It Came From Outer Space
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It Came From Outer Space

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I grew up in the fifties. It was during that time that my love affair with movies began. As was natural for a boy at that time 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 near by. 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 starts to disappear. Jack is sure these occurrences are connected to 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. This was also a time of scientific advances directly affecting the lives of the typical citizen. In order 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 really feared the one across the sea.

The cast of this film was classic for the time. Richard Carlson was one of those actors that made a career in ‘B’ films. Although he really 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 men in the audience can immediately identify with Carlson, the women can be attracted to his stand up qualities of integrity and personal ethics. As Jack we see a man like the one that can live next door in a strange and bizarre adventure. Rush is the perfect female counterpoint to Carlson. Pretty enough to attract the men in the audience but not the typical Hollywood bombshell. She can also provide a character the audience can readily identify with. This quality is extremely important in this kind of movie. In order 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 film 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 the audience was drawn to the actors. 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 in 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 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 work. The original story was from the pen of one of the truly 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 basically 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 very good. There are some white spots throughout the film but for me they just brought me back to the after school afternoons watching these films on an 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 a bit more realistic. Still, the overly dramatic soundtrack comes across in excellent shape. The extras include a fine commentary with film historian; Tom Weaver who takes you through just how ground breaking this film for its time. There is also a little documentary and production notes to round things out. This film 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.

Posted 5/10/02

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