Friday, March 22, 2013

Another Look: THE THING (From Another World) - 1951

A couple months back, in the course of an interview Thomas Pluck conducted with yours truly—on his fine blog, Pluck You, Too—one of the things he asked was what were some of my all-time favorite movies. One of the ones I mentioned was THE THING, and in subsequent correspondence Thomas indicated that he thought I was referring to "the original"—i.e., John Carpenter's 1982 movie of that title. I had to explain that no, I was referring to what I considered "the original", which was the 1951 film from my all-time favorite director, Howard Hawks.

What I failed to realize was that the Hawks film is nowadays referred to as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which was its full title on the screen but commonly came to be called simply THE THING.
Until Carpenter's film came along, apparently.
And then, in 2011, yet another movie came out called THE THING.
Confused yet?
All three were based on a classic science fiction story by John W. Campbell titled "Who Goes There?" The 1951 version did not adhere very closely at all to the Campbell story; the 1982 film followed much closer but also showed some influence from its cinema predecessor (due, one suspects, to the fact Carpenter has long been a huge Howard Hawks fan and the latter's influence can be seen throughout much of Carpenter's work); the 2001 film was somewhere in between as far as following the Campbell story, as it was actually a "prequel" to the Carpenter movie.

Whew! That's a long way around the barn to get to the one I really want to talk about, and that's the 1951 Hawks version. As stated earlier, Hawks is my all-time favorite movie director. He could do any genre—ranging from screwball comedy to drama to high adventure to Westerns—and do each with his own distinction and as good or better than anybody else you can name. With THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD you can add science fiction/horror to the list. (I tend to like most of John Carpenter's stuff, too, but did not care at all for his version of THE THING; the 2011 version I've never seen and have no interest in.)
Just to add to the mish-mash presented so far, I'm on the side of the fence that considers Hawks to be the true director of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, even though all the official credits lists Christian Nyby as fulfilling that task. Up to that point, Nyby was a highly respected film editor who worked frequently with Hawks, even receiving an Academy Award nomination for his work on RED RIVER. He went on to undeniably direct several films and do a lot of TV work, but Christian Nyby, on his best day, was no Howard Hawks. And IMO (see how "hep" I am with this web-speak stuff), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD had all the earmarks of a Hawks-directed film. Period.

Shot in black-and-white, with a modest budget, nothing extraordinary in the way of special effects, and a cast of seasoned B-movie stars (including a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness as "the Thing"), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction films of the 1950s, when space invaders and science-out-of-control themes were all the rage. With passage of time, its prestige has only grown.

The story is simple and straightforward:
A U.S. Air Force crew, under the command of Capt. Henry (Kenneth Tobey) is dispatched to a North Pole scientific outpost where it's been reported that something has crash-landed nearby. With the team of scientist, they quickly locate a huge aircraft now imbedded under the ice. When they inadvertently incinerate the craft using thermite charges to try and melt the ice, the only thing (no pun intended) they can salvage is the oversized body of what's assumed to be its pilot, still frozen in a block of ice. After getting this find back to the outpost, they discover it is still alive when it melts and breaks free in the middle of the night to reveal itself to be a 7-foot manlike creature that can't be stopped by bullets and, when one of its arms is ripped off by the sled dogs outside, only bleeds a syrupy fluid.
This, along with the results of further analysis from the arm, causes the scientist to conclude they are dealing with something that one of the fly-boys calls "a highly intelligent carrot." They also soon discover that it can regenerate itself (growing back the lost arm) and that the nourishment it needs to survive and thrive is blood. During all this, a fierce storm is keeping everyone at the outpost grounded and stranded and all radio contact with the outside world disrupted. From there on, it becomes a battle for survival with the Air Force crew and the scientists fighting to hold the Thing at bay until the weather breaks and help can arrive, and the monster trying to get at them for the sake of their nourishing blood.

The end result is a tight, tense thriller the way thrillers are supposed to be done.
There is the snappy, overlapping passages of dialogue containing banter and doses of wry humor that is a realistic coping mechanism in no way distracting from the palpable threat; also a keen sense of male bonding within the Air Force crew, based on each member knowing they can count on one another; and a strong female presence in the form of one of the female scientists, creating some surprisingly frank sexual innuendo (for the period) between her and the captain … All of these being familiar Hawks trademarks.

If you haven't seen this one in a while—or have never seen it, for crying out loud—be sure to keep an eye out for it and give it a look first chance you get. If you've seen it before, you won't be disappointed. It's one of those old classics you can watch again and again and never get tired of it.

If you haven't ever seen it, you're in for a treat. Don't expect buckets of blood and gore or CGI scenes that scream by so fast the naked eye can't follow or massive destruction from "blowing things up real good", as my pal James Reasoner likes to say. You won't find any of that.
You're just gonna get a fast, exciting, entertaining movie done by a solid cast under the helm of a master filmmaker.


Thomas Pluck said...

I have to give this one another look. I saw it on TV in college after I'd read the Campbell story, and didn't like the changes. I'll watch it again and let it stand on its own.

wayne d. dundee said...

Yeah, it's always tough to watch a movie based on a story book that you have a particular fondness for and then see the filmmakers re-do it to the point where it barely resembles what allegedly inspired it. Nevertheless, if you get the chance to watch this flick again and are able to judge it strictly on its own, Thomas, I think you'll like it.