Nostalgia: 1950s 3-D films:
Who Is Watching Whom? Point Of View in
IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE
by Charles J. Garard
That kid on the front row of his father’s small-town movie theatre was me, looking up at the wide screen while wearing my 3-D glasses and surrendering my burden of personal consciousness to the science-fiction plot.
Film theorists suggest that the act of viewing a motion picture, particularly in a theatre, causes audiences to temporarily lose their burden of personal consciousness. Although they may identify with the characters on the screen, they need assume no responsibilities. However, certain cinematic processes such as Cinerama, Panavision, 70mm prints with six-channel Dolby stereo, IMAX screens, and 3-D more actively involve movie viewers. When any of these filming and projection methods are combined with the subjective point of view, viewers may feel that they are not only participants but in control of the characters. In Jack Arnold’s 3-D film IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), viewers are given control over the earthlings because the point of view when they confront the aliens is from the aliens’ perspective.
This film was not the first to rely heavily on the subjective camera (see LADY IN THE LAKE 1946), nor the last (see those FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH movies that put the audience members in the position of a brutal serial killer); however, the fact that the characters here distrust what they see, and further, relinquish control of their own lives to the aliens makes this otherwise standard science-fiction entry in this over-stuffed 1950s genre worthy of another look. The point of view causes the viewers to identify with both earthlings as fearful victims as well as with the controlling aliens — the watched as well as the watchers. With earthlings as their doubles, viewers are able to recognize their own fear of loss of control; when they view the earthlings from the aliens’ perspective, however, they are able to determine the significance of this loss.
Three-dimensional cinematography, by its very nature, involves audiences subjectively; they can see the characters on the screen as cinematic doubles of themselves. Since the film is shot in black-and-white, the real as rendered by this Natural Vision process may be thought less real than those films shot in color as well as in 3-D. But even in monochrome, 3-D can transform the Arizona desert into a life-sized, museum-like exhibit that we could, if permitted, step into as easily as stepping through a window frame. Unfortunately, the controls on this window to the plastic world have been carelessly manned. The 3-D craze was short lived; despite ongoing attempts to resurrect it with such films as the re-issued 3-D version of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (2006) and Imax features, 3-D has never re-emerged to repeat the mass appeal magic of all those gimmicky but exciting 3-D films of the 1950s (like HOUSE OF WAX, THE MAZE, PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE, SANGAREE, MAN IN THE DARK, GUN FURY, HONDO with John Wayne, INFERNO, DEVIL’S CANYON, KISS ME KATE, TAZA SON OF COCHISE, two of the three Creature of the Black Lagoon movies, and the first-out-of-the-gate BWANA DEVIL.)
The protagonist’s telescope, the golfball-like spaceship itself, and the rocks of a huge avalanche are the most notable 3-D effects, and in this film they seem less gimmicky than in other early 3-D efforts. However, the protruding cyclops eyeball of each alien meant to penetrate the personal consciousness of the audiences might irritate some viewers in the same manner that the spears and arrows do in THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER, jolting them from their comparatively relaxed involvement of the subjective forward tracking shots through the desert. Unfortunately, the polarized 3-D prints used in the 1950s have been largely replaced by the red-and-green anaglyph versions shown in theatres and, in some cases, on television. Recently, at the end of November (2006), the independent PLAZA Theatre on Ponce De Leon in Atlanta, Georgia, ran a one-day showing of the film in 3-D. However, most of us today view IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) in its flat, two-dimensional version on television showings or in DVD/VHS versions.
Even in two-dimensional viewings, without these 3-D protrusions from the screen, the subjective perspective of the camera is not only evident but is still powerful, and therein lies its significance. For our purpose, the fact that the film was originally shot in 3-D is no longer of major concern. It is the point of view of the aliens that intrigues critical scholars decades later, the subjective camerawork showing the earthlings through the cyclops eyes of the aliens. This point of view allows the audience to see the earthlings as victims. The residents of the sleepy desert town of Sand Rock, Arizona, find themselves enveloped in the billowing fog that borders the perspective of the viewers while the viewers themselves stalk victims from behind the bubble-eye of an alien. When the protagonists are captured, the viewers participate in their abduction the way viewers of the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH movies participate in the murders of horny teenagers at Crystal Lake. When two miners, one of whom could be Gabby Hayes’ twin brother, emerge from a mine shaft entrance, the viewers participate in their capture. The characters look toward the camera as the misty arms of the audience reach out to enfold them. Even when linemen (Russell Johnson and Joseph Sawyer) drive along the desert road in daylight, the audience tracks them from a moving high angle that could hardly be the point of view of an earthling. Both of these perspectives give the audience, as well as the aliens, a sense of control over the earthlings. These two affable linemen, Frank and George, tease resident amateur astronomer and writer John Putnam* (Richard Carlson) about the “riding” that the townspeople and the media have been giving him for insisting that he saw aliens from space, yet they prove to be just as mystified by the sights and sounds of the desert. George tells Putnam and Ellen that Frank, who listens to a tap he has placed on the wire, “is sure hearin’ things.” Putnam scales the ladder to listen through this phone tap, and, in one of the effectively haunting scenes from a 1950s science-fiction film, the audience also hears the whining — an eerie, high-pitched musical refrain that exploits our fear of, and fascination with, the unknown.
The ladder which John climbs extends out into the audience, inviting us to share his paranoia when Frank suggests that someone might be listening to them the way they are listening to whatever is on the line. Neither sight nor sound is to be trusted in the desert sun. As Frank points out: “After you’ve been working out on the desert fifteen years like I have, you hear a lotta things. See a lotta things too. The sun in the sky. Heat. All that sand out there. The rivers and lakes that aren’t real at all. And sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires and hums and listens and talks. Just like what we’re hearing now. Still hear it?” Putnam no longer hears the walking wind; it becomes one of the mysteries of the film that he never unravels. He merely knows that something is tapping into his life, listening and watching him with a cool intelligence.** Because this something has not revealed its identity or its purpose while it continues to manipulate people and events like a cosmic film director, it maintains the control that Putnam has clearly lost.
[Note * After Putnam presents Dr. Snell with an article unimaginatively titled “Report on the Arrival of Strangers from Outer Space” and walks away, his former mentor refers to Putnam as an intense young man. The assistant calls Putnam “an odd one,” and Snell responds: “More than odd, Bob. Individual and lonely. A man who thinks for himself.” Putnam has already been called an amateur astronomer by a surly local newspaperman who prints a story with the unlikely headline: “Stargazer Sees Martians.” Pete, the helicopter pilot who first flies Putnam and Ellen to the site of the UFO crash, tries to warn Putnam, as does Ellen, not to tell the others what he “thinks” he has seen, and expresses surprise that Putnam is going back to Sand Rock. He tells him that the townspeople will not let him “walk around in the open.”]
[Note **History majors and film scholars need not be reminded of the political climate during the time when the film was made.]
After George tells Frank about a date that he has with Jane (Kathleen Hughes) that night, the two are captured by one of the cyclops aliens who protrudes his eye from the screen. For a moment, the audience is no longer safe in the theatre seats, yet once we are scrutinized by the alien intelligence, we are invited to become part of it; we see this later when Putnam and Ellen (Barbara Rush) encounter George’s zombie-like duplicate in a scene again effectively photographed from the alien’s point of view. The bubble representing the solitary eye and the sparkling mist surrounding it both condense into a solid replica of George’s arm an instant before it touches Ellen’s shoulder. The hand that does actually make contact appears to be completely human, but we know that it is not. The alien inadvertently reveals himself to Putnam and Ellen by staring point blank at the sun and by speaking in a voice that sounds as if it had been recorded in a tin shed. Putnam knows that what he thinks he sees is an illusion, but he rationalizes his confusion over identities by again blaming the sun for playing tricks on him. Unable to cope with the fact that they are now the investigated, not the investigators, the watched and the watchers, he ignores any edge which the revolver he carries might give him and drags Ellen back to town to get the sheriff.
As the audience, we share Putnam’s frustration at not being able to convince anyone of the presence of the aliens. Putnam is an ineffectual adolescent in the face of “parental authority figures” like the professor, the pushy newspaper reporter, the Army major, and particularly the small-town sheriff until he fights with the sheriff (Charles Drake) and takes his gun away. He has failed to use a gun against the obviously superior force of the aliens, yet the weapon grants him temporary equality with his peers and power over the authority figure. He has regained at least a limited amount of control over his life.
Curiously, the audience remains in a neutral position when Putnam grapples with the sheriff, even though the 3-D process could place the audience within range of thrown punches, flying chairs, and phallic gun barrels. Directors of other 3-D films have exploited the depth process by including such gimmicks, but Arnold resists the overkill temptation by reserving the first-person point of view for the sequences in which the aliens directly contact the earthlings. Like a boy who whistles in the dark to mask his fears, Putnam tells the unseen alien who speaks to him from inside the mine to “stand out in the sun.” Putnam reveals that he cannot trust what he cannot see, even though he knows that his vision in the brightly lit desert is not trustworthy. When the alien, who insists that he and his fellow travelers have souls and minds and “are good,” reveals himself to be a cyclops more frightening than Polyphemus but much more civilized (he doesn’t eat visitors the way that the son of Poseidon devours the men of Odysseus), Putnam turns away in horror.
The fact that the eye of this cyclops often penetrates the space around it as well as the space beyond the screen in 3-D showings substantiates such a reading, and both of these fears represent, for many, a loss of control or power (a figure which the sheriff, more than Putnam, represents). Even in the daylight, however, Putnam has been blind, unlike the other humans who have not caught a glimpse of the roving eye, he becomes aware of his handicap — his loss of control. Even though the alien has identified his race as “good,”he frightens Putnam by imparting the requested knowledge. Knowledge, after all, has a price. Even when he does “see” what is going on, he cannot share this vision; he can only realize that he, like the sheriff and the others, is definitely not in control.
When the aliens capture Ellen and create a double that can be sent forth to entrap Putnam, the audience sees her abduction from her perspective as she honks at Frank’s duplicate in the middle of the road, then from the alien’s point of view as the duplicate apparently drops its disguise to become the reality that terrified Putnam earlier. The point of view prevents the audience from seeing the alien’s visage a second time. This alien’s-eye view gives the audience, whether or not they are wearing their 3-D glasses, the perspective of a judge with cool, superior intellect, but the people they are observing and judging are not others — not members of the starship Enterprise distanced from their lives by centuries — but themselves; viewers can see their own frailties and limitations that these characters embody. These characters really are doubles created for an audience to view and — through the aliens — observe, judge, and control.
Curiously, Ellen’s double appears to be less benevolent then the other aliens; when Putnam and the audience see the mysterious figure atop the hill, she wears a black evening gown with a flowing scarf instead of the conservative schoolteacher suit she wears during her abduction. The double’s mere presence, resembling the heroine on the cover of a romantic paperback novel as well as a film noir heroine or femme fatale, compels Putnam to follow, which she does. However, she remains beyond his — and our — reach because her function is to lure him to the entrance of the mine, to the threshold of the heart of darkness which he is not yet ready to enter. After all, he does not trust his visual judgment in the daylight. How can he expect to fare better in the dark?
However, Putnam does gain the courage to penetrate the darkness and journey toward its center. He encounters there the double of Ellen who informs him that he can no longer be trusted. She tries to lure him into the River Styx that separates them, then attempts to kill him with a phallic wand (which, in 3-D, protrudes from the screen like the sword of Achilles). When she shoots a white ray at him like Harry Potter and his friends sending a powerful force from their magic wands, the perspective is that of the alien; the audience participates in the attempt to penetrate him and to kill him. This power in her hand is ineffectual, however, as it swings in a wide swath above his head. Despite their power, the aliens (and the audience, since they see this from the alien’s point of view) are unable to destroy the human original (and viewer counterpart). He fires a revolver at her, penetrating her shell (and the audience’s); the alien and the audience fall into the gulf between them. Since never again in the film are any on-screen activities or earthlings seen from the point of view of the aliens, both Putnam and the audience have achieved a state of awareness. Instead, they confront the doubles and their originals — the captives.
Putnam takes viewers deeper into the labyrinth in search of a cyclops or two where he encounters his own double wearing his clothing — but clothing that is unlike the dull suits he usually wears. This double, however, possesses a stronger weapon than the wand which, instead of cutting Putnam in half, only carves slashes in a cave wall. This phallic machine that shoots a more powerful white ray at a spherical object can destroy the entire earth — threatening enough to make it a hot topic on George Noory’s middle-of-the-night radio show COAST TO COAST AM. “Look at its power,” intones the alien in human form,*** illustrating how this power allows them to be completely in control. The weapon provides enough “power to drive a ship through space. Power to tear your earth apart.” These doubles, the audience sees, are stronger than, and more in control of, the originals than the originals are of themselves, even though they are illusory projections.
[***Society is represented by the sheriff who reaches for his gun (which, in 3-D, is in the audience’s face) while talking about a relationship between air temperature and murder (listen to the policeman’s comments on the same topic in the 1981 film noir masterpiece BODY HEAT). Society cannot deal with its own repressed nature, so it projects this onto the monster or, in this case, an alien race. (Putnan, who wanders the desert in search of a glimpse of the creature, is waiting, as Robert Ensign asserts in his biological perspective of the film, to become social, just as primates had to when they jumped down from the trees and formed survival groups on the savanna.) In the cave, Putnam first reveals his survival skills by shooting not only the alien double, the harbinger of death, but the audience. Then he saves mankind by acknowledging the potency of its superior force: “You can always reach out and destroy us [the society] with that.”]
The aliens, despite their control, cannot destroy the human earthlings because these humans are a primitive form of themselves, and because it was they who fell upon the world of the humans and not the humans who invaded their world. When the duplicate of Putnam orders the release of the human prisoners, none of whom have been harmed, the other alien duplicates look on. Except for the different — but earthly — garments they all wear, one group is a mirror image of the other. The point of view in this scene is neither that of the humans nor of the aliens; the audience is free to evaluate both the human originals (their counterparts) and the alien duplicates (the illusory but powerful projections of themselves).
After Putnam emerges from the mine with the abducted humans and — in a gesture to convince the other humans to give up control of that of which they have only imagined control anyway — seals off the entrance, the sheriff assumes that the alien doubles have been repressed. However, the ground shakes as the engines of the spaceship are activated and, in a reverse of the opening shot of the film, the aliens leave. Ellen asks if the aliens have gone for good, and the camera brings the audience in for a close-up of Putnam as he delivers a dose of 1950s philosophical moralizing. “Just for now,” Putnam utters wistfully. “It wasn’t the right time for us to meet.” The dual perspective might invite us to add: “the right time for us to meet ourselves.” Putnam continues that “there’ll be other nights, other stars for us to watch. They’ll be back.”
Aliens did return in more frightening and subtle films such as the noir classic INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1955) and much later in such high-tech films as the special effects extravaganza CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and the somewhat maudlin E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, but, unfortunately, mankind, still thinking that it is in control, remains blind and repressed under tons of rock. even in the glare of tricky sunlight. The message of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (the screenplay was based on a treatment by Ray Bradbury, thus the poetic dialogue) does urge audiences, through the point of view which involves them as well as through the innocuous-sounding dialogue, to be understanding and tolerant. Let’s hope this was the message that the little boy sitting on the front row of his father’s theatre wearing those cardboard 3-D glasses, like other little boys and girls who are now grown-ups, came away with.