"What is it, Bob? "
"It's about Lt. McPherson sitting in there with that thing in the block of ice."
"Well, he wouldn't want me to tell you, sir, but he's having kittens. I haven't heard him squawk like this since Rechenberg."
"You see, sir, the ice is clearing up, and we can see that thing pretty good. It's got crazy hands and no hair, and the eyes...They're open and look like they can see."
There's not a lot new or particularly insightful I can offer when it comes to discussing the seminal sci-fi flick, The Thing from Another World that hasn't been written about ad naseum elsewhere. One of the most famous and influential of all 1950s creature features, it kicked off more than a decade of alien invasion and bug-eyed monster movie mayhem, inspired a host of future filmmakers (one of whom, John Carpenter, would go on to direct his own version of the story in 1982), and remains one of the best-written and engaging films of its kind.
Loosely (and I do mean loosely) adapted from John W. Campbell's novella, "Who Goes There?," The Thing is legendary director Howard Hawks' lone foray into the science fiction/ horror genres, but it fits comfortably into his filmography, featuring as it does Hawks' favorite themes: a group of tough professionals doing their job with ease, good-humored banter and practiced finesse; a bit of romance with a gutsy dame who can easily hold her own with the boys; and lots of overlapping, razor-sharp dialogue. Featuring a script by Charles Lederer and an uncredited Ben Hecht, The Thing is easily the most spryly written and funniest of all 50s monster movies. In fact, it's this sharpness in the scripting, and the extremely likeable ensemble cast of characters, rather than the now-familiar story and somewhat unimaginative monster design, that makes the film still feel fresh and modern to this day.
There's likely few people out there reading this who don't know the story of The Thing like the back of their hand, but here goes...When an unidentified aircraft crashes close to a remote research station near the North Pole, Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey, in the role of his career) and his squad are dispatched there to investigate. Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) heads the scientific contingent there, and he informs Hendry that he thinks the downed craft is possibly "not of this earth." A joint team of soldiers and scientists head out to the crash site and find an actual, honest-to-goodness flying saucer lying buried under the ice.
The spaceship is destroyed while the men try to melt the ice around it with thermite bombs, but they find a lone, 8-foot-tall extraterrestrial occupant frozen nearby and bring the body back to the outpost in a block of ice. Dr. Carrington and his crew of eggheads want to study the thing, but Hendry is adamant that it should be kept as is until he gets word from his superior in Anchorage, General Fogerty. It wouldn't be a monster movie without something going pear-shaped, of course, and before you know it, a careless mistake results in the creature being thawed out of his iceberg coffin and going on a bit of a rampage, taking out a number of sled dogs and a few unsuspecting scientists along the way. The rest of the film details the tense battle between the surviving humans and the coldly intelligent, remorseless alien invader, which seems virtually unkillable, impregnable to cold, bullets and fire...
The set-up for the film, and how everything eventually plays out, might seem overly familiarly nowadays, but in 1951, this was cutting-edge stuff, at least in cinemas. The Thing plays as a veritable blueprint of how to make a compelling "alien monster-on-the-loose" movie. Howard Hawks not being particularly well-versed, or even interested in, science fiction per se likely worked to its benefit, as he ended up making, as he so often did in his other films, what is first-and-foremost a well-oiled entertainment, rather than simply a genre exercise.
Typical of a Hawks film, The Thing is meticulously designed, composed and shot, but in such a way as to appear offhand. Hawks almost never went in for showy camera angles or flashy effects. His technique was nearly invisible; he just got on with telling the story, in the most straightforward, unfussy way. But this easy, seemingly effortless style was very carefully considered, by a shrewd and knowing mind. As Bill Warren, author of one of the best (and certainly most encyclopedic) books about 1950s sci-fi filmmaking, Keep Watching the Skies, notes in his detailed analysis of the film:
As most good movies do, The Thing works in two areas: sight and sound. The locale is a cramped, tunnel-like base; the men are confined within, the Thing can move freely outdoors in the cold. Compositions are often crowded, with more people in the shot than seems comfortable, reinforcing the idea of confinement After the Thing escapes, only the alien itself is seen standing and moving alone. (1)
This feeling of a cold, hostile environment outside the base is constantly reinforced throughout the film, and a real tension mounts when, towards the climax, the highly intelligent Thing, itself immune to the subzero arctic conditions, turns off the compound's heating, knowing the humans inside will quickly die without it. (The freaky, otherworldly theremin-flavored music by Dimitri Tiomkin adds a lot to the eerie atmosphere here.)
As groundbreaking and well-structured as the plot of The Thing was (and is), what makes the film play so well today is the great script and the interaction of a bunch of seasoned character actors, who toss off both exposition and pithy bon mots in such a low-key, believable manner. This is a truly ensemble movie, and the fact that it doesn't feature any big name stars really adds to the overall effect; no one really hogs all the limelight or gets the lion's share of good lines. Hawks was a director who usually worked with the biggest names in the business, but, much as in the earlier Air Force, he was equally at home working with a cast of rock-solid character actors.
All this talk of Howard Hawks as director, when it's actually Christian Nyby who is credited with the job, has long been a source of speculation with fans of the film. Todd McCarthy, in his bio Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, seems to clear the issue up once and for all (though really, after viewing enough Hawks films, the results speak for themselves):
The perennial question surrounding The Thing From Another World has always been, Who actually directed it, Christian Nyby or Howard Hawks? The sum of participants' responses make the answer quite clear. Putting it most bluntly, (associate producer) Ed Lasker said "Chris Nyby didn't direct a thing. One day Howard was late and Chris said,'Why don't we get started? I know what the shot should be.' And I said, 'No, Chris, I think we'll wait until Howard gets here." Ken Tobey testified, "Chris Nyby directed one scene. Howard Hawks was there, but he let Chris direct one scene. We all rushed into a room, eight or ten of us, and we practically knocked each other over. No one knew what to do." Dewey Martin, Robert Cornthwaite and Richard Keinen all agreed that Hawks was the director, and Bill Self said, "Chris Nyby was a very nice, decent fellow, but he wasn't Howard Hawks." (2)
Nyby had been Hawks' editor on a number of films, and Hawks apparently decided to help his collaborator establish a name for himself by allowing him directorial credit on the film. This seemingly altruistic gesture didn't mean that Hawks wasn't involved in virtually every aspect of the making of the film, however, and ultimately, The Thing did little for Nyby's directing career, at least on the big screen (he did go on to a long and busy career directing for numerous television programs, however.)
In addition to all the masculine camaraderie and spooky goings-on, one of the best aspects of The Thing is the fun, charming little tease of a romance between Capt. Hendry and Nikki (top-billed Margaret Sheridan). Nikki works as Prof. Carrington's assistant and is not merely the requisite "babe" in the film. True to the Hawksian norm, she's no pushover when it comes to trading insults with the men, nor a shrinking violet when up to her neck in perilous situations. Unlike most actresses in 50s monster movies, she doesn't utter a single scream in The Thing, and in fact, it's her practical suggestion which gives Bob, Hendry's ever-resourceful crew chief (Dewey Martin), the notion of how to finally kill the monster. Lederer and Hecht's screenplay hints at the backstory to Nikki and Pat's relationship in humorous and oblique ways, and their flirtation amidst all the chaos adds sparkle to the film but never gets in the way of the pace of the story. One nice little throwaway exchange near the finale encapsulates their verbal give-and-take, as Nikki playfully pokes the temporarily-befuddled Hendry, as his men scurry about, setting Bob's plan in motion.
Sheridan, a former model signed to a 5-year contract by Hawks, is quite good here, but after The Thing her career never really caught fire and she retired from acting a few years later. The closest thing to a star turn in the film is Kenneth Tobey as Capt. Hendry. Tobey racked up an impressive number of credits throughout his nearly 50-year-long career, generally as gruff, competent military men or similar types, and he was always good value, though it's as Capt. Hendry in The Thing that he truly shines. He consistently humanizes the no-nonsense, take charge man of action Hendry by displaying an easygoing approach to command. Most of Hendry's men call him by his first name, and delight in ribbing him about his budding romance with Nikki, and he responds to all this joshing in kind. When things get hairy, Tobey's Hendry doesn't have to bark his orders; it's clear that, despite the friendly banter, his men hold him in high esteem and leap to do his bidding at a moment's notice.
Many of the other members of the cast, while none of them ever became household names, will likely be recognizable from countless other roles in both film and television. Hawks gave Dewey Martin co-star billing in The Big Sky a few years later. Robert Cornthwaite kept busy for decades on stage and television, as well as in supporting roles in films such as Monkey Business, Kiss Me Deadly and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? John Dierkes (Dr. Chapman) and Douglas Spencer (Scotty) both had juicy roles in the western classic Shane, as well as many other movies too numerous to name. Sharp-eyed viewers will also recognize Eduard Franz, Paul Frees (he of the famous voice) and Groucho Marx's right-hand man on You Bet Your Life, George Fenneman, in pivotal roles. And of course we mustn't forget 6' 7" James Arness (years before becoming renowned as Marshall Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke) as the hulking Thing.
A quick note on the "remake": John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), a bleak, grisly and brilliant take on the story, was a box-office dud when first released, but has since attained well-deserved status as a modern classic. While most fans seem divided into two camps - those who love the more restrained, old-fashioned thrills of the original, and those who prefer the more visceral, paranoiac Carpenter version - I happen to treasure both films equally and revisit each of them often. The Carpenter version is by far the gutsier, unsettling one, emphasizing as it does the "trust no one," shape-shifting "the alien is one of us" scenario imagined by John W. Campbell, but the Hawks' film is the most fun, with a far more likeable array of characters, working together to defeat an implacable menace. Each has its own clear merits. I wouldn't want to do without either film, and frankly see no need to choose one over the other.
Source Note: (1) excerpted from Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, by Bill Warren, published in trade paperback in 1997 by McFarland Classics. (2) and (3) are from Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy, 1997, Grove Press Books.
DVD Note: The Thing from Another World is out on a very affordable DVD from Turner Home Entertainment. While the print exhibits some occasional speckling and film dirt, overall the transfer is in reasonable shape, though a crisp new Blu-Ray would be most welcome. However, where the DVD really falls down is in its criminal lack of special features, and this movie is crying out for a more extras-packed release.
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