# 44: It Came From Outer Space


1953

Director:  Jack Arnold

Cast:  Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class B (That’s a 2/7, a hot blue-white star and pretty damn good).  It seems like a standard evil-alien-invaders-from-outer-space tale…but is it?  It’s a black and white film,  but without a black-and-white sort of story, based on a story by Ray Bradbury.  The movie does a fine job of creating a feeling of suspense and points out some human foibles along the way.  Plus there’s the professor from Gilligan’s Island and a monster cam.

Introduction

This is one of my favorite films from my childhood.  I really loved it, so it’s going to be hard for me to evaluate it fairly.  If the lens of nostalgia distorts the picture, you’re not going to get a fair review whether I loved it or hated it this time around.  So, that caveat aside, let’s get moving…

The film was based on a screenplay by Ray Bradbury, and if you’ve been following you might be aware that I believe he might be one of the finest writers in the American canon (okay, so there’s folks like Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Twain/Clemons and Stein and others who might also be legitimate candidates, but no one can approach the lyrical quality of Bradbury; it’s like he anticipated the magical realism style by years and in English rather than Spanish).  That said, this is a script and so his gift for lyrical descriptions might be wasted here.

It was also Universal Studios’ first 3D film, but I can’t comment intelligently about that, since I saw the DVD version and I gather that the early 3D films used a dual projection system to achieve the effect.

The movie begins innocently enough, when a meteor strikes near a small Arizona town on the edge of the desert, and like all alien invasion movies, things go downhill very quickly.  We have a lot of the standard ingredients here:  a Cassandra-like protagonist who can’t get anyone to believe him about the aliens, some sort of mind-control or body substitution, and aliens up to unknown and undoubtedly nefarious objectives…

Jump to impressions (and skip the spoilers, for what good that does)

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy already has the love of a good woman, and they see a meteorite crash in the desert.  It’s actually an alien space ship, but no one believes boy!  Creepy stuff follows!  The aliens replace townspeople so as to operate undetected!  It turns out they just want to repair their ship and go home!  Aliens kidnap Girl as a hostage for Boy’s good behavior!  Sheriff loves Girl, too, and gets a posse together to attack the aliens, putting Girl’s life at risk!  Boy meets the aliens again, and they agree to let her go!  Boy seals off the entrance to the alien crash site, and the day is saved!

Impressions

This is an amazing film.  Oh, it’s a bit dated in some ways, but it still has a very nice story and some beautiful visual touches.

Contrary to my normal procedure, this time I’m going to talk about the visual aspects of the film, as well as the acting, before we get into the story and what it means.  That’s because the film depends on a plot twist, and that plot twist is at least outlined about half-way through the film.  For readers who don’t want to know about that element, at least you’ll get some of my impressions this way.

The film employs a fairly standard plot device—there are aliens and no one will believe the protagonist—to great effect to build suspense about what, exactly, the aliens are up to.  It’s a slow boil; we don’t see a whole alien until fairly far into the film.  The little hints, like the sparkly slug trails and the glimpses of something wrong, create an aura of menace.  Our main characters know something is wrong, but they can’t see it straight out, and neither can the viewer.  One of the things that the film does to further this creepy, suspense-building effect is that the camera’s viewpoint sometimes shifts to the monster’s viewpoint, and we get a wierd, spherically distorted picture of events.  It may be the first monster cam in history.

Our hero, John Putnam, (played by Richard Carlson) and our heroine, Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush, who won a Golden Globe for best newcomer in spite of her appearance in films for two years) do a marvelous job.  There’s real chemistry between them, for starters.  They’re both smart, interesting people confronting the unknown, and the actors’ performances bear this out.  But the real standout, though in a very understated performance, is Charles Drake as Sheriff Matt Warren.  He is scornful of Putnam, because he’s an astronomer and interested in wierd stuff.  As the film progresses, however, it becomes evident that the sheriff is in love with Ellen, a school teacher who he thinks could do better than a scientist—perhaps a forceful man of action employed in, say, law enforcement.

In some ways this love triangle is at the heart of the events of the film, so if you’re watching for the first time, pay attention!

Now we come to the point where, if you haven’t seen the film, you need to jump ahead.  I’m going to reveal the plot twist.

Still with me?  Good.  After a tremendous buildup, we eventually discover that two of the townsfolk—linemen working in the desert—have been replaced by aliens.  They explain to Putnam that they are only on Earth to repair their ship, that as soon as they’re done, they’ll release their human captives and be on their way.  So…the aliens know someone is on to them, and they’ve come clean.  The key question now is…are they telling the truth?  If they’re good, why did they kidnap and replace the humans?

Kids, it looks like Cold War fears are back in the moving pictures, don’t it?

Putnam doesn’t quite know what to believe about all this.  In his shoes, I wouldn’t know what to think, either.  He’s got visitors from space, which is exciting, and right up his alley…but they did something to his friends, and he’s actually seen what appeared to be a body.  The aliens say his friends are all right, and that he shouldn’t talk to anyone about any of this…but really, now, should he trust?  He has only their word, and they’re strangers…

Before we get any deeper, I should add that Kathleen Hughes, as June, one of the replaced townspeople’s girl, damn near steals the show.  She gives a wonderful comic performance as a forward woman who likes what she sees of John Putnam just fine, thank you, and doesn’t care who knows it, or even that his girl Ellen is in the room with them.  That scene alone is almost worth the price of admission!

SPOILERS AHEAD!  Last warning!

Of course, as the film progresses it becomes clear that the aliens are telling the truth, and are completely benevolent.  Well, aside from the little matter of kidnapping folks and impersonating them.  They explain that, though:  they are hideous in the eyes of humanity, and would not be welcomed or accepted, and instead are certain that they would be attacked, their journey interrupted permanantly.  And the actions of the Sheriff and the townsfolk only prove the aliens right, as does Putnam’s reaction when he sees one of them.

Putnam proves himself to be the bigger man, though, ultimately choosing to trust the aliens and help them.  He may turn away from the aliens in horror at their physical appearance, but he doesn’t seek to kill them.  Don’t get me wrong, here:  he doesn’t trust blindly.  He demands that the aliens make a leap of faith themselves and release their hostages before he helps them out.

So, the aliens proved benevolent, and at least one human willing to trust and to meet with them on their own terms, the film ends.

If this movie was inspired by Cold War fears, Bradbury, at least, and by extension the top brass at Universal Studios, had hope for the future and some kind of peace.  After all, if they were willing to tell the story of one man building a bridge between an alien culture and humanity, they had to believe that peace and understanding can be attained.  But I think there’s a warning in there, too.  Sheriff Warren takes the other road; he can’t bring himself to trust the aliens.  There are reasons for his failure to trust—and not just his unrequited love for Ellen, or his scorn (perhaps envy) of John Putnam—and his actions seem quite reasonable in their way.  After all, the aliens are monsters who kidnap people and hold them hostage and impersonate them, not the actions of forthright and honest people.

If Warren was wrong, he was the same kind of wrong that most of us are.  Even Putnam did not choose to trust until he had a gesture of good faith from the aliens.  So if there’s a message in here, and not just a rousing yarn, it isn’t that we need to blindly trust in the hopes of peace.  But maybe we do need to give people a chance to show their best side, and be aware of the opportunities for finding common ground.

In a complete aside, the presence of the Professor from Gilligan’s Isle as one of the linemen attacked by the aliens is a lot of fun.

Wrap-up

All in all, a great little film with a neat script, solid performances, and some good visual touches—especially for the time period.  The movie may have a message, but if so, it’s one we all know from kindergarten on.  And the air of tension and menace that grows until we see the monsters—excuse me, aliens—is a fantastic trip.  So if you don’t mind black and white movies, and have a little hopefulness in your heart, run out and rent this one.

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2 Responses to “# 44: It Came From Outer Space”

  1. chimeradave Says:

    I have this movie poster hanging in my “man-cave” but I’ve never seen the movie, it just looks cool, you know?

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