Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Thing from Another World (1951)

After watching John Carpenter's version of The Thing and seeing it appear on TV screens in both versions of Halloween I decided to revisit this, another classic I haven't seen in quite a while.

Even though this is one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made (it set the form for the 'isolated men vs. a monster' subgenre) you might not know how it goes: briefly, a bunch of Air Force men are sent up to the North Pole to check on a remote station of scientists. It turns out that a flying saucer has crash-landed and they haul a frozen block of alien back to the camp. It thaws out into James Arness wearing Frankenstein makeup and the battle is joined.

The major plot complication is that the scientists, led by an obviously suspect type, are more interested in studying and communicating with the monster while the military guys, noticing that it's a hulking beast with a thirst for human blood, are more interested in killing it - and the movie is on their side, seeing them as no-nonsense regular joes and the scientists as effete eggheads obsessed with perceived notions of the alien's superiority even though all it does is grunt and murder.

I enjoy this movie, but it's obviously problematic, a one-sided Cold War parable made at a time when the U.S. military had won WWII, but scientists had brought the world the A-bomb. I like to think of this movie as a companion piece to The Day the Earth Stood Still (the other sci-fi classic from 1951) because, even though it's kind of a cliche, the movies complement each other perfectly. While the alien in The Thing is a thuggish monster, in Day he's a charming Brit (and the movie's protagonist, to boot). While the scientists in The Thing are cold Oppenheimer types, in Day they're kindly Einstein types. And where The Thing is paranoid and insular, Day is open-minded and thoughtful.

The flip side is that, problematic as it is, I think The Thing from Another World is a better-made movie - the narrative is clean and direct, the characters rattle off their dialogue in a way that feels modern and lifelike, and most importantly, Howard Hawks doesn't need to resort to contrived Jesus metaphors to get his point across. The Day the Earth Stood Still has a preachy, head-in-the-clouds, Adlai Stevenson quality that The Thing is thankfully free of with its emphasis on the great American tradition of regular guys working hard to do the right thing. It's a movie in the best Hawks style (yes, I know he's only credited as Producer, but still) with a fun mixture of action, comedy, and a sassy dame so that it all manages to transcend its somewhat clunky, dated subtext.


Joe Valdez said...

I have not been able to warm to The Thing From Another World like most people. Howard Hawks is one of the greatest directors of all time, but placing his rapid fire dialogue and characters into a science fiction/horror setting didn't really work for me. There's nothing scary about the movie, which is breezy and light.

I much prefer The Day The Earth Stood Still even though your criticisms of it are on the money. I think it's still a fantastic yarn about what might happen if an alien landed in Washington. Oh, I doubt E.T. would look like Michael Rennie, but it's still a hugely influential film. The theremin became the official instrument for movie aliens after its use here.

Keep revisiting these classics, Jeff!

Jeff McMahon said...

Bernard Herrmann's score is excellent, but there's a theremin in Dmitri Tiomkin's score for The Thing as well - a sign of the times.
Can you elaborate as to why the rapid fire dialogue doesn't work for you in a sci-fi/horror setting? It is an intriguing feature, outside of the typical comedy setting, and it makes the men seem more like a cohesive unit, almost like an organism fighting off an invading virus.

Joe Valdez said...

Kenneth Tobey is great in The Thing, but other than him, you have the Babe, The Professor, and the Reporter. I cannot put a personality or a name to any of the other 20 people milling around in that movie. To me, there were just too many people indistinguishable from each other.

And the movie is not scary. There's this really fast paced, clever dialogue, but it seemed like Hawks was almost embarrassed to introduce much science fiction or horror into the picture. I recall Arness being embarrassed to have to appear in this, with sci-fi's somewhat schlocky reputation at the time.

For me, '50s sci-fi/horror is all about Them! and not many flicks come close to that one.

Jeff McMahon said...

khfiqWell, it was scary back in 1951, and indeed it would be unlike Hawks to introduce a lot of sci-fi fantasy or moody horror stylization into this movie. His movies were about ordinary people working together to resolve problems and achieve missions and he was proud of never using anything the slightest bit stylish, like a dutch angle, in his movies.

As regards Them!, I wonder: do you consider that movie to be scary? My personal take is that there are about four legitimately scary movies from the 1950s - Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Curse of the Demon. Les Diaboliques, and parts of Creature from the Black Lagoon. I love Them! - I think that it's not just a highly entertaining movie, but it's a uniquely and specifically American movie. It's about a bunch of people, military guys and civilians, faced with a weird, bizarre problem, who then roll up their sleeves and proceed to tackle it head-on. And best of all, without the need to demonize any other segment of society in the process.

Chuck Bowen said...

Tiomkin's score for The Thing is absolutely wonderful, or at least the unforgettable primary riff (I haven't seen the movie in a while.)

I think The Day the Earth Stood Still is a good message movie, and this is from someone who finds that a little tough to take. The Thing From Another World is much more my style, and, while equally dated, it has that score, one of the absolute best monster deaths in the genre, and a real palpable feeling of claustrophobia, of being trapped.

And to revive the Kirk/Picard of horror nerd debates, yes, I much prefer the Carpenter remake, but I love both. Thanks for the article Jeff, I'll have to revist the Hawks version soon.