Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: The Thing From Another World (1951)

The Thing From Another World (1951) ****
Directed by: Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks (uncredited)
Written by: Charles Lederer based on the story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Starring: Kenneth Tobey (Captain Patrick Hendry), Margaret Sheridan ("Nikki" Nicholson), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Arthur Carrington), Douglas Spencer (Ned "Scotty" Scott), Dewey Martin (Bob-Crew Chief), James Arness ("The Thing"), Eduard Franz (Dr. Stern), David McMahon (Gen. Fogarty), James Young (Lt. Eddie Dykes), Robert Nichols (Lt. MacPherson ), Bill Self (Corporal Barnes), Sally Creighton (Mrs. Chapman), Nicholas Byron (Radioman Tex Richards).

The Thing From Another World is a reactionary, paranoid, anti-communist, anti-intellectual film disguises a B sci-fi film about an alien, who looks a little like Frankenstein, but is really a giant, bloody thirsty vegetable. And I loved every second of it. The was directed by Christian Nyby, and produced by Howard Hawks, but the actors have pretty confirmed by this point that Hawks did most of the directing himself. Nyby was his longtime editor, who wanted to direct, but apparently had some trouble on set – so Hawks helped out. Whether he directed much of the film or not, his fingerprints are all over it.

The film takes place in Alaska, where a report group of scientist have discovered something large and metal in the ice – and have asked for military assistance. So, out comes Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his men to investigate. What they find really does look like a flying saucer – yet they end up destroying it by trying to get it out of the ice. However, they also discover the ships pilot, and are able to get him out – albeit inside a block of ice. When the ice melts back at base – accidentally – it is discovered that the creature is not actually dead. He takes off – kills the sled dogs, and loses an arm. Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) wants to reason with the creature, and learn from it – knowledge being the most important thing in the world. All Hendry wants to do is kill it before it can kill them.

The Thing From Another World is one of the classic 1950s sci-fi horror movies. It’s counterpoint is Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, released the same year. That film presented the aliens as peaceful – wanting the countries on Earth to get along, so as not to destroy themselves, and perhaps other worlds. The Thing From Another World on the other hand, suggests a war of the world’s scenario. Anything different cannot be trusted, and as such must be destroyed. Dr. Cornthwaite represents the intellectuals – the scientists meddling in things that are best left alone, and it is definitive moment when he is tossed aside by the The Thing, and the army men have to take the monster down. He is out to destroy the American way of life. Hawks had no patience for intellectuals (even dismissing more intellectual responses to his own films), preferring men of action to men of the mind.

In between action scenes, the film is full of snappy dialogue scenes. These are the best indication that Hawks had a hand in directing the film, because it features his classic, overlapping dialogue. It also features a classic Hawksian woman in Margaret Sheridan’s whip smart secretary, who although she is employed by the scientists, feels much more kinship to the soldiers – particularly Hendry, as the two flirt their way through the movie. The performances are amazingly good for a B movie, as is the dialogue.

In 1981, John Carpenter remade this movie as The Thing. That is one of Carpenter’s best movies, a triumph of style and gore, and more closely resembling the original short story, which had the alien being as a shape shifter rather than a giant carrot (the mind boggles). Both films have their merits, and I am hard pressed to classify one as better than the other. But that hardly matters. This version is a near perfect example of its genre.

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