The Thing from Another World (1951)


*. The role of producer has a long and complicated history, from the earliest days up to Spielberg and Tarantino. The name of a big-name producer, especially if they have a reputation for being closely involved in the production, can overshadow the contributions of all others. We always speak of Val Lewton’s Cat People, for example, despite Jacques Tourneur being a famous director in his own right. Meanwhile, who directed George Pal’s The War of the Worlds? Or Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World?
*. The answer to the latter question is Christian Nyby, though there’s been a long-running debate, even among cast members, over just how much he actually did.
*. Nyby had worked as an editor under Hawks on several films before this, and what seems generally agreed upon is that Hawks was the boss on the set and that Nyby was working, however freely, under his direction.


*. In any event, it has the feel of a Howard Hawks film, especially with its emphasis on small-group action and teamwork, which is a Hawks specialty. Even Margaret Sheridan’s Nikki is just another one of the guys. Though they don’t want coffee, she can still come in.
*. It’s a busy movie. The screen is busy with people all crowded together in huddles. The only time we ever see someone alone we know he’s in danger.
*. And the soundtrack is busy with voices and overlapping dialogue. You get a bunch of Americans together like this and all they want to do is talk . . . and talk.


*. Ben Hecht is said to have contributed to the dialogue, and you can believe it. It’s fast and smart. Though fast dialogue always seems smarter than it is. Timing and delivery can jolt even the most mundane script into life.


*. In his essay “War of the Worlds” Peter Biskind makes this out to be an example of conservative, “centrist” SF. Consensus (teamwork) is needed to fight the alien threat, and it is a consensus dominated by the conservative ideology of the military. “Conservative sci-fi . . . preferred soldiers to scientists, force to persuasion.” Cornthwaite is described by Biskind as “an Oppenheimer, soft on aliens, a thing sympathizer, and his behavior justifies the soldiers’ mistrust of science.” His symbolic attempt at political appeasement is as futile as that of Mr. Todhunter in The Lady Vanishes, though it meets a less mortal fate.


*. The usual line is that the script was “loosely based” on John W. Campbell Jr.’s story “Who Goes There?” I’ve read Campbell’s story and I can testify to this being a very loose adaptation indeed. Which is why John Carpenter’s 1982 version is not, technically, a remake but rather a re-interpretation of the original source material (and one that sticks to it more closely).
*. Like any great B-movie this is one that knows how to make a little go a long way. James Arness’s costume as the Thing was apparently not very convincing, so you only see him from a distance or very briefly. The isolated location makes acceptable the use of very limited and primitive sets.  But this all works to the film’s advantage.


*. One scene, however, they didn’t skimp on. I’ve heard this was the first full-body burn on film and it looks spectacular. It was also very dangerous, as the stunt man was breathing pure oxygen at the time. But they got the shot, and as many times as we’ve seen this done since I’m not sure it’s ever been done better.
*. Is it a scary movie? It has one great jump scare when they open the door and the Thing is standing right behind it, but aside from that it’s not scary. Fear is contagious, and in film it operates a bit like a laugh track. When people start screaming we want to scream along with them. When they’re frightened, we catch a bit of their fear. But here Captain Hendry seems so much in charge of the situation there’s nothing to be frightened of. We can rest assured this gang of heroes will persevere with the aid of a bit of grit and good ol’ Yankee know-how.
*. Is it a great movie? Well, I think it’s a great genre movie. Much of the drama is very conventional (the men of action vs. the men of science; the alien as embodiment of the Red Scare), and the characters are all types. But you can’t blame it for not being something it never tries to be. It’s a first-rate entertainment that has held up better than any other SF film of the period I can think of. The appeal is universal and tribal. As with any depiction of us against them, it brings people together.


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