Classic Review: The Thing from Another World (1951)

Greetings all and sundry! A few weeks ago, Ruth suggested I take a look at the ‘Classics’ and come up with an appropriate critique of a film from yesteryear. My mind virtually tumbled with titles as one continuously rose from the cinematic landscape to give pause and grab attention. As it had more than fifty years ago. To that end. I present you:

Loosely based on the very short story, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. and comprised of a snug, compact 87 minutes. This film is the epitome of cinematic story telling. With a beginning, middle and end all under the deft, masterful touch of Howard Hawks. Even if Christian Nyby is credited as the director. Mr. Hawks‘ fingerprints are all over this minor masterpiece!

The story begins in the middle of a blustery snow storm wreaking havoc on one corner of an Air Force Base and its Officers’ Club outside of Anchorage, Alaska. The howling wind blows reporter Ned Scott into the club to thaw out and stumble across the crew of C-47 assigned to the base trading quips and playing poker. Pleasantries are exchanged as Captain Pat Hendry. Marvelously played with a nonchalance that would set the tone for countless other ‘Red Scare’ Science Fiction films, by Ken Tobey;  is told to report to General Fogarty right away.

It seems that Polar Expedition Six, a small outpost up near the North Pole has reported an anomaly that bears closer investigation. Not much more to go on. Take your plane, some sleds and a dog team and check it out. Cut to the C-47 in flight. With sheet metal skis wrapped around its extended landing gear as the crew and Ned Scott ponder what the mystery is all about. A clue is revealed as the plane’s navigator notices the magnetic compass is off. That initiates a radio call to the expedition so the plane can follow its signal.

The plane lands and is bedded down for the night and the crew meets the scientists of PX6. Headed by Dr. Arthur Carrington. Egghead extraordinaire and recipient of countless kudos and awards. Arrogantly played with a heavy dash of elitist smarm by Robert Cornwaite. Who lords over a clutch of lower tier, like minded individuals. Including Drs. Redding (George Fenneman, emcee of You Bet Your Life),  Vorrhees (Paul Frees), Wilson (Everett Glass), Chapman (John Dierkes), Laurence (Norbert Schiller) and Ambrose (Edmond Breon). All aided by Nikki Nicholson. Resplendent and smartly played by Margaret Sheridan. Who Captain Hendry has more than a subtle interest in.

Discussion is quick, jumbled and often stepped upon as this trip further north is discerned. Something large, fast, heavy and metallic passed through the arctic atmosphere several hours earlier. Close enough to set off time delay cameras and seismographs miles away to catch what could be a meteor, but isn’t on film. And its location determined through the math of sound traveled to sensitive microphones. Cue the scary, way ahead of its time Theramin track as another flight is put together to find out what fell out the sky.

The mission lands not far from a flaw in the ice that is visible at altitude. The scientists, crew and dog sled teams are assembled and head off to discover a few feet of what looks like vertical stabilizer poking up through the ice. Samples are filed off and collected as the explorers peel off in all directions and find that they are standing in a circle above the unknown intruder! Picks, shovels and axes are discarded in favor of  quicker, easier to use Thermite. Charges are placed and spectacularly set off. And whatever it was sinks below the polar ice. But not before something is ejected away and much closer to the surface and found by the always clever Crew Chief, Dewey Martin behind a handy Geiger Counter.

The foreign object is exhumed, but kept in a block of ice that is loaded on a dog sled. Loaded on the plane and brought back to the gaggle of Quonset huts that make up PX-6. The block of ice is kept in a freezer and a guard posted. Messages are sent southeast to Anchorage and General Fogarty. The ether virtually sings with far too many questions that have no answers. Orders given that makes Dr. Carrington smugly happy as Captain Hendry and crew plan for many long days ahead. Though Hendry does manage some quality time with Nikki that involves alcohol and rather tame rope bondage found in the film’s restored footage.

As the visitor in the frozen block of ice scares the posted guard silly. The guard wraps himself in an electric blanket. Then puts the blanket on the block of ice to cover the Thing’s creepy eyes that the guard swears are following him! The blanket questionably melts the ice and the Thing escapes, but not before taking a few rounds from the guard’s .45 before making its getaway.

Surprisingly, panic does not ensue as the crew, eggheads and Nikki discuss what the Thing is and what its plans may be. Carrington is all for abiding by General Fogarty’s orders to keep whatever it is alive at all costs, but Hendry and his crews have their doubts. A search is  conducted, both inside and outside. An arm and its hand are recovered and examined. Remaining perfectly still throughout the discussion and dissection. Then slowly begins to move and add its two cents. Notes are taken by Nikki as a consensus is arrived  upon. The Thing isn’t human, but vegetable! Impervious to most any kind of damage. So, what does one do with or to an alien, radioactive vegetable?

“Boil it. Cook it. Or fry it?” Nikki suggests whimsically as Hendry and his crew run with the idea. Moving from the Greenhouse throughout. Gathering whatever implements of destruction they can while nailing down and barricading doors with whatever is handy. An idea is hit upon by the Crew Chief as clumsy sounds of breaking and entry echo through empty connecting hallways. Kerosene is poured into a bucket. Lights are turned off and a Flare Pistol unwrapped as the Day Room plunges into darkness. Its door is flung open and the Thing makes its entrance.

Silhouetted and back lit, the Thing shambles in. To meet an axe from the Co-Pilot. A large splash of Kerosene and an igniting flare. The Thing bursts into flame. Its arms swing and catches Nikki’s protective mattress aflame before the Thing retreats and dives through a nearby window as the storm wails and billows outside. Damage control is assessed as wounds are tended to and the Thing’s steps retraced and dead, drained of  blood sled dogs are discovered stuffed in a cabinet. Reassessment is called for and repairs are made as an inventory of medical supplies is made and a question arises. One of the scientists was injured in the latest fracas, but is not being given plasma. Hendry asks Nikki about it and she reveals that the injured scientist in being transfused by others of his own blood type. The plasma is being used by Dr. Carrington. Who’s quickly sliding into Mad Scientist territory. With an IV of plasma feeding the Thing’s discarded, pod seed sprouting appendage in the Greenhouse.

Now the panic, though low keyed begins to rear its ugly head. As Nikki notices kibbitzing exhaled breaths starting to mist in the chilling air. The Thing has cut off the oil to the connected Quonset Huts’ heating system! A more elegant trap is thought up involving wire fencing, a wooden pallet walkway and arcs of high voltage, high amperage electricity. The question remains, will the Thing fall into the trap? The Geiger Counters watched by scattered guards start climbing and seem to hint so. The Guards retreat to the compound’s main generator as the Thing makes its presence known. Lights are extinguished along the way as the generator suddenly goes off line, courtesy of the now mad Dr. Carrinton. Who has a Mexican Stand-off before being rushed and supposedly subdued.

The power comes back on, but the Thing is leery. Uncertain what do do as he ambles off the pallet walkway. Picks up a heavy wooden 4X4 and leaps back on to avoid a tossed axe. Dr. Carrington dashes out and lets his liberal, scientific heart bleed as he tries to coax the Thing into understanding and cognizance of its superiority over humans. Which appears boring and doesn’t much  impress the Thing. Who blithely knocks Dr. Carrington aside and steps into three curling arcs of electricity. That elicit strange sounds from the soon smoldering, eventually melting, collapsing Thing.

Captain Hendry wants to keep the arc running until there’s nothing left as focus shifts to the dining hall. As the outside storm abates enough for communication back to Anchorage. Now inundated with reporters the world ’round. As Ned Scott puts the best possible spin on the situation
with a final urgent plea to everyone listening “To Watch The Skies!”.

What Makes This Film Good?

Less than an-hour-and-a-half loaded to the brim with superbly executed story telling in glorious, shadowy, claustrophobic B&W. With no excess fat or time devoted to sub-plots or extraneous nonsense. Evenly distributed over a cast of familiar, though unknown faces. Who stalwartly maintain the film’s B-Movie mystique. As more and more is discovered about the crew and expedition’s unwanted guest.

Ken Tobey is the absolute definition of a post WWII, 1950s savvy military officer. Calm and often humorous in the face of unknown adversity. Near fatherly in his patience with his wise cracking crew and the slowly unraveling, effete Dr. Carrington. Willing to listen to the good Doctor at first. Less so when his crew and the expedition and its compound are threatened. Mr. Tobey sets the bar very high for many, distinctly of its time, ‘Us versus Them, Red Scare’ Science fiction films.

The ensemble of actors and their assorted lesser scientists, egg heads and Poindexters  in attendance are all spot on. From George Fenneman and his Varsity sweatered Dr. Redding to Eduard Franz’s whiz kid Dr. Stern. To Nicholas Byron’s tall and laconic, radio operator ‘Tex’ Richards. All deliver admirably in their short times on screen.

Robert Cornwaite’s elegant, arrogant, elite Dr. Carrington. Absolutely brimming with  condescension towards Captain Hendry and his crew. Who would dare sully his arctic resort of pure science with their military sidearms, carbines and narrow thinking. The absolute embodiment of post war, effete, bleeding heart liberal whom Senator Joseph McCarthy would soon be warning people about.

Last but not least, the Thing itself! Future Marshal Matt Dillion. James Arness in high fore headed, near silent alien drag. Deliberately left out of the picture until those times when fully needed and rarely long enough (Inset Jaws reference here!) for recognition.

What Makes This Film Great?

Once you get past the Winchester Pictures/RKO Radio Pictures start up. Hawks lets you know that you are not in Kansas, anymore. As a blank scree slowly catches fire to eerie, unearthly sounds provided by a Theramin. A musical instrument that creates sound without being touched.
Also used by Edward Hermann in The Day the Earth Stood Still the same year. Check out the first twelve bars of The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations to get an idea of its sound as the fire burns and reveals the film’s title and sets up the story.

The stepped on dialogue and plethora of unfinished thoughts and sentences that abound in the film. Yet move it along in an easily understood way. The elongated scene when Captain Hendry and his crew meet the scientists and staff of PX-6 is wonderful to step tentatively into. Then slowly, comfortably bask in.

The lush, sometimes shadowy B&W cinematography by Russell Harlan adds a deft touch of suspense and seems to heighten the inherent claustrophobia in many shots. Coming to a head when the Thing invades the Day Room. Is ambushed and set ablaze. A wonderful piece of action on a blackened set. With only the back lighting from an open door illuminating the scene until the Thing is lit ablaze. Wreak havoc and escapes in a stunt that would be hard pressed, sans CGI to be accomplished today.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s mysterious, often Theramin infused soundtrack keeps the tension and fear of the unknown percolating as more and more of the Thing’s handiwork is laid bare. Especially when the deceased sled dogs are discovered and when Hendry and his crew stumble across and unload on the Thing moments later.

The chemistry between Ken Tobey’s Captain Hendry and Margaret Sheridan’s Nikki is palpable and fun. Though it is Nikki who subtly steals every scene she’s in. Making more than the most of a role that creates the prototype for Sigourney Weaver’s Warrant Officer Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien, decades later.

The Film’s Mystique:

Though initially and for years after regarded as a B-Movie. The Thing from Another World does fill many categories in that style of film, but is so much more. Due basically to having a proven master in Howard Hawks. Calling the shots while delving into a genre of film not attempted before. And obviously having a ball in the process as his exceptional artisans and cast exceed all expectations. While making a gift of the title of director to Christian Nyby, who had edited The Big Sleep and Red River for Mr. Hawks.

The film’s overall mystique and ability to hold up so well through the years may have been a large part of its being nominated to the National Film Registry in 1951 and inducted in 2001.

Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews

Thoughts on this film? Do share ’em in the comments.

22 thoughts on “Classic Review: The Thing from Another World (1951)

  1. Ted S.

    I’ve yet to see this version but love John Carpenter’s version from 1982. I might have to give this one a rent. I’m staying far away from the so called prequel that came out last fall though.

    1. Hi, Ted:

      Thanks for dropping by and starting the conversation!

      ‘The Thing from Another World’ is a favorite of Carpenter and his take on the original sticks more closely with Campbell’s very brief, shape-shifting short story.

      I’ve a feeling that Carpenter knew he couldn’t compete with Hawks’ quick, stepped on dialogue and went in the opposite direction. With silent, stoic Kurt Russell backed up by superior Special Effects.

      Don’t get me wrong. Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is an exceptional film and stands tall on its own merits. Where Hawks’ and Nyby’s film is very much of its and my post WWII, Cold War time.

      Most definitely worth a look as a rental. And yes, you are right to stay away from the terrible prequel!

      1. Hi Jack, excellent in-depth review, my friend. I was curious what you think about the prequel. Well sounds like it’s not even worth a rental. I wish Hollywood stay away from updating classics unless they can improve on it, y’know.

        1. Hi, Ruth:

          Thank you, for being given the opportunity to wax poetic about one of my favorite films.

          Last year’s abysmal attempt at re-vamping a classic had much more to do with Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ than Hawks’ classic.

          It was as though the best parts of Carpenter’s special effects were dumbed down for short attention spanned, make out teens. Aided by the likes of Marty Deeks of ‘NCIS: L.A,’ A cast of other forgettable characters. And not a decent ‘Scream Queen’ in the bunch!

      2. I definitely about Carpenter smartly going a different direction. Carpenter knew his own strengths and decided not to try to mimic one of the masters. Mostly, there’s just no reason to remake something if you’re gonna blindly ape the original. This is one of those rare instances where I like the original and remake equally.

        By the way, really great in-depth review.

        1. Welcome, Dave!

          Thanks so much for your comments.

          Excellent point.

          Carpenter is a confident director with his own style. Comfortable within his own niche, strengths and weaknesses. Who created a touch stone film for the generation beyond mine.

          His imprint worked and would have been very diminished had he gone for a carbon copy re-make of Hawks’ Classic.

          Hope you drop by more often and opine.

  2. chandlerswainreviews

    Best moment in the film: when the men all stand at the edges of the buried object forming that circle. Has the intrusion of the otherworldly ever been depicted elsewhere with such brilliant economy?

    1. Welcome, Chandler!

      Excellent catch and comment.

      There’s been a long standing controversy as to whether that monumental scene was shot on a sound stage or on location. Either way, those in charge knew how to get the most from a moment. As the crew and scientists fan out in a circle with their arms starting to stretch and someone says “We finally got one!”

      Today it would be loaded with effects, a huge matte painting and would never achieve the same effect with the audience.

      Hope to see you contribute more often!

  3. Another great write-up Jack! This (and the Carpenter version) are essential viewing in our family! I don’t know how many times I have seen it. It just never gets old, does it.

    I did not know that Howard Hawks was involved.

    1. Hi, iluv!

      Thanks so much!

      ‘The Thing from Another World’ left a huge impression on me when I first saw it as a kid. Not just as a great Science Fiction film, but a great film across the board. Which may be one of its secrets of longevity,

      Howard Hawks signed on as the producer. Rumor has it that Hawks really wanted to try his hand directing a Si~Fi film, but that would be seen as beneath his stature. Hence, his handing over the title of director to his superb editor of previous films, Christian Nyby. A definite win~win!

    1. Hi, dirtywithclass:

      I’m willing to bet that he does.

      When I introduced my then high school aged niece to film a few years ago. This was one of the first we viewed. I was pleased to see her startle and react at all the appropriate moments.

      Thanks, always for dropping by.

  4. Ooh now this is one I’d really like to see! I saw Carpenter’s The Thing for the first time a few months ago so I’d like to see how they compare.

    Great post, Jack.

    1. Hi, Claire:

      Thanks so much! I was hoping you’d drop by.

      Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ seems to focus more on creeping paranoia as do most of his earlier films. Where Hawks’ original moves much more quickly.

      A great idea for a back-to-back Saturday night of film.

  5. FUNK

    A most excellent write up on one of my favorite sci-fi horror classics of the 50’s.
    I first watched it some Saturday night as a kid on Chiller, which played old sci-fi and horror movies of the past. Liked Carpenters remake somewhat, haven’t seen the latest one as of yet, but this one is still the king in my book.

    1. Hi, Funk:

      Long live the King!

      My Sci~Fi movie night was Thursday with ‘The World Beyond’ that ran the gamut from superb to ridiculous. Horror and Monster films were late Saturday night with ‘Sir Graves Ghastly’ and later, ‘Count Gore De Vol’. I was kind of spoiled in that regard.

      I wanted to take the time to get my review right and have it live up to this Classic.

      Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ works well on many levels, but still comes up short.

  6. Great look at this sci-fi classic, Kevin. As much as I associate this with my childhood (saw it on my grandmother’s old black & white TV in her living room), it still holds up. Even years later after reading the source novella by Campbell and experiencing John Carpenter/Bill Lancaster’s stellar, seminal adaptation from ’82, it’s a lot of fun. Plus, the trademark Howard Hawks dialogue, along with the Hawks woman in Margaret Sheridan, it packs a great deal in its 87 minutes. Plus, my kids still love it. Excellent write-up.

    1. Hi, le0pard:

      Thanks so much for your delightful comments!

      My first viewing was on an old B&W Zenith that only received seven stations back around 1960.

      I’d heard heard an adaptation of ‘Who Goes There?’ on a radio show called ‘East of Midnight’ when I was Active Duty and couldn’t believe how short it was.
      Campbell’s novella is even shorter!

      Hawks always had a knack for picking just the right woman to play off his leading men. Margaret Sheridan is every bit as cool and confident as Joanne Dru in ‘Red River’, Jean Arthur in ‘Only Angels Have Wings’, Katherine Hepburn in ‘Bringing Up Baby’ and Lauren Bacall in anything opposite Bogart.

  7. Victor De Leon

    I don’t believe a classic sci fi film before (Invasion of the Body Snatchers comes VERY close) or since has left such a phenomenal impression on me. I hold this film in such high regard. The mood, tone, pacing and suspense are such an important reason why the movie works. The cold war texture and the rapidity of the dialog and exchanges is amazing to behold. I reviewed this film once myself and I had a difficult time not turning it into a lovefest. I remember watching TTFAW on WOR Channel 9 in NYC so many times either on a Saturday afternoon or a late Friday night eventually on VHS.

    I’ve owned the film on VHS and even Laserdisc and I love doing a double feature of this and Carpenter’s film which in itself is a masterpiece but done in a different method like you mentioned. Great review and I’m glad I had the pleasure of coming across this one. Thanks, again!

  8. Pingback: Classic List: The Women of Howard Hawks

Join the conversation by leaving a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s