Synopsis: Amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) is a fairly recent arrival in the small town of Sand Rock, Arizona. The locals view him as something of a harmless eccentric, as he doesn’t have a regular 9 to 5 job and spends a lot of time at night peering up at the sky with a telescope.
As the movie opens Putnam is entertaining schoolteacher Ellen Fields at his house at the edge of town. The clock strikes midnight, and when Putnam comments that people will talk if the townspeople know she is at his house so late, she replies, “Let them — they do it anyway.” Putnam tells her that he got a check for selling an article earlier in the day, and they talk playfully about him being financially able to support her in marriage. As they go out to Putnam’s telescope to look at the night sky, they hear a loud roar and see a fireball come out of space and crash nearby.
Using the telescope to view where it came down, they realize that the meteor has crashed near the abandoned Excelsior mine. Recruiting local helicopter pilot Pete to fly them to the site, they survey the smoldering crater, until Putnam decides to climb down for a closer look.
Far down in the crater, Putnam is astonished to see a huge, spherical spacecraft, covered with hexagonal panels. One of the panels appears to be a door of some kind, but as Putnam approaches it slams shut. The slamming of the portal triggers a rock slide; the ship is buried as hundreds of tons of rock and earth fall onto it, and Putnam barely escapes with his life. When he tells Ellen and Pete what he saw, they seem skeptical.
When Sheriff Matt Warren and the local newspaper editor arrive on the scene, Putnam recklessly tells them what he saw, despite Helen’s pleas for him not to. As a result, Putnam is branded as a publicity-seeking nut by the media. Driving home, Putnam and Ellen see a weird ghostly shape on the road, which they momentarily believe they’ve hit with the car; but when they stop there is nothing there.
Near the town they meet Frank and George, a pair of telephone lineman. Frank says he has been hearing strange sounds on the phone lines that he’s never heard before. Someone, he says, might be tapping the line. Shortly after after leaving the site, Frank and George encounter a shape on the road similar to what Putnam and Ellen saw, but when they stop the truck is enveloped by a strange mist.
Later, Putnam and Ellen go back to find Frank and George, but find the truck pulled over to the side of the road, the driver’s side door open. There is blood on the door but no one is there. Fifty yards or so from the road they find George, who is acting strangely; he speaks in an odd, detached tone and keeps staring directly into the sun. Putnam notices a body lying behind a nearby rock, which he assumes is Frank, and he and Ellen walk away. They drive into town and convince Sheriff Warren to go with them. But when they return the truck is gone.
Later, Frank and George are seen walking around town, and the Sheriff mocks Putnam for his suspicions. But when Putnam corners Frank and George they tell him they are beings from the ship who are masquerading as townspeople, and they need time to get their ship free. The real Frank and George, along with the other people of Sand Rock they have kidnapped, are safe only as long as Putnam agrees not to interfere….
Comments: It Came From Outer Space is often cited as Jack Arnold’s first feature film, but it wasn’t; he’d previously directed a teenagers-gone-wrong melodrama called Girls in the Night at Universal for Albert J. Cohen. It Came From Outer Space might be more accurately described as his first successful feature, as well as his first foray into science fiction, the genre with which he would forever be associated.
Arnold always regarded himself as a craftsman, and that was a good description of his body of work as a director. He turned mediocre scripts into good movies, and good scripts into minor masterpieces. It Came from Outer Space was one of the latter.
It Came From Outer Space invented a lot of what are now regarded as standard tropes of 1950s sci-fi cinema: the small desert town setting, the athletic scientist-hero, the skeptical town sheriff, the mysterious visitors with inscrutable motives. These were all story elements brought to the table by Ray Bradbury, who had written the unusually lengthy (110-page) treatment for the screenplay. Harry Essex is credited with the screenplay itself, but there has always been controversy about just how much work Essex actually did on it. Tom Weaver maintains that Essex was simply a hack who put Bradbury’s detailed treatment into screenplay format and then spent the rest of his life taking credit for it.
While it’s true that Essex has exaggerated his own contributions over the years, the work he did had value; Bradbury’s dialogue was simply too florid and overwrought for the screen. His characters tended to give long speeches instead of talking like human beings. Most of what Essex did was to cut down the speeches into lines an actor could reasonably say. The only dialogue that sounds like Bradbury in the finished film was the speech by the gently philosophical telephone lineman Frank. “After you’ve been working out in the desert for 15 years like I have,” Frank says, “you hear a lot of things. See a lot of things, too. Sun in the sky, and the heat, and all that sand out there with the lakes and rivers that aren’t real at all. And sometimes you think the wind gets in the wires and hums and whistles and talks, just like what we’re hearing now.”
The movie benefits from its intelligent premise, its humane outlook and from the aura of mystery that it builds right from the start. Its pace is deft enough to conceal the plot weaknesses for much of the running time. Putnam and Ellen drive around rather aimlessly in the first third of the movie, looking for something strange or suspicious in the area near the crater, but they don’t seem to have any idea of what they are looking for; they tell Frank and George to let them know if they “see something” but don’t confide to them what they themselves saw the night before.
But overall the movie is simply great fun, with aliens showing up in a sleepy small town, walking around right under the noses of the townspeople. When their aims become clear the conflict between Putnam and Sheriff Warren is easy for us to accept: what do the aliens really want, and to what extent should we believe what they say?
Aside from the well-written script, the movie also benefits from some very strong performances. Richard Carlson brings a genuine warmth and sense of wonder as Putnam, who is not just an egghead but an athletic guy who keeps a .38 revolver in the glove compartment of his car, just in case things get dicey. Barbara Rush’s Ellen Fields is a bit too good to be true as written, but she acquits herself quite well in the role.
But for my money the best performance in the film belongs to Charles Drake as Matt Warren, the no-nonsense sheriff who is forced to trust Putnam — whom he clearly believes is a fool — against his better judgement. Even more than meteor investigator Dr. Snell, Warren represents the rational and skeptical viewpoint; his grounded point of view is important when Putnam is speculating wildly about the aliens’ mode of operation and ultimate aims. Drake brings a sincerity and decency to the role that’s more subtle than he’s often given credit for.
The Crosby Case
Synopsis: A man blunders out of a Manhattan office building onto the street and is hit by a cab driven by Sam Collins (Warren Hymer). Collins gets out of the cab, decides the man he hit is dead, and gets back into the cab and drives away. The doorman Mike Costello (J Farrell MacDonald) is the first to get to the body, and he declares that the man is Dr. Crosby, who is a tenant, and discovers he was shot before being run over.
Dogged police inspector Thomas (Alan Dinehart) — trailed by a smart-alec reporter (Skeets Gallagher) quickly rounds up the people who would have wanted to see the doctor dead, and there are plenty to choose from: the glamorous Lynn Ashton (Wynne Gibson) was known to be both Crosby’s lover and his patient; airmail pilot Francis Scott Graham (Onslow Stevens) was known to have been mixed up in the doctor’s questionable medical shipments; Willie McGuire (John Wray) was a wheedling mob stool pigeon who knew the mobsters with a beef against him; Professor Franz Lubeck (Edward van Sloan) also held a grudge against Crosby and might be trying to frame Graham, and Sam Collins himself, who may or may not have hit the doctor accidentally with his cab.
The police put Ashton and Graham alone in the same room together, and we learn that the two have been lovers and that Graham had reason to be jealous of Ashton’s interactions with Crosby. But since the police had the room bugged, they now have reason to believe the two were both involved in Crosby’s murder….
Comments: Like The Phantom of Crestwood, this likable pre-code whodunit talks around the sordid activities of the murder victim, but just barely. We gather that Crosby was both an abortionist and a drug dealer, messing around with women who, like Lynn Ashton, we supposed to be his patients. We get plenty of suspects in this opus, and plenty of juicy motives for murder.
The pacing of the film is a bit slow, as was often true of pre-code fare like this, but the murder mystery at the center is solid and plays fair with the audience.
Wynne Gibson gets top billing in this picture, and she’s a winning presence, balancing a world-weariness with small flashes of exuberant charm. Onslow Stevens is reassuringly sturdy here, and plays Graham as both a likable antihero and unlikely red herring — what kind of innocent man, after all, would be so unconcerned about being a murder suspect?
Skeets Gallagher plays the reporter following the case from start to finish (rather improbably) at the invitation of the cops. He’s a bit better here than in The Phantom of Crestwood, where he was strictly comic relief, but his delivery still grates. The oddest thing about his character’s presence is that it’s completely unnecessary to the plot. Murder mysteries of the early 1930s often had a newspaper reporter in a prominent role, apparently because lots of other films had them. The reporter character would fade as time went on, usually confined to poverty-row stinkers, but they became a staple of noir thrillers like Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and Call Northside 777 (1948).