Ray Bradbury’s story is poetically put on screen in this 1953 classic. Richard Carlson stars as a mediator between body-snatching aliens and gun-happy townsfolk. Intelligent, well-filmed and thoughtful, it may be too slow for some tastes. 8/10
It Came from Outer Space. 1953, USA. Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Ray Bradbury & Harry Essex. Starring: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson. Produced by William Alland. IMDb: 6.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 79/100. Metacritic: N/A.
Acclaimed A movie directors like Howard Hawks, Robert Wise and Don Siegel, along with visionary producer-director George Pal, all did their best to coax the science fiction genre out of the B movie quagmire that refused to loosen its grip on it in the fifties. But equally important – if not even more so – for the genre was Jack Arnold, director of films like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review), Tarantula (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), among others. Arnold acknowledged the genre’s pulpy roots, and instead of trying to transcend them, he embraced them, but brought a level of intelligence and refinement to his work, and made some of the most influential sci-fi films of the decade. It all started with a film that is often dropped from his resumé when recounting his best films, and it is always a mistake: It Came from Outer Space.
The film follows science writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend Ellen (Barbara Rush) who watch a ”meteor” fall down in the Mojave Desert. Naturally the meteor isn’t a meteor, but a spaceship. The two, along with a friend with a helicopter, are first at the spot of the crater, and when Putnam descends the big hole in the ground, he sees the ship, and gets a glimpse of one of the passengers. Or rather, one of the passengers gets a glimpse of him, as the scene is shot from the point of view of the alien, in a an eerie fisheye POV shot. Unfortunately, when the ship closes its hatch, it starts a small landslide, covering the vehicle with tons of rock.
Our poetic protagonist now turns into a prototype for Fox Mulder, a man who wants to believe and is determined to find out the truth. The press ridicules him with headlines of ”Star Gazer Sees Martians”, and Ellen is all but sacked from her job as a schoolteacher when she abandons classes to go alien-hunting. This doesn’t go down well with her former boyfriend Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake). Soon the crater becomes big news, but no-one believes Putnam’s crazy claims, not even his old professor Dr. Snell (George Eldredge). Even Ellen is sceptical, until, while driving through the desert, their car is met head-on by a ghostly image of a strange creature with a single, big eye. The only ones prepared to believe the couple are two phone line repairmen, Frank (Joe Sawyer) and his younger employee George (Russell Johnson). As Frank puts it in one of the best and most poetic scenes of the film, while fifteen feet up in the air by a telephone pole: ”After you’ve been working out in the desert fifteen years like I’ve have, you hear a lot of things. See a lot of things, too. Sun in the sky. The heat. All that sand out there. Sometimes rivers and lakes that aren’t real. And you think the wind gets in the wires and hums and listens …” And as a matter of fact, the wires have been humming and listening all since the meteor crashed.
Ironically, it is Frank and George who fall prey to one of the earliest cases of “invasion of the body snatchers”, as they are attacked by the ghostly figure seen before by John and Ellen. When John meets up with the pair later, now aware that they are aliens, they stand motionless in the dark, confronting him, their faces hidden by shadows. He explains that he wishes to understand and help them, and they explain that the best way to do that is to leave them alone and give them time. His friends are all right, they assure him, just temporary hostages until they are finished with their business on Earth. Leave us alone and no-one gets hurt, they assure John – interfere and terrible things will happen, ”more terrible than you can ever imagine”.
The sheriff slowly comes around to John’s story when the wives of the two repairmen (Kathleen Hughes and Virginia Mullen) report their husbands missing. Ellen also gets body-snatched, and turns up in the desert in a posh, small evening gown and a flowing scarf, and leads John to an abandoned mine, where the alien tells John that their spaceship crash-landed on Earth, and they need time to repair. They need supplies from town, and won’t reveal their true forms out of fear that the humans find them repulsive and scary, and as John later explains to the sheriff, all that we find scary, we instinctively lash out against in aggression. ”When you see a spider, what do you do?” he asks, and the sheriff squashes a spider under his boot, proving John’s point. ”Why? Because the spider has eight legs? Because it’s mouth moves sideways instead of up and down?” John demands. We fear what we don’t understand, and in our fear we resort to aggression. That much the aliens understand. And John should know, as the alien did reveal its true form to him, and it was indeed repulsive.
Finally it all comes down to a showdown between an angry Frankenstein-styled mob and the aliens trying to get their spaceship ready on time, threatening to kill the mob with their atomic beam. In the middle stands John, trying to negotiate and buy time for the aliens, while demanding the release of the hostages….
While big studios were catching up on science fiction, smaller outfits and independent producers did much of the heavy lifting in the early fifties. But Paramount had already opened the door with When Worlds Collide (1951, review) and Twentieth Century-Fox followed suit with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review). Universal opened the Pandora’s Box with It Came from Outer Space, not so much because it was a sci-fi, but because they believed it to be a good feature for their first 3-D film. The 3-D craze had been kicked off by Arch Oboler’s man-eating lion film Bwana Devil in 1952, and Paramount was producing a big 3-D feature called House of Wax, released just a month before It Came from Outer Space.
In the thirties Universal was the powerhouse of Hollywood when it came to horror sci-fi films, thanks to its long list of creature features, such as Frankenstein (1931, review), The Invisible Man (1933, review) and many others. But Universal-International, as it was known in 1953, was a radically different company. Most of the studio’s old war horses in the field were either dead or gone elsewhere, and regardless, the old gothic style of James Whale, Tod Browning or Robert Florey was seen as passé. The old age of gods and monsters wasn’t necessarily compatible with the new age of nuclear fear and flying saucers.
In short, Universal had no director in its stable with any experience with science fiction. Jack Arnold was still a young buck, best known for his work on short documentaries, one of which had earned him an Emmy nomination, but he convinced Universal that his passion for the genre and his vast collection of sci-fi comics made him an ideal director for the project.
For the story, producer William Alland went straight to the horse’s mouth and hired Ray Bradbury. Bradbury wasn’t yet the icon he is today, but he was one of the hottest sci-fi authors in the States, after his success with The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. Universal put him in a bungalow in Los Angeles, and he sat there hacking away at his typewriter for five weeks. Alland gave him the breifest of guidelines – a UFO and some aliens – but the rest was up to him. Bradbury initially gave Universal two treatments, one with benevolent aliens, another one with evil aliens. To his relief, the studio opted for the former. After his job was done, the story treatment was handed over to screenwriter Harry Essex to turn into a shootable script.
Essex had been a struggling writer even before WWII, doing odd jobs as a reporter, a short story writer and occasional playwrite, and was picked up by Columbia in the late forties, from where he moved to Universal in 1950. In 1953 most of his work consisted of little known film noirs, usually co-written with one or two other screenwriters. His biggest hits up to this had been the The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), adapted from a magazine article about a blonde bombshell spreading smallpox in the Big Apple, inspired by a real-life smallpox outbreak (the film starred Evelyn Keyes), as well as The Fat Man (1951), a film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s radio serial The Thin Man, starring a young Rock Hudson.
Bradbury only received story credit, while Essex was credited for the screenplay – these things make quite a difference when settling compensation for a script, and in Bradbury’s case, when he was trying to establish himself as a screenwriter. There has been a long-running debate over how much of the script Bradbury actually wrote, especially since Bradbury aficionados recognised several themes and lines that had the authors fingerprints all over them, such as the opening narration, the the exchange at the telephone pole, John’s musings about the deadliness of the desert and his speech about spiders and the fear of the unknown, just to name a few. However, Essex always maintained that he wrote the script, and that Bradbury merely contributed a short story. He stuck to his story many years later in an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, saying that Bradbury ”did a three-page short story”, nothing more. Not even when Weaver confronts him by saying that he personally has held in his hands a treatment by Bradbury over one hundred pages long, does Essex change his story, instead he says he was a bit stumped that Bradbury’s part in the writing was overemphasised. Bill Warren in his book Keep Watching the Skies! interviewed producer Alland, who was astonished that Essex kept repeating this story: ”Isn’t that sad, that he needs to do this?… Oh, that’s an outrage!”
Warren does give Essex some credit, though, stating that he was a competent screenwriter, and often knew what worked and what didn’t in Bradbury’s lengthy treatment. For example, some of Bradbury’s longer monologues have been condensed and broken up into dialogues, and a major change was making the aliens actual shape-shifters. Bradbury had written them as hypnotic beings, able to make people believe they looked like humans, when in fact they didn’t. However, states Warren, despite a few changes, the film is more or less written in its finished form in the last Bradbury treatment, complete with descriptions of sets, props, lighting, shooting angles, and even camera movements, sound effects and musical cues. Some of the scenes are shot exactly as Bradbury had described them.
Bradbury finally settled the dispute by publishing all of his four treatments in 2004. However, he had no ill will toward Essex, and in a 1974 interview with Albert R. Kunert, re-published in 2004, Bradbury said he had only himself to blame for being naive and not reading up on how Hollywood crediting worked. He hadn’t divided the treatment into clear scenes, and thus it could be treated as a ”story” despite it being more or less a finished script. He also said that as a beginning screenwriter, he didn’t feel he could demand to write the script and was happy to hand his treatment over to the pro, being Essex. He would have liked to have seen more of the scenes involving the telephone wires, but said he liked the evocative way in which the film prortrayed what little there was left of the theme. He also said that he didn’t like the fact that the movie showed the aliens. In his mind, they would have been more scary of left to imagination. But on the whole, Bradbury was very happy with the film, saying he liked it a lot.
It Came from Outer Space is by no means a masterpiece. The script is awkwardly structured, with Putnam going back and forth between locations ad nauseaum, and there are a few notable gaffes, such as the opening sequence of the burning spaceship approaching he camera. First of all, it is clearly hollow and filled with magnesium flares, and secondly, there is a clearly visible mirror on the left hand side of the screen. Despite all its philosophical ponderings, it is a heart a silly, pulpy, juvenile story about rubbery spacemen crashing on Earth in a UFO. There are great big gaps in logic and some of the effects are a bit obvious. The character of Ellen jumps and screams at the most bizarre things, like when a small boy shows up at her door in a spaceman costume (Bradbury hated this addition of Essex’). She even shudders when a small lizard crawls up from under a rock. And while there is much to like about the unique alien design, you can’t escape the fact that they look exactly like the big rubber blobs that they are – somewhat repulsive perhaps, but hardly scary and not just a tad comical.
Ray Bradbury lamented the fact that the aliens were shown, even though he understood that the studio wanted to have an actual creature in their creature feature. As a matter of fact, Jack Arnold didn’t want to show the aliens, either. In an interview for German TV, Arnold recounts that he was pressured by Universal’s marketing department to show the aliens, since the PR people had to have something to put on the poster. Arnold agreed, but on the condition that the aliens only show up for a few seconds on film.
Universal’s makeup department, headed by Bud Westmore, turned out two versions of the creature, one with two eyes and one with a single, large eye attached to a big, blobby head on top of an unwieldy, gelatinous body, with straggly hair and often surrounded by some kind of smoke or mist. The actual design of the alien was done by Milicent Patrick, a bit-part actress with a background in illustration and design. However, Westmore as the head of the department was given credit for the design of the xenomorph, leaving her unmentioned. Patrick went on to design the creature in The Creature from the Black Lagoon, again uncredited, another example of the rampant sexism in Hollywood in the fifties. She also did some takes on the classic monster masks for Abbott & Costello, and may well have done work on other films as well, that we don’t know about, since she lived a very private life and I can’t find any interviews or further records of her. Her discarded second design option of the alien was used as the Metaluna mutant in This Island Earth (1955, review)
One of the most unique features of the alien in It Came from Outer Space was that the aliens left behind a trail of glitter where they walked, or slithered, it is never made quite clear which, like a snail leaving its trail of mucus. In fact, much of this came from a psychedelic, dreamlike and fleeting description of the aliens that Bradbury himself had outlined in his treatment. Bradbury wrote that when seeing the aliens’ true forms, Ellen could see a kaleidoscope of stars, glitter, webs and spider legs, an ever changing array of features, some lizard-like, others human. However, I’m not sure that Bradbury was very happy with having all these elements on display in rubber suit all at the same time.
The one thing that makes this movie stand out is the use of the desert almost as a character, and the way in which Bradbury and Arnold work together to create a haunting atmosphere. There’s a feeling of man being alone in the vast, mysterious Mojave Desert, much like man is alone in the vastness of space. No space film to date had been able to truly capture this feeling, despite having their characters riding in spaceships among the stars. But in a desert, Bradbury and Arnold give the most haunting account of the loneliness of the universe seen up until that point on screen
Arnold works his actors superbly. I loved Richard Carlson the moment I saw him in The Magnetic Monster (1953, review). It Came from Outer Space was his second sci-fi film of 1953, and he went on to the pseudo-sci-fi movie The Maze (review) later that year. It Came from Outer Space was the film that established what would be known as the ”Richard Carlson character”, so prevalent in the science fiction films of the fifties. This was not a he-man hero of previous years, but a rather soft, intelligent hero, often a scientist, that often had a strong feeling of moral and ethics, and saved the day through wits, diplomacy and a kind heart, rather than with guns and brute force. Even though Carlson actually didn’t appear in that many sci-fi films, his few appearances resonated so strongly with both filmmakers and the audience, that he has since forever been helplessly linked to the genre, and to this particular character. See my review of The Magnetic Monster for more on Carlson. Carlson didn’t have a huge range, but within his limitations he had a wonderfully natural air about him, a warmth and humanity that radiates from the screen. You feel this is a man you can trust, a man who cares, and you root for him one hundred percent through the proceedings. You could stick Carlson in just about any crappy film, and he would save it merely through the strength of his personality. Here he sets the tone for the sort of underplayed restraint that Arnold superbly directs all his actors toward.
The duplicated humans are truly eerie, with their blank stares, lowered voices and almost robot-like purpose. Joe Sawyer and Russell Johnson were wonderfully cast as the two telephone linemen. Sawyer delivers the phone line and desert monologue with the poetic grace of any Shakespearian actor, trained as he was at the Pasadena Playhouse, and even had a stint on Broadway. Sawyer is best known for his Sgt. Biff O’Hara in the TV series Rin Tin Tin (1954-1959), but had behind him a prolific career as a bit-part player and character actor in the thirties and forties, often in westerns and Warner crime movies, but he appeared in every conceivable genre. That Bradbury would give the film’s best line to a telephone lineman is sweet, since this was his father’s profession, and is in line with the author’s faiblesse for working-class heroes.
Russell Johnson is equally impressive both as the pleasant junior lineman, and equally scary as the duplicated alien.
Another wonderful scene is the opening, with John and Ellen gazing stars together in their backyard, engaging in romantic banter. Immediately it is clear that Carlson and Barbara Rush had great chemistry, and Rush has since heaped praise on Carslon, not just for his acting talent, but for being ”a wonderful man”. As one reviewer wrote, one could just watch them go on for the whole movie. A fun detail is that John keeps telling Ellen to stay out of harms way, preferably in the car, which she never does. The longer the film progresses, he just seems to be repeating it for form’s sake.
Charles Drake’s character of Sheriff Warren is a testament to Bradbury’s writing. Despite being the instigator of a mob and the one character that keeps causing John and Ellen headaches, he never quite becomes the one-dimensional hate-mongerer that so often inhabits films like this. In fact, his reaction to John’s story about a crashed spaceship is quite natural, as is his frustration over a schoolteacher skipping class to go UFO-hunting. In the beginning of the film he even defends John as being ”a man who thinks for himself” and he always seems to actually have the security of his town in mind, and when he is wrong, he readily admits it. Even though he does gather a mob at the end, he is even then open to discussion and reason. An unusually well-drawn character.
As George’s saucy wife June we see Kathleen Hughes in an absurdly conical bra. Hughes was also used heavily in the promotion of the film – she was more prominently painted in the poster than Barbara Rush, and there’s an iconic promotional shot of her, screaming in terror, that has since become something of a symbol of frightened mentality of the fifties, whether it was the Commies or the nuclear bomb or the UFOs, and the picture has been used in advertising, artworks, for book covers, and has been endlessly copied and parodied. See the bottom of the post for the legendary picture.
Kathleen Hughes has been a regular guest at conventions in later years, and often shares the anecdote of how she became involved in the movie. In the fall of 1952, she was just coming off the success of her breakthrough film For Men Only, where her shapely figure and her sex appeal had turned her into an overnight star, and she was the was the glamour girl of the moment at Universal. Hughes says that she was called in one day and asked if she would mind doing some camera tests in a bathing suit for the 3-D cameras, ”probably because I was quite three-dimensional”, she jokes, and asked what they were testing for. The movie was already cast, but Hughes liked the script and found the small role of June, who only appears in one scene, which hadn’t been cast yet, and asked if she could possibly be allowed to do it. However, the studio brass didn’t think it was a good idea for her, who had just starred in the lead in a fairly successful film to do a tiny bit part, and according the Hughes, she had to nag on them for months to get the part.
The film is greatly helped by the atmospheric music, composed by the great trio of Irving Gertz, Herman Stein and Henry Mancini, who all worked as studio composers at the time, and provided scores for a number of Universal sci-fi films in the years to come. Mancini, of course, would create the memorable jazzy title music for the film The Pink Panther in 1963, which has since become one of the most recognisable musical pieces in the world, thanks to the subsequent animated films of said feline. At this time the theremin was already established as the instrument of space through radio and other films, and the filmmakers use it to create a theme for the aliens and to create an eerie feeling when we see the world and the protagonists through the eyes of the extraterrestrials. It would seem there were not too many theremin players in Hollywood at the time, since all the films up to 1953 engaged the services of the same man, Samuel Fuller. Fuller is also at hand in It Came from Outer Space.
Conventional knowledge at the time had it that the 3-D process didn’t allow for optical effects, which is why most early 3-D films relied almost exclusively on practical and in-camera effects. Apparently Jack Arnold wasn’t aware that optical effects didn’t work with 3-D, so he went along and used such anyway. And lo and behold, they work perfectly! There’s nothing too sophisticated, but the ghostly figures of the aliens ”attacking” cars and George’s hand materialising out of the mist are well done. Especially nice is the scene of Carlson finding the spaceship, a combination of miniature photography and live-action photography. The spherical ship is well designed by Robert F. Boyle, four times Oscar nominated, who worked on films like Invisible Agent (1942, review), North by Northwest (1959), Cape Fear (1962), The Thomas Crowne Affair (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and the sci-fi movie The Explorers (1985).
The visual effects were created by the Universal team led by David S. Horsley, a veteran who worked of films like The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), The Invisible Ray (1936, review), most of the Invisible Man films, and a number of sci-fi inspired Abbott & Costello movies. He went on to create the effects for Tarantula (1955) and This Island Earth (1955).
I could go on about the underlying political and social messages about xenophobia and the cold war mentality, but this is already a rather long post, and I suppose you get the drift. But if fact, it is interesting to notice, when I review these films in chronological order, how prevalent the theme of the benevolent alien was in the early fifties, while the general assumption is that most fifties sci-fi dealt with hostile beings from outer space. This was probably the case the longer the decade went on, but truly malevolent aliens were the exceptions up until the summer of 1953, when The War of the Worlds sprung the full-scale alien invasion on Hollywood.
It Came from Outer Space was actually one of more expensive SF movies of the fifties with a budget of 800,000 dollars. Not quite up there with The War of the Worlds, with a 2 million dollar budget, but not that far behind films like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which were both made on just above 1 million USD.
Before we get to the film’s reception, here’s a bit of of trivia: Although the word is never used in the actual film, the marketing department at Universal prominently featured the word ”xenomorph” (i.e. ”alien shapeshifter”) in the marketing of the film. This was probably the first time in Hollywood that the word was used for an alien, but it caught on and has since been featured heavily, not least in the Alien franchise.
It Came from Outer Space was part of the short 3D craze that lasted between 1952 and 1954, which undoubtedly added to the film’s draw. Whatever the case, it was a success at the box office, taking in 1,6 USD in ticket sales, double that of its budget, despite facing stiff competition from other SF movies. It won few accolades, but did earn Barbara Rush a Golden Globe as best female newcomer. In 2014 it was nominated for a Retro Hugo Award, which, predictably, went to The War of the Worlds.
It is hard to gauge what critics actually thought of the film itself, as most focused on reviewing the 3D, rather than the picture. The New York Times at least thought that was well done: “It Came From Outer Space is fair evidence that three-dimensional photography can be occasionally effective without resorting to violent optical tricks and gimmicks. As viewed through polaroid glasses, scenes from high on an eminence in the desert gave impressions of depth and true vastness, as did some medium shots of the principals against a backdrop of mesas and grotesque cactus.” Arthur Knight (yes, that was his real name) at The Saturday Review also noted the lack of “gimmicks”: “at least the producers of this film have refrained from throwing anything at the audience. And this raises an interesting question. Aside from a few shots photographed from inside the domed eye of the thing from outer space, there is very little about this film to suggest 3-D. Just how much, then, does depth really add to a movie?” Clyde Gilmour at Canadian Maclean’s wasn’t convinced: “Except for the gimmick value of fairly good 3-D photography and the reassuring thought that other planets may not want to destroy Earth, this is a quite conventional specimen of science fiction on the screen.” Variety, on the other hand, liked It Came from Outer Space: “Direction by Jack Arnold whips up an air of suspense […], and there is considerable atmosphere of reality created, which stands up well enough if the logic of it all is not examined too closely […] story proves to be good science-fiction for the legion of film fans who like scare entertainment, well done”.
It Came from Outer Space has a perhaps surprisingly low 6.5/10 rating on IMDb, based on over 8,500 reviews, but a good 79% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Speaking to the film’s unusual quality is the fact that in 2008, the American Film Institute included it among the 10 best American SF movies ever made, along with The Day the Earth Stood Still, which were the only two representatives of the fifties.
As the AFI Top 10 inclusion suggests, modern critics hold the movie in high regard. Even while Time Out’s critic does note the clichés and the occasionally stiff acting, they write that Arnold’s “compositions in depth are consistently interesting, and his sparing use of special effects keeps the level of visual interest high”, with “sparks of authentic pulp poetry”. Keith Phipps at the AV Club writes: “Jack Arnold will make no one’s list of the most influential directors of all time, but a look at the Arnold filmography suggests that maybe he should”. He writes that “it’s tempting to wish for the slightly more radical version” as outlined by Bradbury, and hat the film’s atmosphere is somewhat diminished by the “none-too-impressive, semi-mobile space-octopi”, but still: “the original retains its potent effect, a combination of Bradbury’s thoughtfulness, Arnold’s tendency to insert a social consciousness into his films, and outright gee-whizzery”.
TV Guide has since removed its star ratings, but originally gave It Came from Outer Space 3.5/4 stars: “One of the better science-fiction films to come out of the Cold War 50s, this one must be counted among the anti-McCarthy statements. Not just passively anti-conformist like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it actively supports the right of any being to be different. Unusually restrained and sober in tone for its time, It Came from Outer Space is a film noir variant on the sci-fi genre.” AllMovie gives it 4/5 stars, with Bruce Eder calling it “one of a handful of science fiction films from the 1950s that plays as well today as it did on its original release”, and “along with The Incredible Shrinking Man, one of the two most sophisticated films [Arnold] ever made in that genre”. At Slant Magazine, Ed Gonzales gives It Came from Outer Space a 3.5/4 star review, calling it “the granddaddy of the ‘50s atomic-scare pictures”; “It’s relatively easy to pinpoint the metaphors at work yet It Came From Outer Space remains especially evocative thanks to Jack Arnold’s 3-D savvy direction and the poetic tonality of the film’s dialogue”.
Among modern online critics there are, of course, those who aren’t swayed by the film’s reputation as a classic. Phil Hubbs, for example, gives it 4.5/5 stars, lamenting the lack of drama and action: “It’s not a bad movie it’s just very slow with nothing much to show in the outcome.” And I would have been severely disappointed if Andrew “zero stars” Wickliffe at The Stop Button had given it more than 1.5/4 stars: “It Came from Outer Space isn’t dated, its relevance has not passed. It’s just not good. Arnold doesn’t use his sets right and he doesn’t take any time with the scenes. He rushes and it feels rushed.” Then again, someone like Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant can criticise a movie without without losing sight of its qualities: “It Came From Outer Space still retains some magic but a general tameness and overfamiliarity with its themes have taken their toll. Luckily, its poetic qualities haven’t diminished.”
Most of my favourite online critics are sold on the movie. Richard Scheib at Moria gives it 4/5 stars: “Mostly, what carries It Came from Outer Space is its literate script and Jack Arnold’s atmosphere. The only quibbles one has is the conception of the alien, which is surely far too ungainly to be able to fly. The heavenly choruses that accompany its flight also seem to be overdoing it slightly. Otherwise, It Came from Outer Space is a genuine classic of the era. Jennie Kermode at Eye For Film awards the movie with 3.5/5 stars: “With Arnold more interested in building up tension than in all out monster action, this may disappoint some B-movie fans, but it has substance enough to appeal to many who might ordinarily shy away from the genre. The monsters, like most of their kind, look ridiculous today, but the ideas behind the film still resonate. It’s a simple film built with simple tools, but built very well.” And Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster calls it “stunning, by turns intelligent and poetic”.
I certainly don’t think that It Came from Outer Space is one of the ten best American SF movies ever made. Its pacing is somewhat off, and it does lack a certain something extra — but perhaps this is looking at it more from a Hollywood perspective. In tone and pace it more resembles a European art film, or perhaps some of the more thoughtful Mexican SFF movies we’ve seen in the last two decades. In this sense, it is a beautiful anomaly among fifties SF movies. The rubbery alien is cartoony, and showing it does detract from the otherwise unusually mature and atmospheric quality of the film — but I can understand the studio’s hesitancy to disappoint a horde of juvenile audience members who’ve come to the theatre to catch a glimpse of the next alien menace. And I do love the poetic notion of the creature leaving behind a trail of glitter. That’s so very Bradbury. The script is tight in its simplicity and would have held up for a shorter, one hour film, when at 75 minutes it occasionally feels somewhat stretched, but that’s a minor quibble. It is a thoughtful, poignant movie with its heart at the right place (or should we say left place?), challenging the gung-ho Mccarthyism of the era, and like most Arnold movies it is infused with an intelligent humanism. It not only defends, as TV Guide puts it “the right of any being to be different”, but also promotes a live-and-let-live foreign policy stance, with the hope that perhaps one day we may meet in curiosity and friendship, rather than in fear and animosity. Arnold beautifully interprets Bradbury’s poetic words in his visuals, capturing the uncertainty and fears of the American fifties, but also the cosmic awe felt by many as the universe was slowly opening up before our eyes and minds, with the desert as a stand-in for both the vastness of space and for American’s mental map of a new, terrifying world in which they knew not how to orient themselves. The feeling of being quite alone in a place which can kill you in a thousand different ways. When a Joshua tree caught in the headlights can make you jump in terror (in of the film’s few obvious 3D gimmicks), it is no wonder you bring out the Frankenstein posse when encountering an actual alien. Despite its flaws and weaknesses, It Came from Outer Space stands as one of the greatest SF movies produced in the fifties.
With the exception of perhaps Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Bradbury is probably the most commonly adapted sci-fi writer in the history of film, having written over 300 short stories and went on to provide scripts and treatments for dozens of other films and TV series. Either his stories or his original screenplays have been used in practically every science fiction anthology show on TV, from Arch Oboler’s Lights Out (1951, review) through Tales of Tomorrow (1953, review), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1956-62), The Twilight Zone (1962), its revamp (1985-86), and he even hosted his own show, The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1992), with 60 episodes based on his stories, with his own screenplays.
When it came to films, the finished product often failed to live up to Bradbury’s writing. Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was a famously troubled production, and even if the end result was undoubtedly original, one can’t help but feel that something was (literally) lost in translation when Truffaut wrote the screenplay without barely speaking a word of English (Truffaut read the book in English with a dictionary, wrote the screenplay in French, and then had it translated back into English). The 1969 adaptation of Bradbury’s other great novel, The Illustrated Man, was a mixed bag with a good deal of fresh ideas, but ultimately hampered by a clunky screenplay and a low budget, and for some reason shot in black and white. His best received film was probably the fantasy story Something Wicked This Way Comes, adapted by himself from his novel of the same name for Disney in 1983. The film won Saturn Awards for best writing and for best fantasy film of the year, and was nominated for a Hugo Award (The award went to Return of the Jedi). His 1993 animated children’s TV film The Halloween Tree, again adapted by Bradbury from his own book, won a Daytime Emmy. Bradbury was nominated for Hugo Awards for best dramatic presentation five times, but never won, and he wasn’t once nominated for an Oscar or Primetime Emmy. He even had to wait until 2004 to win a Hugo Award for his literary work, when his novel Fahrenheit 451 won a Retro Hugo (since no Hugos were awarded in 1954, when the book would originally have been eligible). It Came from Outer Space was actually nominated for a Hugo, as was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review). However, Bradbury didn’t actually have much to do with the writing of the script for that movie, despite the fact that it is credited as “suggested by the story The Foghorn by Ray Bradbury“
For Harry Essex, It Came from Outer Space was his only nomination for any kind of major award. He did, however, go on to co-write Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), which will forever stand as his crowning achievement, and is considered by some fans to be the best of all Universal’s creature features (although I strongly disagree). His film career teetered out though, and he soon found himself doing guest writing for TV shows. Somehow he found himself writing the film The Sons of Katie the Elder for Henry Hathaway in 1965, a film starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, but then he disappeared from the scene until he resurfaced again in early seventies. After co-writing Bill Cosby’s feature film debut Man and Boy (1971), he tried to ride the coat-tails of his Creature of the Black Lagoon fame in writing, producing and directing the low-budget schlocker Octaman (1971), and a year later he tried to do an adaptation of an early fifties pulp magazine story called The Dune Roller, which was adapted into an episode of Tales of Tomorrow in 1952, and originally written by author Julian C. May. Essex again directed and wrote the screenplay, this time Roger Corman was on board as co-producer, and the result was The Cremators, a film so bad that even the most hardcore bad movie fans seem to huddle together in foetal position by it. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s 2,1 rating on IMDb says enough. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a lower score on the site (OK, so Jurassic Shark has 1,5). In retrospect, with these films as a bookending to his career, it is perhaps understandable that Essex clung so greedily to the glory of his few successes.
Russell Johnson would go on to appear in This Island Earth (1955), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), and The Space Children (1958), and a number of sci-fi TV series, including The Twilight Zone (1960-61), The Outer Limits (1964), and Wonder Woman (1978). He will always be best remembered, however, for playing the Professor in the beloved TV series Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967), and its numerous film adaptations and spinoffs, including the slightly less loved sci-fi series Gilligan’s Planet (1982).
Barbara Rush was an established leading lady in B movies at the time, and had already starred in When Worlds Collide. Like in that film, she is not bad, but sort of bland, and never really reaches the same heights as in the opening scene, which partly has to do with her thinly written character. But she is stunning in that evening gown. In 1954 she got her first break in a bona fide A movie, but despite starring in some serious A dramas, she was never able to cement her place as a movie star, and more or less gave up film acting for TV and the stage in the late fifties. Her best remembered TV role is probably as Martha Russell in Peyton Place (1968-1969). She guest starred in both the original The Outer Limits series, as well as the remake in an episode in 1998. She played a visiting villain, the militant feminist Nora Clavicle, in two episodes of the Batman series in 1968 and appeared in The Bionic Woman in 1976 and Knight Rider in 1983. She returned to the stage, where she can occasionally be spotted even today. In later interviews, Rush has revealed that It Came from Outer Space was just another movie for her, and she didn’t think much about it either way, revealing much of what it must have been like working as a contract player in the golden age of Hollywood. She did remember having fun on set, though.
Kathleen Hughes played the blonde bombshell femme fatale in a number of films, perhaps best remembered for the schlocker Cult of the Cobra (1955). Her best work is perhaps in another Jack Arnold film from 1953, The Glass Web, which she considered her favourite. Film roles quickly dried up, though, and she transitioned to TV, where she continued to do sporadic work through the sixties and seventies, with the odd film role here and there. In 1990 she had a bit-part as a mother superior in Tony Scott’s film Revenge, starring a Kevin Costner, an Anthony Quinn and a Madeleine Stowe.
Other semi-known faces in the cast include Gunsmoke regular George Selk, as well as minor western star and stuntman Kermit Maynard. As the professor’s assistant we see the rather miscast Bradford Jackson, who looks more like a football jock than a research assistant. Jackson did a number of bit-parts in movies, and is probably best known for his substantial role in the Roger Corman film The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), a film I’m sure Corman titled thus just to fuck with theatre owners.
William Alland went on to produce almost all of Universal’s science fiction films in the fifties, sometimes with Jack Arnold at the helm. Jack Arnold, as mentioned, went on to become one of the most important directors in science fiction. He never gained the A film recognition of Robert Wise or Howard Hawks. Neither is he considered a visionary of the calibre of George Pal. He was never first to the target. Aliens were staple when he made It Came from Outer Space, and Tarantula came out a year after the giant ant film Them! (1954, review). However, with both of these films, he brought a level of sophistication, both intellectually and artistically, to what might have been just cheap schlock pictures.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) has its flaws, but easily rises above most the rest of the Frankenstein-inspired creature features of the fifties, and helped rejuvenate the subgenre once more (unfortunately, some would say). Beautifully filmed, and inspired by The Beauty and the Beast, it is one of the most poetic science fiction films of the decade. Often considered his crowning achievement, The Incredible Shrinking Man certainly wasn’t the first movie to deal with shrinking people, but the one that is still considered the real pioneer of the genre, and inspired a bunch of inferior copy-cats, who often settled for enlarging people instead. The film is rightly praised for its technical achievements, but equally for its psychological and philosophical depth. He didn’t only direct, but also came up with the story treatments for Tarantula and surprisingly good The Monolith Monsters (1957), and acted as second unit director on the cult classic This Island Earth. Not all of his films are of the highest quality. Revenge of the Creature (1955, review) was a decent, but not spectacular, sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, Monster on Campus (1958) was a shoddily produced Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde callback and The Space Children, while ideologically interesting, was produced on a shoestring budget from a rather confusing script.
Arnold still had the chance to make one more classy film in 1959, The Mouse that Roared, a British Columbia production (as in the film studio Columbia in Britain, not the Canadian province) that satirises the cold war. The clever comedy features Peter Sellers in multiple roles and helped make him an international star. After this Arnold moved into TV, and worked on a large number of series, including some sci-fi. In 1960 he made the underwater pop comedy Hello Down There, about a family living in a submerged house, and made a string of cheap exploitation films in the mid-seventies.
It Came from Outer Space. 1953, USA. Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Ray Bradbury & Harry Essex. Starring: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes, Virginia Mullen, Robert ”Buzz” Henry, George Eldredge, Bradford Jackson, Kermit Maynard, George Selk. Music: Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, Herman Stein. Cinematography: Clifford Stine. Editing: Paul Weatherwax. Art direction: Robert F. Boyle, Bernard Herzburn. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman, Ruby R. Levitt. Xenomorph design: Milicent Patrick. Makeup artist: Bud Westmore. Sound: Glenn E. Anderson, Leslie I. Carey. Visual effects: David S. Horsley, Roswell A. Hoffman. Produced by William Alland for Universal-International.