March 2, 2009

Theremin music among the Joshuas . . .

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Starring:
Richard Carlson – John Putnum
Barbara Rush – Ellen Fields
Charles Drake – Sherriff Matt Warren

John Putnam (Richard Carlson) is a struggling science writer living the bohemian life in a tiny house well outside the desert town of Sand Rock, Arizona. He has rejected the 9 to 5 world, with all its material oppression. He now smokes a pipe, has leather elbow patches on his sweaters, talks in a dreamy, world weary voice, and is for all intents and purposes shacked up with his schoolteacher girlfriend, Ellen (Barbara Rush). Though broke (of course), the two are so romantic and in love they can joke about it happily as all true love really needs is a beautiful view of the stars and enough extra pennies to buy candles to light their modest, cozy suppers. They are the town’s artsy crackpots, is what they are; and we like them immediately.

Richard Carlson and Barabra Rush

To absolutely cement Putnum’s outsider status, he has bucked convention for far-from-town-desert dwellers and, instead of a flatbed pickup rusting atop cements blocks or a chained mongrel, he has a huge telescope decorating his front yard. It’s this godamned telescope, and his nightly habit of stargazing, which gets him and his schoolmarm girl hip deep in shit in this movie; and the lesson learned for all poor couples is, don’t push your luck. After your meager meal, just watch television until you fall asleep like normal poor people the world over.

But that’s not for these two iconoclasts, oh no. They have to go out to the telescope around midnight, gaze up at the heavens, and talk in clever metaphors about their love for one another. Just as their witty, romantic dialogue leads to an embrace, a brilliant light turns their faces skyward.

We see the source of the light streaking across the sky and, since this picture was made in 3D, our perspective changes and we see it screaming straight at us, a round sphere blazing with flames. While this was one of the first films to boast the 3D effect, director Jack Arnold was smart enough and talented enough to use it unobtrusively. Not so with many film-makers that hopped on the 3D fad and 1950s moviegoers were made to suffer through a parade of objects being flung straight at the camera; from yo-yos to spears.

Flaming ball explodes into the barren desert near an abandoned mine (sci-fi films from the atomic age always had tremendous explosions, somehow far more effective despite their much smaller scale than the apocalyptic explosions we are given today by computer generated graphics. Maybe because they really blew stuff up; this produces actual flames and actual pieces of buildings, cars or rocks sailing through the air to land with actual weight back to earth. Whatever – you go, 1950’s movie explosions!). What was that? asks Ellen, nestled nicely in the crook of John’s arm. “It’s a meteor!” replies or science guy, his geek credentials suddenly apparent. “One of the biggest!” John gets a bead on the crash site with his telescope, and he and Ellen are off.

John convinces his friend and typically irascible and rangy bush pilot, Pete (Dave Willock), to fly them to the site in his helicopter. They fly over the enormous creator and land near its edge. “Holy cow!” explains Pete the pilot, as the three stand on the creator’s lip, looking down into the smoking hole “that’s really something.”

“It’s the biggest thing that’s every happened in our time!” says John, really lavishing on the geek hyperbole. John, off course, has to rush right down into the still smoking creator with Ellen eager to trot right along. No sir, says John, only guy geeks allowed. Girl geeks have to stay behind. “You stay and watch Pete,” instructs John, sticking timid Pete with a jibe (Pete has made it bluntly clear that searching a fiery furnace of a creator was shit he definitely did not sign on for).

We cut to deep in the crash site, unseen by our three, and a Theremin (that wonderful digital instrument responsible for the high pitched, alien sounding warble so essential to radiation cinema) clues us in that something outwardly is afoot. Sure enough, the camera shows us an alien craft glimmering within the smoking creator, which smolders like Dante’s pit. A hatch opens, and the camera moves us inside (an inside which looks alien, unlike a lot of set pieces from the era which looked about as alien as plywood and Christmas lights). The music theme takes on a darker tone, and we see an alien among the smoke - a large eye set atop an indistinct, slimy mass. The mass moves forward, and we now watch the world from the alien’s point of view (since the eye looks particularly gelatinous, we see the world as through a clear lens of quivering Jell-O). As it moves out of the craft onto the desert floor, we see a glittering confetti-like trail left by the creature, clearly designed to make the 1950s viewer think “fallout” (for a glimpse into a fifties education about fallout, see my sidebar video to the right). We see rabbits and coyotes fleeing at its approach; owls taking flight from tree limbs.

John makes his way down into the vaporous hole, jerking his fingers away from still-hissing rocks and outcroppings. Once at the bottom, a shape begins to become visible though the haze – a hatch of some sort. In a beautiful shot, we pull back and see the larger picture: John very tiny, standing before a huge, glowing craft. John looks into the hatch, struggling to see clearly, and he jumps back as he sees the alien. The alien seems none to pleased seeing John, either, and quickly slams shut the hatch. This causes a tremendous avalanche which covers the craft, and suddenly our amateur egghead realizes he’s in over his head and makes a lame break for it, struggling back up the creator’s side as fast as his loafered feet will carry him. “John, John!” screams Ellen. Stay here! shouts Pete and proves his metal by dashing down to help John out. The three scramble back toward the top.

The three of them, all scruffy and dirty from their labors, pause near the creator’s edge, gazing back down, and John tries to describe what he’s seen. Well, it was large and round and it might have been a ship of some kind, and inside, well it might have been an alien of some kind. I think. Maybe. Pete, who suddenly seems very sensible and heroic, wonders openly if perhaps a rock has glanced off our writer’s head at just the right angle (one has to sympathize with our bush pilot at this point. Looking at from inside his shoes, the town egghead and crackpot has nearly gotten himself killed sticking his amateur nose where only professionals should tread, and very nearly gotten the pilot and teacher girlfriend dead into the bargain with his stupid escapades). Once they are safely out and sitting on the rim, catching their breath, John feels the full weight of the silence and watchful glances that surround him and starts blathering again: I tell you I saw and open hatch. I did, I tell you! An alien! Or something! Yes, that makes sense, says Pete, shooting Ellen a look, who has noticeably not leapt to her lover’s defense.

A car horn beeps from below on the desert floor, and police cars are rushing to the scene. “Oh, oh,” says Pete, “here they come to find out what happened.” As Pete stands to watch the approach of town law, Ellen crabs John’s forearm and tells him urgently, privately for God’s sake, John, don’t jibber on like this about spacemen in front of the authorities. “I tell you I was close enough to touch it,” insists John, not at all getting the message. “But, Johnny, please,” begs Ellen desperately, seeing their already spotty reputation as a couple completely made into laughing stock or worse by the ensuing town gossip once John’s ridiculous hallucinations are made public.

Pete turns back around and leans over close, putting a much sharper point on things than has loving Ellen. “Your not gonna tell those people you saw Martians running around down there?” he asks, unable to conceal his smirking pleasure at egghead’s predicament.

Our magazine writer’s nerves are shot. His hand is trembling, his voice is far from steady, and his eyes go shifty. What would you say if I had found a Martian down there? he asks, sending up a quavering trail balloon. Pete jabs him in the ribs, still grinning, “I’d say hold him for a circus,” he says, giving John his answer. As Pete stands up and turns again to watch the law approach, John stares into space and says quietly to Ellen: “and I’d say let’s wait and see what they are doing here first.” After a moment he looks up at Ellen, searching her face.

Ellen has clearly and completely had enough of this shitty day, and it is obvious by her haggard, worried expression that his soulful words have not had the desired effect. “You don’t believe me,” says John. Ellen, not able to make eye contact, manages the obligatory, “I don’t know,” but it is clear that hell no she doesn’t believe a single word of his crazy ramblings, and further, is shaken down to her toes about their entire relationship. I mean, how will the local Sand Rock School Board react to her living with a confirmed raving lunatic? A risk to our local Sand Rock schoolchildren? A public circle stoning? Who can say with these sun baked desert types?

Our local law enforcement makes its way up the grade, and Sherriff and hard-bitten cynic Matt Warren (Charles Drake) enters the picture with his deputy. Despite his friends’ desperate attempts to cover for him, John can’t help but immediately start jabbering about spacemen and rocket ships. The deputy all but snorts into his collar, but Sherriff Warren, clearly a stony “western lawman”, listens hard for a bit, trying to decide just how far into crazy this poufy writer has gone. He turns to Ellen. “You see it Ellen?” he asks. “Well, no, but if John says . . .” her voice trails off. How about you, Pete? Pete can only stare down at his shoes and shrug. Warren’s expression tells the tale: Cased closed. Our local “character” has just crossed the line into pure-D looney territory.

So the film’s dynamic is set up and will play itself out over the next few scenes; the entire town, personified by Sherriff Warren, considers John nuts and barely tolerates his crazy talk. The town’s media ridicules him. Ellen, his only ally, helps him initially out of a sense of duty (eventually, her help becomes more wholehearted after she spots an alien herself).

The evidence begins to mount, though, in support of John’s case for an alien invasion. For one thing, townsfolk- most noticeably telephone linemen working out in all that strange, desert space and air - are disappearing only to reappear as odd, emotionless simulacrums. In a direct confrontation, a pair of now alien lineman tells Putnam that they have been forced to land on Earth due to a broken space ship and will be on their way as soon as they can affect repairs. The have simply mimicked some human bodies out of necessity, as their own forms would cause a panic, and promise to return the hidden humans before they leave (honest). They need the telephone truck of the lineman because it is full of electrical equipment needed to repair their ship, and they have broken into a hardware store and stolen some wiring and other electrical supplies as well. Eventually, the aliens kidnap Ellen and use her as a kind of bargaining chip, threatening her life along with all the others they have hidden away. All they need is a little time, they argue, or else.

Once local hard ass, Sherriff Warren, fully believes there are aliens afoot, he naturally wants to form a posse and blow the aliens to hell and back (and who can blame him? After all, these aliens, for all appearances, have killed a good number of townsfolk and we have only their say so to suggest these folks aren’t dead. All we really have arguing in the alien’s favor is John Putnam, the town eccentric and “writer” who is himself far from completely convinced of the aliens’ harmless intentions). He is held just barely at bay by Putnam only because the aliens have made it crystal clear they will kill Ellen (an interesting subtext to the picture is our sheriff has had a life-long crush on schoolteacher Ellen). In the end, the alien’s just manage to make their escape just before local wrath turns against them and all the humans are recovered.

Over the years most reviewers and critics have spoken of this film in rather black and white terms: John Putnam is most often described as an idealistic dreamer/visionary who is convinced that the aliens are good, idealistically arguing their cause with his bigoted and aggressive fellow humans; and the aliens have nearly always been described as good or “benign.” Nether of these readings is even remotely true, as the film has considerably more depth that these views offer.

Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, and Richard Carlson

While it is true that John Putnam is a progressive “man of science” and is repulsed by the human inclination to destroy what is unknown, his argument for giving the aliens time to make their escape comes not from some altruistic hope of a pan-planetary agreement, but rather as the result of a direct, blatant, and terrifying threat. The first time the alien’s reveal themselves to Putnam, in the form of duplicated telephone lineman Frank (Joe Sawyer) and George (Russell Johnson), John is told that no one will be harmed as long as they are allowed time to repair their ship and escape. If, on the other hand, they are not given adequate time “terrible things will happen. Things so terrible you have yet to dream of them.”

While the aliens are not sadistic and violent by nature or bent on earthly domination, their actions don’t suggest a benevolent, enlightened race of beings, either, not by a far cry. In fact, before the aliens manage to finally make their get-away at the end of the film, they have threatened to kill all the townsfolk they have duplicated, including Ellen. In fact, the Ellen duplicate tries desperately to kill Putnam herself with a laser weapon, saying only that he “can no longer be trusted” (Putnam just manages to dodge the slicing beams before yanking out his six-gun and returning fire, killing her/it).

In short, these aliens are some of the most interesting and complex extra-terrestrials ever brought to screen – and perhaps the most human. These aliens don’t desire to kill anyone, but they will in a heartbeat if they feel threatened. They are, in short, scared half to death and struggling for survival on a planet where every third person they meet seems to point a weapon at them (for a writer and science nerd, John Putnam is awful damn very free and easy with a .38, pulling it from the pocket of his tweedy jacket at every rustle of wind. Note duplicated George’s long, steady stare at Putnam’s ever-present revolver when John and Ellen first confront the strange-acting lineman out on the desert highway).

Speaking of interesting aliens brings one to the inevitable subject of Ray Bradbury’s involvement with this picture (Bradbury's tremendous sci fi work from this period was lousy with interesting and "good" aliens). Much, and I mean mucho much, has been written about Bradbury’s involvement with the script. Some say he wrote all of it, others claim he wrote none of it. Frankly, I don’t give a shit one way or the other. Officially he is given credit for a “screen treatment” of his original story, whatever the hell that is. Suffice to say that the spirit of Ray Bradbury, his poetry and compassionate vision, infuse this movie at every level at the very least, and it is impossible to imagine that his involvement with the script was not, at the very least, substantial.

More importantly, this film was the first in the great cannon of 1950s sci-fi invasion and mutation pictures to be set in the deserts of the American Southwest and to explore all the underlying hard-bitten beauty and inherent menace present in that great expanse of Joshua trees and sand. The desert not only played host to all the fearful nuclear testing of the area, but is by its very nature (howling winds, vast spaces, and brilliant stars) an alien landscape. For a taste of the post-Trinity Project view of the desert, check out this snatch of dialogue between Ellen and John as they venture out into the sand looking for aliens:

“It’s alive,” says John, holding Ellen’s hand and staring off at the landscape.

“And yet it seems so dead out there,” says Ellen.

“Oh, no, it’s alive and waiting for you. Ready to get you if you go too far. The sun will get you or the cold at night. There are a thousand ways the desert can kill.”

This also was the first sci-fi film directed by Jack Arnold, one of the genre’s finest masters (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, the Incredible Shrinking man and others). Arnold had a tremendous feel for squeezing every eerie ounce out of a desert landscape and seemed completely at home in all that air and space (his was not the rugged majesty of the John Ford West, with towering rock and huge sky, but rather one of lunar distance, Mesquite Brush, and flat, simmering horizons). Arnold also demonstrated in every film he made a tremendous feel for the dynamic shot that told entire stories in a picture. My favorite moment in this film was the image of the now-duplicated Ellen, standing on a scrapy ridge, staring down at John; windblown and somehow too solitary - beautiful and . . . wrong. John knows immediately that she has been duplicated, and so do we. “Ellen?” he says, his voice frightened, nearly speaking to himself as he stares up at her. It is the pure power of the shot that tells the story here. Classic Arnold.

Barbara Rush and Richard Carlson Performances are very good throughout, with Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush supplying some fine chemistry as the sort-of bohemian lovers; but my favorite performance is the small character part of George, the telephone lineman who gets duplicated early in the story. The part is played by Russell Johnson, best knows as the professor on Gilligan’s Island. Johnson worked steadily during the glory days of Radiation Cinema (1950s), and was capable of a much darker and intense presence every demanded of him as a castaway. Here, his “George” is simply terrifying in his strangeness, an unhappy and frightened alien, prone to staring for long periods before speaking; a very good performance.

Which leads me to a question, one I will leave you to ponder: Why are humans so menacing, so frightening, when they simply stare straight ahead with no obvious emotion? Think that one over as you watch this wonderful classic. - Radiation Cinema

7 comments:

  1. I saw a double feature of It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D last year at a small theater. It was a great experience. I enjoyed your review and your site.

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  2. Starmummy: Did you wear the glasses? That must have been cool as hell. You have a nice site yourself - check my beloved links!

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  3. This movie is one of the BEST of that era! Classic elements abound!
    Great soundtrack, classic casting, great monster and Ray Bradbury..all rolled together :-)

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  4. Jeff: Absolutely. This is one of those fllms that stick with you.

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    1. Evidently, it stuck with Irwin Allen. A 1964 episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, "The Sky is Falling," was practically a remake of "It Came from Outer Space." As I recall, the episode itself was not bad, but I later realized how derivative it was after I finally saw the movie.

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  5. For some reason, the scene I remember most vividly is where the sheriff nervously notes that the temperature is rising and that the homicide rate peaks at 92 degrees. Apparently, Ray Bradbury found that statistic interesting. It also appears in his story "Shopping for Death," which was filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (BTW, I looked it up on snopes.com and while it's true that violent crime goes up as heat rises, the idea that 92 is the exact peak is an over-simplification.)

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  6. Great comments, my anonymous friend.

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