THOMAS JEROME NEWTON wasn't the first role David Bowie had played—he'd been hiding behind characters like Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust since the beginning of his music career—but The Man Who Fell to Earth was Bowie's first major film role, and it's so ideally suited that it's difficult to tell where the actor ends and Newton begins. Bowie's unearthly gauntness and mismatched eyes already made him look alien-like, but when Newton reveals himself to his earthling girlfriend, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), stripping off his nipples, contact lenses, and genitalia, it's one of the creepiest moments in science-fiction history.
Madman director Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now) brings a coked-out surrealism to the 1976 film, currently making the rounds in a new print for its 35th anniversary. Newton lands on Earth looking for water to transport back to his desert home planet; using alien technology he quickly becomes both a multimillionaire and an alcoholic. Buck Henry plays Newton's homosexual patent lawyer, and Rip Torn is excellent as the scientist who turns the alien in to the authorities. The film's still too long and the second half is queasily paced—and just what the hell is Bernie Casey's character all about?—but The Man Who Fell to Earth remains one of the strangest, most indelible visions of alien visitors committed to film.