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.

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