The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) is the quintessential high quality high concept high tension classic Hollywood 1950's science-fiction presentation.

The nascent and sudden re-invention of the science fiction film in the 1950s does inevitably draw on film noir style when need be.

And although the themes are of a universal and global nature, not quite the subjective and local tendency in film noir, there are still film techniques and themes aplenty which crossover between the film noir of its day and the science fiction.

Directed by Robert Wise The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) is spritely, earnest, playful, philosophical, funny, serious and has distinct Bernhard Hermann music, as well as the most irresistible use of the theremin in film history.

So yeah a soldier gets spooked and shoots the spaceman. Bernard Hermann elevates the appearance of the robot in an immense moment, supported by an immense piece of music. As with a couple of other famous Bernard Herrmann scores it's hard to see the film doing as well as it did without it.

A saucer lands in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

It is still remarkably noir-like of this movie to invoke public panic and the cinematographer often shoots the spaceman business like the dark mystery he is. Director Robert Wise does drape this nuclear-age fantasy in the dark raiment of film noir at odd moments but more than that employs the documentary realism which of course the style favoured.

While most scenes are shot with near documentary frankness, cinematographer Leo Tover occasionally indulges in strong contrasting shadows and under-lighting to give specific ‘alien’ moments in the film a heightened film-noir quality. Much like Psycho nine years later, black & white helps enshroud the entire film with mystery and paranoia.

Musings of a Middle Aged Geek, March 2021 


While the movie does not explicitly address communism or the Red Scare, it is often interpreted as having Cold War undertones and can be seen as reflecting the anxieties and tensions of the time.

The film tells the story of an alien visitor named Klaatu who comes to Earth with a warning about humanity's destructive tendencies. The character of Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, can be seen as a Christ-like figure who advocates for peace and warns of the consequences of humanity's actions. The film's message is often seen as a plea for global cooperation and an end to the Cold War arms race.

While the film doesn't directly engage with the political climate of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, it is part of the broader cultural context of the early 1950s, and its themes can be interpreted in light of the geopolitical tensions of the time. The fear of the unknown, the dangers of nuclear weapons, and the importance of international cooperation were prevalent concerns during the Cold War era, and these themes are reflected in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The elegantly protruding ramp of the flying saucer in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

However if all science fiction of the 1950s may be interpreted to be about Red Menace or US social purity against the infiltrations of the USSR and floating ideology, combined with the huge amount of technological advances forced by the war, brought into being by Operation Paperclip — include politics and science fiction may be the best mode of expression.

The 'round-the-world' trope became popularised and enforced by this. A montage usually near the head of the story shows news of a significant global event such as the landing of this flying saucer — in several different and stereotyped locations around the world. Little could be more antithetical to film noir, so it's just a sign that we have left the alleys and diners and cheap rooms, and are now off-planet.

Once again, Leo Tover’s cinematography aboard the saucer is very shadowy and mysterious; giving it that aforementioned film-noir look. The under-lit floors and shadowy lines projected along the walls of the saucer’s interior suggest a space that is both orderly and mysterious at the same time— as advanced technology would seem to a primitive mind. For a 20th century person to try and grasp the saucer’s workings would be like a cat trying to understand a coffeemaker. The art direction by Addison Hehr and Lyle Wheeler is first-rate, and gives the film a genuine sophistication missing from most sci-fi films of the 1950s (“art director” was a credit that existed before the position of “production designer” became officially recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).

Musings of a Middle Aged Geek, March 2021

There is little by way of noir science fiction, other than the immortal Alphaville (1965). But the 'round-the-world' trope was still being used into the 1990s —  maybe even later — and does preserve some short-hand power. We are however instructed that Klaatu lands in Washington, D.C. because he thought that landing in the capital of the world's most powerful country would get the entire world's attention.

He repeatedly insists that his message is for all of humanity, and he brushes off U.S. warnings about the Soviets as internal bickering that doesn't concern him. 

Moreover, when it is suggested that he could give his message to the whole world by addressing the United Nations, he actually declines once he learns that not every nation or state-group is represented by it. In 1951 the People's Republic of China was an unrecognised state and would not be until 1971, when it replaced Taiwan. But then Taiwan wasn't represented. 

Ultimately, pressed for time Klaatu comes up with the quick solution of addressing an international conference of scientists, who are generally apolitical.

Klaatu demonstrates his power by causing a global blackout for exactly thirty minutes. He thoughtfully makes exceptions for such things as hospitals and airplanes in flight.

The message must be that the humans are the real monsters — the corollary that this must work because science fiction is the genre that express best the idea of othering. We are othered in this film. Can every last item of 1950s science fiction be interpreted as Red Scare cinema? If it were then all subsequent science fiction must reckon with this.

But at the same time it can be played with in many and flexible ways: what if  Gort. "Nothing he cannot do", raises the dead and all the way in the original script — is God? Its name sounds like 'God'.

The flying saucer is the classic circular upside-down-plate shape. Familiar from the era and even-so today, an entire rough class of saucer is featured in the many Hollywood and American films most especially of the 1950s and most especially about saucers.

Klaatu spends a lot of the film hiding from the military by posing as a man named Lieutenant Carpenter and is renting a room in a boarding house. He becomes trusting enough of the family to let them in on his secret and elicit their help in getting back to his ship and preventing the end of the world. These scenes are by far the most noir of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951).

The 1950s saw a surge in science fiction films featuring flying saucers and extra-terrestrial beings. Several factors contributed to this trend:

Cold War and Nuclear Anxiety: The 1950s was the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The fear of nuclear war and the anxiety surrounding the development of atomic weapons permeated society. The idea of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and extraterrestrial beings resonated with these fears, offering a way to metaphorically explore the dangers of the unknown and the potential consequences of humanity's technological advancements.

Noir arrives in the family home in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

The 1950s marked the beginning of the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 heightened interest in space exploration and the possibility of encounters with extraterrestrial life. Science fiction films tapped into this fascination with space and the unknown.

In 1947, the Roswell UFO incident, where an unidentified object crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, sparked widespread speculation about UFOs and government cover-ups. This event contributed to the popularization of UFO mythology and influenced the cultural zeitgeist, making UFOs a compelling subject for films.

Popularity of Science Fiction: The 1950s saw a general rise in the popularity of science fiction as a film genre. Advances in special effects technology allowed filmmakers to bring otherworldly concepts to life on the big screen. This, combined with the public's interest in space exploration and the unknown, contributed to the proliferation of flying saucer films.

Science fiction often serves as a reflection of societal anxieties and concerns. The fear of the unknown and the potential threats from outer space mirrored the broader concerns of the time, including the fear of communism and the nuclear arms race.

Notable films from this era include the case in point — The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These films explored themes of alien invasion, the consequences of nuclear technology, and the challenges of understanding the "other," reflecting the cultural climate of the 1950s.

The feature film was the first US studio-backed (20th Century Fox), big-budget sci-fi film since Just Imagine (1930). It heralded the first modern or true robot, the silver giant Gort, and was reportedly the first major science-fiction feature film to feature "flying saucers." Its memorable score by Hitchcock's most popular composer, Bernard Herrmann, enhanced the drama with his electronic score (using theremins). The B/W cinematography of Leo Tover emphasized expressionistic dark noirish shadows - not typical for sci-fi films. It was also memorable for the cameo appearances of real-life journalists-reporters (Elmer Davis, H. V. Kaltenborn, Drew Pearson, and Gabriel Heater) playing themselves.


The Red Scare in Hollywood, often associated with the broader McCarthy era, was a period of intense anti-communist sentiment and fear of political subversion in the United States. It reached its peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s. During this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) conducted investigations into alleged communist influence in various industries, including the entertainment industry, particularly Hollywood.

The impact of the Red Scare on Hollywood was significant and had lasting effects. Many individuals in the film industry were accused of having communist sympathies or affiliations. Those accused, whether the allegations were true or not, often faced severe consequences such as being blacklisted. This meant they were effectively banned from working in the industry, as studios and producers were afraid of associating with anyone perceived as having communist ties.

Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

In 1947, ten screenwriters and directors were cited for contempt of Congress after refusing to testify before HUAC about their alleged communist affiliations. These individuals, known as the Hollywood Ten, were subsequently blacklisted, and their careers suffered.

The atmosphere of fear led to self-censorship within the industry. Studios and individuals sought to distance themselves from anything that could be construed as communist or subversive. As a result, films and scripts were scrutinized, and content that might be deemed politically controversial or leftist was often avoided.

Patricia Neal in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

To prove their loyalty and avoid being blacklisted, some individuals were pressured into taking loyalty oaths or providing names of suspected communists, which further fuelled the atmosphere of mistrust.

The Red Scare had a chilling effect on creativity and freedom of expression in Hollywood. Writers, directors, and actors became cautious about addressing social and political issues in their work for fear of being targeted.

While the Red Scare had a profound impact on Hollywood, it's important to note that the fear and paranoia associated with the era were not limited to the film industry. The entire society, including government, education, and various other sectors, was affected by the pervasive anti-communist sentiment. The Hollywood blacklist, in particular, became a symbol of the era's excesses and the consequences of political intolerance.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Alternate Titles: Farewell to the Master / Journey to the World

Release Date: September 1951

Premiere Information: New York opening: 18 Sep 1951; Los Angeles opening: 28 Sep 1951

Production Date: 9 Apr to 23 May 1951

Copyright Number: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.18 September 1951LP1263

Sound: Western Electric Recording

Black and White

Duration(in mins): 89 or 92

Length(in feet): 8,285

Length(in reels): 9

Country: United States

Language: English

Wikipedia: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

PCA No:15271

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