It Came From Outer Space
I grew up in the fifties and at that time that my love affair with movies began. As was natural for a boy at that point the first genre that attracted me was the Sci-Fi flick. I remember well sitting around watching the old ‘Million Dollar Movie,' ‘The Early Show’ or one of the numerous afternoon movie shows. It was during those shows that I first saw ‘It Came from Outer Space.' At the point I didn’t understand how groundbreaking the film was for its time, I just knew it was fun to watch. Jack Putnam (Richard Carlson) is a freelance science writer. He is also an amateur astronomer. One night after dinner with his girlfriend, Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) they look through his telescope to see what appears to be a meteor crashing close to their location. Of course, they go to the crash site and Jack descends into the crater to find not a rock from outer space but a strange looking ship. A landslide covers the ship before anyone else can see the spaceship. Jack is branded a liar and becomes the laughing stock of the small Arizona town. Soon people start acting strangely. Electrical parts and equipment start to disappear. Jack is sure there a connection between these occurrences and the mysterious ship. Of course, the truth comes out, but it is the ride that is interesting. This film is an excellent example of how science fiction was used (and is still used) to lay bare social faults in the guise of harmless fiction. To understand this film’s impact you have to remember that this was the time of the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings. The American public was xenophobic, afraid of anything unfamiliar and also a time of scientific advances directly affecting the lives of the typical citizen. For a writer to criticize the government a vehicle such as Sci-Fi had to be employed to get certain points across. This film was a little film that represented a new way to present protest. It was also one of the earliest ‘invasion’ flicks where although the enemy as shown as coming from across the stars the audience feared the one across the sea.
The cast of this film was classic at the time. Richard Carlson was one of those actors that made a career in ‘B’ films. Although he never made the first string his career and talent stand as part of the American film audience’s collective consciousness. Personally, I best enjoyed his many Sci-Fi flicks. Movies like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Riders to the Stars are must see classics. His acting forte was showing the ‘everyman,' the reasonable man that happens into unreasonable circumstances. The people in the audience can immediately identify with Carlson. His steadfast integrity and personal ethics drew audiences to him. Like Jack, we see a man like the one that can live next door in a strange and bizarre adventure. Barbara Rush was the perfect female counterpoint to Mr. Carlson. She was pretty enough to attract the men in the audience but not the typical Hollywood bombshell. She was able to take on roles that depicted a readily identifiable character. This quality is crucial in this kind of movie. To get the actual point across the viewers have to understand the point of view of the characters. Both actors in this film bring this to the movie in the best possible way.
Director Jack Arnold is no stranger to this genre. He was the man at the helm of such classics as ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man,' ’Creature from the Black Lagoon’ and ‘Tarantula.' He brought his gift for pacing these traditionally short films, most around 80 minutes, in such a way that expository material was well mixed with the creature action shots. Arnold could set up a shot, so that was able to pull the audience into the action and the plight of the characters. While most of his work was in 4:3 he did not seem to see that as a drawback. Instead, Arnold embraced the academy aspect ratio as a painter would the dimensions of a canvas. Sure, some of the effects he used were cheesy, but this was the embryonic stage of the development of the special effects we have today. Arnold was a pioneer in this field and not only set the standards of his day but most of the today’s famous directors grew up watching these films, and you can see their influence in their work. According to the production notes on the DVD there was some controversy surrounding the script of this job. The original story was from the pen of one of the great Sci-Fi writers of all time, Ray Bradbury. The studio brought in Harry Essex who fortunately stuck to the Bradbury script in most places. Essex was a mystery writer and brought his flair for suspense to the film.
The disc is part of the new Universal Cult Classics set. I hope they keep up the standards set here. Although this film is approaching its 50th anniversary, the transfer is excellent. There are some white spots throughout the movie but for me, they just brought me back to the after school afternoons watching these films on old black and white TVs. Younger viewers are well advised to ignore the slight defects and enjoy the film. The audio is a little strange in its mix. Recorded in Dolby 3.0 there is occasionally a bit too much separation in the mix. For example, when there are scenes where three people are sitting next to each other each voice is given one speaker. There should have been a bit more overlap to make it somewhat more realistic. Still, the overly dramatic soundtrack comes across in excellent shape. The extras include a subtle commentary with film historian; Tom Weaver who takes you through just how groundbreaking this film for its time. There is also a little documentary and production notes to round things out. This movie was a time machine for me taking me back to the origins of my passion for film. I look forward to the rest of the Cult Classic series. Bravo Universal! Get this one, ignore the slight production flaws and enjoy.
I found it necessary to revisit this memorable classic with another rerelease. I have always known that the movie was originally released to the theaters in 3D. I’m not referring to the anaglyph method using those cheap cardboard glasses to one blue and one red cellophane lens. This was 1953 which was within the rather brief golden age of 3D. During this period many of the studios were experimenting with ways to convey the illusion of depth to their movies. A myriad of new technologies were tried hoping to noticeably enhance the audio and video of the cinematic experience. The fifties were a period of post war prosperity was many American families were purchasing that new means of home entertainment, television. The movie studios were desperate, afraid of losing business to this new invention that brought a variety of entertainment directly into your living room for free. The studio experimented with Technicolor. Surround Sound and, for a short time, 3D in hope of providing something to the audience that TV could not. The technology employed during this time was the use of polarizing light. It still required glasses but they were typically sunglass quality.
The directorial technique was still in its infancy with the filmmakers in the process of determining the best way to showcase this feature. As such, there were objects being thrust through the plane of the screen directly at the audience. After being so familiar with the standard 2D presentation it was quite exciting to go back in time to watch the film as it was intended so many decades ago. The 3D effects are on par with the modern Real-3d technology offering a robust image that adds to the storytelling instead of detracting from it. The original black and white picture is spectacularly rendered. There are no signs of age of transfer artifacts implying that the 3D presentation was made from a pristine print. If you have the capability to play 3D material you should jump at this opportunity, otherwise stay with the Universal Cut Classic variation.
Posted 5/10/02 11/25/2016