It Came From Outer Space
Writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) is sharing his telescope with his fiancee Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) when they witness a blazing object streak across the sky and crash in the nearby desert. Upon investigation Putnam sees a strange spacecraft at the base of a newly formed crater but an avalanche buries the object before other townspeople arrive at the scene. No one will believe Putnam's account, dismissing the town newcomer as a kook. Suddenly, people in the community begin to disappear - only to turn up later as zombie-like "duplicates" of themselves. As panic and fear incite the townspeople to rise up in arms, Putnam makes contact with the extra-terrestrial visitors and learns the true nature of their presence, one that poses no real threat. He then attempts to act as a mediator between the two groups but can he prevent a violent resolution to an already explosive situation?
Like a more benign version of Edgar Ulmer's The Man From Planet X (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953) is a seminal science fiction film that launched the careers of many key figures in the genre. It was the first collaboration between producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold who would continue their partnership with The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), the sequel Revenge of the Creature (1955), and the anti-nuke parable The Space Children (1958). Alland, a former actor and stage manager of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre (he appeared as the investigating reporter and narrator in Citizen Kane, 1941), would branch out on his own, producing This Island Earth (1955), The Mole People (1956) and other memorable sci-fi fantasies. Arnold's filmography is no less impressive, and includes such fan favorites as Tarantula (1955) and his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
More importantly, It Came from Outer Space marked Ray Bradbury's first foray into writing for the movies. He penned a story treatment entitled "The Meteor" and submitted it to Universal which hired him to expand the concept into a longer treatment. Instead, he delivered a complete screenplay. According to Bradbury in his introduction to the anthology They Came from Outer Space, "They got, in essence, an entire screenplay for the grand sum of three thousand dollars, which was my final salary for the four or five weeks I had stayed on at the studio. With the treatment in hand, they fired me and hired Harry Essex to do the final screenplay (which, he told me later, was simply putting frosting on the cake). Why had I made it so easy for him, he asked when I met him later. Because, I replied, I was a fool, and I was in love with an idea - a good combination for writing but a bad one when you find yourself back out on the street supporting a family." At the time, Bradbury was already famous for his visionary novels The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 but the success of It Came from Outer Space led him to pen the screenplays for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Moby Dick (co-written with John Huston and an Oscar®-winner for Best Adapted Screenplay of 1956), and film versions of his own work such as Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).
It Came from Outer Space was also Universal's first foray into science fiction AND their first official 3-D release. The new technology had invigorated the movie industry with the release of Bwana Devil the previous year and Universal was anxious to cash in on the sudden popularity of stereoscopic movies. Although It Came from Outer Space is rarely presented in the 3-D format today, you can still see glimpses of the technique in specific scenes - the arrival of the aliens, a rockslide, a shock cut of coat-hangers in a closet, and disorienting alien point-of-view shots. According to a Hollywood Reporter article, "the widescreen process afforded viewers a 90-degree radius and included aluminum-paint coating which reflected four times more light than a typical screen."
Set in the imaginary town of Sand Rock, Arizona, It Came from Outer Space was actually filmed on location in and around the California towns of Palmdale and Victorville and the Mojave Desert. Arnold maintained tight security on the set during the filming in order to protect the "surprise element" of the movie - the appearance of the aliens. Two designs were created by the makeup department; the rejected one ending up being utilized as the model for the Mutant in This Island Earth. As seen in the completed version of It Came from Outer Space, the alien more closely resembles a huge protruding eyeball encased in a fleshy, vein-lined mound and prompted Bradbury to remark, "...the studio couldn't resist shoving back in some of their bad ideas. I warned them not to bring the "monster" out in the light - ever. They ignored my advice. The bad moments in the film come when the monster does just that: stops being mysterious, steps out, and becomes a laugh riot."
Still, It Came from Outer Space is more memorable for its eerie mood and evocative, desolate location, one which Arnold would return to again and again in his films (Tarantula, 1955, Red Sundown, 1956, The Tattered Dress, 1957). Even the dialogue reinforces the movie's otherworldly setting as when one of the telephone linemen comments on the desert landscape, "You can see lakes and rivers that aren't there and sometimes you think the wind gets into the wires and sings to itself." While the film can be viewed as a time capsule of the Cold War-era, warning us about the dangers of xenophobia, it also approaches the concept of an alien invasion on a more psychological level than the one presented in H.G. Wells' novel and 1953 film, The War of the Worlds.
It's no surprise that It Came from Outer Space proved to be a hit for Universal, arriving when it did in the early fifties just as a widespread interest in flying saucers and outer space exploration was peaking. The movie certainly had a profound effect on Steven Spielberg. When Bradbury attended a preview screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), he met the director who asked him, "How did you like your film?" Bradbury replied, "What?" "Close Encounters wouldn't have been born," Spielberg replied, "if I hadn't seen It Came from Outer Space six times when I was a kid. Thanks."
Extra Trivia: Look for Russell Johnson ("The Professor" from the Gilligan's Island TV series) as one of the alien-possessed telephone linemen. Barbara Rush won a Golden Globe as "Most Promising Female Newcomer" for her appearance in the film (her most memorable scene is when she shows up as a seductive looking alien duplicate, intent on luring Richard Carlson into the abandoned mine). One of the art directors, Robert Boyle, worked regularly on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, including The Birds (1963).
Producer: William Alland
Director: Jack Arnold
Screenplay: Harry Essex, Ray Bradbury (story)
Cinematography: Clifford Stine
Film Editing: Paul Weatherwax
Art Direction: Robert Boyle, Bernard Herzbrun
Music: Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, Herman Stein
Cast: Richard Carlson (John Putnam), Barbara Rush (Ellen Fields), Charles Drake (Sheriff Matt Warren), Joe Sawyer (Frank Daylon), Russell Johnson (George), Kathleen Hughes (Jane).
BW-81m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford