This review first appeared in audio form on the good ship StarShipSofa. To hear it in my dulcet tones, along with plenty more science fiction goodness, go to http://starshipsofa.com/2012/04/18/starshipsofa-no-234-mike-resnick
Here, for the more visually inclined, is the text version…
Hello again from a crisp and cool Pretoria. The leaves are turning, the nights are getting colder and I’ve just spent a few days in the Kalahari desert. This led me to think about the most poetic of the desert movies of the 1950s. Also, with the hype of 3D apparently dying away, I thought that this would be a good time to look at an earlier incarnation of the craze. Deserts? Poetic language? The glories of 3D? Yes, today I’m taking a look at “It Came from Outer Space”.
The movie was released in 1953 and was Universal’s first to be filmed in, what they called, 3 Dimension. The screenplay was by Harry Essex who, a year later, wrote “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and was adapted from a Ray Bradbury story. In 2004, Bradbury published four versions of his screen treatment for the movie as a single volume. He had offered two outlines to the studio, one with malicious aliens, the other with benign aliens and he said that “I wanted to treat the invaders as beings who were not dangerous, and that was very unusual. The studio picked the right concept, and I stayed on.”
The film was directed by Jack Arnold, one of the great science fiction movie directors of the 50s (I talked about him when I reviewed “The Incredible Shrinking Man” recently). The dark moody tone is classic Arnold.
I don’t usually mention the technical roles but, here, I think that it is warranted. Cinematography was by Clifford Stine whose career spanned the original 1933 version of “King Kong” where he was special effects cameraman; up to 1974’s “Earthquake” where he was responsible for special photography. The movie was edited by Paul Weatherwax who had previously won an Oscar, in 1948, for editing “The Naked City” and he would later win a second Oscar for editing “Around the World in 80 Days”.
The starring role of John Putnam is played by Richard Carlson (who had previously played John Goode in “King Solomon’s Mines” and can be seen as Dr. David Reed in “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. He also played Professor Norman E. Van Zandt in “The Power” in 1968, so there’s a very good chance that we’ll hear more about him in future reviews.
The movie co-stars Barbara Rush as Ellen Fields, who played Joyce Hendron in “When Worlds Collide”, Marian in “Robin and the 7 Hoods”, and went on to guest star in pretty much every major TV series of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Another face that you may recognise is George, one of the two telephone linemen, played by Russell Johnson who was The Professor on “Gilligan’s Island”.
The movie was filmed using Universal’s own 3 Dimension process, which employed two completely separate films that had to be synchronised to produce the 3D effect; a movie version of the tried and tested stereoscopic photographs that go back to the 1860s. In contrast to many 3D movies, it was composed in a very restrained way; the 3D effect being used to bring depth to the film, rather than the more populist method of throwing things at the camera.
Originally the screenplay called for the aliens to be unseen but, as a respectable $750,000 was being spent on the production, it was decided that we needed to see the aliens. The first design for the alien xenomorph was rejected, but was later used as the basis for the Metalunan mutant in “This Island Earth”. The one-eyed xenomorph that does make it onto the screen is definitely ugly, but hardly the unfathomable ugliness that cannot be gazed upon by human eyes.
The plot revolves around author and amateur astronomer John Putnam and his schoolteacher almost-fiancée Ellen Fields, who watch what they think is a meteor crashing into the desert. They rush to the site and John sees an alien spaceship (just before it’s covered by a landslide). He is ridiculed by the townspeople, the sheriff and the local media (with, for example, the headline “stargazer sees Martians”). Ellen is initially unsure of what to believe herself, but is soon drawn into helping John. When the two telephone linemen, Frank and George, disappear (only to turn up acting in a mechanical way) John and Ellen try to warn the town of the danger; and Ellen’s line “If we’ve been seeing things, it’s because we DID see them.” is the perfect response to anyone being mocked for their gullibility. John confronts the alien copies of the kidnapped workers and is told “Keep away. We don’t want to hurt you, we don’t want to hurt anyone.”
Later, one of the copies phones John, wanting to meet, and the Sheriff takes him out to the mine through which the alien ship can be reached. John is told that they are repairing their ship and that they’ll leave that night. He insists on seeing the real shape of the alien and, when he does, covers his face in horror. If an enlightened scientist like him cannot stand to see the aliens, then there is no way that the population at large would accept them.
When Ellen is also taken, the Sheriff organises a posse to attack the mine; and John races there to warn the visitors. After a confrontation with the alien copy of Ellen, he promises those working on the ship that he’ll help them. He leads the hostages out of the mine and blows up the entrance just before the posse can attack.
As the humans discuss the death of the aliens with the collapse of the mine, the earth shakes and the ship leaves. They’re all relieved that the aliens are gone, but John, on a positive note, ends the movie by saying that, yes they are gone, “just for now, it wasn’t the right time for us to meet. But there’ll be other nights, other stars for us to watch. They’ll be back.”
For those of you interested in looking at the different ways that the paranoia and ‘red under the bed’ atmosphere of the 50s was translated into science fiction, try watching this movie and then following it with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” which was made three years later. There are some close parallels, but the whole thrust of the movie goes off in the opposite direction to Bradbury’s idea of the benign alien.
The poetic language about the desert also seems to be very Ray Bradbury in tone and the cinematography is in the same vein, where, visually, telephone wires are used as a common thread throughout a number of scenes.
The score was also innovative, there was heavy use of the theremin (which, at that time had not yet become a cliché) and was written by three composers (Herman Stein, Irving Gertz and Henry Mancini) to bring a different feel and flavour to different sections of the movie.
Another innovation was to film sections through the fish-eyed perspective of the aliens. Also, it’s one of the first movies where we see the scientist hero established; a function that Richard Carlson would perform again in “Creature from the Black Lagoon”.
All in all, “It Came From Outer Space” was an innovative movie that tried hard to go beyond the B-movie clichés of the genre, and, in the most part, succeeded. I would recommend it to you all. While watching it you may feel that you have seen many of the approaches and techniques before; perhaps you have, but this film used them first.
Looking outside, it’s a clear crisp evening, and so, inspired by John Putnam, I think I’ll wind up now and drive out into the bush to look at the stars.