It Came from Outer Space depicts the story of Johnny Putnam (Richard Carlson), a science writer living in the desert town of Sand Rock, a hamlet "sure of the future...so very sure." Johnny and his girlfriend, Ellen (Barbara Rush) spy a mysterious, fiery meteor crash to the ground one evening while stargazing, and after investigating the enigma, attempt to convince the sheriff (Charles Drake) and the local press that an alien ship has actually landed at the bottom of the newly-formed crater. Meanwhile, the meteor - a damaged extra terrestrial vehicle - is buried in a rock slide, making Putnam's truthful story look all the more unlikely.
But soon, strange things begin to occur in Sand Rock. Two telephone repairmen, Frank (Joe Sawyer) and George (Russell Johnson) disappear in the desert, then re-appear in town, strangely altered...unemotional. Putnam learns that benevolent aliens are indeed visiting Sand Rock, seeking electronic parts to repair their damaged craft. They boast the capability to change form to disguise themselves (and their hideous, true nature...), and are holding many townspeople, including Frank, George -- and ultimately Ellen -- hostage while they use their images. All that these aliens ask is the time they need to correct the damage to their vessel, but the town sheriff, Warren, grows increasingly paranoid and organizes a mob, a posse, to take back the missing townspeople, spurring a dangerous final conflict. Now it's up to Putnam to help the stranded aliens, lest they resort to violence and kill the woman he loves.
I call It Came from Outer Space a mood piece because much of the considerable suspense (and eeriness) of the film generates from one finely crafted element: a a remarkable sense of place, in this case, the town of Sand Rock and the desert surrounding it. This is a town in the American West, but it is a frontier in more than one sense. It is the frontier of human/alien contact.
The film opens with another one of those great, portentous 1950s voice-over narrations and a terrific visual. A slow-moving camera ascends over a craggy mountain which overlooks the small town. "This is Sand Rock, Arizona, a nice town knowing the past and sure of its future," Carlson intones as Arnold's camera climbs the rocky monolith (which could be Mars, or the moon, for that matter...) only to reveal below a tiny town carved out of inhospitable desert wasteland...a monument to human ingenuity and pioneer spirit.
Later, Carlson describes this desert as "alive and waiting...ready to kill you if you go too far...there's a thousand ways the desert can kill...," and to support that assertion, Arnold's deliberate, slow-moving camera never loses track of this realm that feels so alien. For instance, there are multiple shots of telephone poles (and wires) in the desert, overlooking vast, empty highways. These ubiquitous man-made outcroppings symbolize the only connection between towns (and therefore civilization) in that vast, barren region. Again and again, the camera tracks at almost eye-level with the telephone wires, gazing down on a speeding car or truck, and all the action is thus braced by this reminder of man's attempt to control and manage the harsh terrain.
There's a great (and now classic) sequence in It Came from Outer Space wherein telephone repairman George asks Johnny Putnam to listen to the sounds coming across the wires...a kind of strange, unfamiliar, but oddly beautiful, song. "Sometimes you think the wind gets in the wire and talks," Frank describes, and this idea of mystery and things-not-yet-understood-by-man fits in perfectly with the alien mystery. Forget outer space for the moment, there are some places on Earth we still haven't mastered, and I think that's certainly part of It Came From Outer Space's subtext and moody undercurrent.
Outside of the desert's chaotic terrain, there's another beautifully composed shot that captures the mystery of the alien menace perfectly. In a wonderfully creepy moment that still gives me the chills thinking about it, Putnam finds the "alien" versions of Frank and George hiding in a narrow hallway in the town. These two man stand braced by the narrow walls in darkness, their faces blackened by shadows, their true nature uncertain...inscrutable. Rarely in cinema history has a sense of the uncertainty been captured more palpably. The visual imagery - of two men who should be "friends" but instead represent the unknown -- tells us everything we need to know about the nature of Putnam's fear and the threat our world could face. Or more appropriately, how we would react to a perceived threat.
I know the film was made over fifty years ago, but I was rather impressed with the design of the alien creatures in their "true" form. The aliens appear not remotely humanoid, but neither are they ridiculous and utterly fanciful. There are recognizable elements there - a bulbous head; a shroud of long, icky hair, and of course, a cyclopean eye. But because the aliens are often depicted in the fog, the well-placed mist covers up any obvious problems with the alien costume. For me, their appearance works well, and I enjoyed how Arnold also relied on the tried-and-true technique of the P.O.V. stalk shot, the first-person subjective shot from the alien's perspective. That made the movie all the more creepy. Another fine detail: the aliens leave a glittering slime trail wherever they go. Ick.
The screenplay by Harry Essex (story by Ray Bradbury) reminded me of a good Twilight Zone (which came several years after It Came from Outer Space...) in that an alien encounter reveals more about human nature than it does about an extraterrestrial threat. Here, Putnam tries his best to avoid violence...and yet still kills an alien. The Sheriff is even worse...unable to wrangle his fear and resorting to the mob mentality. I felt it daring that the villains in the film - the sheriff and his men - carry rifles and wear cowboy hats, because those accouterments clearly went hand-in-hand with the silver screen heroes of the age (cowboys). One thing is certain, we don't want cowboys managing our first contact with aliens...
On the other hand, I did have to laugh at the characterization of Ellen. Twice during the film, she screams in horror at things we wouldn't even take note of. The first time, she lets loose a blood-curdler at a Joshua Tree. The second time, she yelps in terror at a kid wearing a Space Cadet helmet. In Ellen's character, It Comes From Outer Space shows its age (and context.) We still needed our women to be retreating, fearful and in need of rescue. In other words, a damsel in distress.
Finally, there's a great moment in It Came From Outer Space when Putman makes an example of Sheriff Warren's urge to kill that which he doesn't understand. In the desert, the two men debate about the aliens, and Warren kills a spider...all because it's different, because he doesn't understand it. Putnam's point is that we can't be trusted (yet) to go to space and deal with aliens because we would kill that which we don't understand...just the way we kill a spider in the desert.
Watching It Came from Outer Space, I wondered if humanity has changed all that much in fifty years. Are we yet ready for that first contact with beings from another world? "It wasn't the right time for us to meet," says Carlson at film's end. "But there'll be other nights, other stars to watch..."
I wonder how we'll do on that night...