lou and Bryce talking about Newton and Newton watching a screening of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
The fact that it is David Bowie playing the alien adds an extra layer of intrigue. By this point in his career, he’d already been a mod, a mime, a long-haired androgyne, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and a blue-eyed soul devotee. No one seemed to know who the real David Bowie was and no one could guess which persona he’d adopt next. This definitely informs the viewer’s experience of the film and was an inspired bit of casting on Roeg’s part.
I first saw The Man Who Fell To Earth in the early part of the new millennium. I hated it. I thought that the first half was interesting but that the movie completely fell apart about halfway through and never quite recovered. Watching it again now, I realize how wrong my initial impressions were. It’s a creepy, compelling, and ultimately poignant story that reveals more with subsequent viewings.