History of Sci-Fi Cinema 14: “It Came From Outer Space”

itcame1It Came From Outer Space (1953)
Written by Harry Essex, from a story by Ray Bradbury
Directed by Jack Arnold
Produced by William Alland
Universal
Starring Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Russell Johnson

An amateur astronomer and his dishy girlfriend are stargazing one night when what appears to be a meteor lands in the desert. But of course, that’s no meteor! It’s actually an alien spacecraft. But the only person to see it up close is the amateur astronomer and he has no proof to back up his claim. Not until townspeople start going missing, that is. It’s your typical 1950s Commie Scare paranoia piece . . . except that it actually isn’t. It’s a straightforward bodysnatcher yarn . . . except, no it’s really not. What it is is a thoroughly entertaining story with solid acting (Barbara Rush won a Golden Globe for her work in this film), good characterization, and a pretty spiffy alien that you never see too clearly on screen.

itcame54We’ve talked about Cold War films a little bit in previous reviews, and It Came From Outer Space plays up on the fear and mistrust of the time in which it was made, but it does something really interesting with it: the aliens aren’t actually the enemy. There’s no imminent invasion at work. The body doubles aren’t to steal your identity and infiltrate your town. The whole build up of the movie is almost psychology textbook, and plays to every expectation an audience, whether of that time or now, has about these types of film. But Bradbury cleverly turns those expectations upside down. The aliens don’t pose a direct threat to us (unless we hinder or threaten them); they’re only here because their spaceship broke down and that had to pull over to the side of the road for a few repairs. What this film does, of course, is expose humanity’s true nature, shows us to be the dangerous aggressors, the ones willing to fire a gun out of fear.  Before we criticize the characters of the movie too much, though, we have to think what we’d do in their place. Probably the same thing. It seems perfectly reasonable for the townspeople to fear and distrust beings who won’t show themselves, who have kidnapped people, who are in fact hideous monsters. We all hope that we would behave differently, with more patience and trust, but chances are we wouldn’t. Still, at least there’s astronomer John Putnam, played by Richard Carlson, the one guy who is willing and able to see past his fear and prejudice and give the aliens the benefit of doubt. Of course they’re holding his girlfriend hostage so it doesn’t have much choice . . .

But while humans are full of negative impulses, we’re also apparently poets. This movie features some of the most flowery, evocative dialogue of any movie ever, as the various townspeople describe the deadly beauty of the desert, the sound in telephone wires, and the temperature at which people are most likely to commit murder. Prominent SF writer Ray Bradbury wrote a couple of story treatments that were then turned into a script by Harry Essex, but the story goes that Bradbury wrote a full screenplay and Essex just made a few tweaks to it and took full credit for the writing. Either way, much of the dialogue is pure Bradbury, and is worth the ticket price alone.

itcame3Which leads us to another thing: This film is very much on the “talky” side — it’s much more character and dialogue driven and less reliant on action set pieces and traditional scares. Which is interesting, because this movie was produced as a 3D picture. This is very much not your average 3D fare. I’ve never seen the 3D version, but by all accounts it’s extraordinary. It’s hard to get a sense of what the experience would be like, but when watching the 2D version with this in mind, one becomes aware of many shots with foreground elements and framing techniques, and one thinks how great scenes like those of the mist engulfing victims would have looked.

But the dialogue is not the only artistic triumph here: The score is genuinely amazing, one of the most enjoyable movie scores that I’ve experienced so far in my journey through the history of SF cinema. It’s sort of a text book example of SF film music from the time, with so many varied approaches, and with a variance of instrumentation. This is partly attributable to the score being composed by three people equally — Henry Mancini, Herman Stein and Irving Gertz. In many cases, each composer would be given one chunk of the film to score, but in this case, each composer’s work is dispersed throughout the entire piece, giving it a much more coherent feel. There were two thematic motifs that each composer incorporated into their work, further unifying the musical threads. Plus, a theremin theme was constructed to announce the aliens’ arrivals or activities throughout the film.

itcame2Universal’s first foray into alien invasion fiction is a hugely successful venture, even if it might have taken the audience at the time by surprise. I remember seeing this one as a kid and really enjoying the atmosphere and the glimpses of the alien. This is highly recommended.

Fun Fact:  The alien was originally intended to be completely unseen. At the last minute, Universal insisted a monster be included, since this was a 3D picture, so a creature was hastily designed. The first creature idea was rejected and a second, the one seen in the film, was created. That rejected idea was used two years later in This Island Earth.

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