Saturday, April 13, 2013

Stubs – The Thing From Another World

The Thing From Another World (1951) Starring: Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Spencer, Robert O. Conthwaite, James Arness. Directed by Christian Nyby. Screenplay by Charles Lederer. Based on the novella Who Goes There? By Don A. Stuart (aka John W. Campbell). Produced by Howard Hawks  Run Time: 87 minutes. U.S.  Black and White.  Science Fiction, Horror.

If you think the Men in Black series were the first films to deal with beings from other planets, then think again. Films have been fighting invading aliens since the days of Georges Melies. The Thing From Another World is just one example of the genre. A low budget outing, it is actually a solid little film. While it has a short run time, and there is some time-ticking travel, the film counters with dialogue that shows the camaraderie of the men involved.

The film revolves around the crash landing of a UFO (though that term is never used in the film) in the ice near a North Pole scientific outpost. Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), the chief scientist at the outpost, asks the military for assistance in search and recovery of the object. Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) who runs a regular supply mission to the outpost from Anchorage, Alaska is sent by General Fogerty (David McMahon) to check out the scene and report back.

Along with his crew, which includes crew member Lt. Ken “Mac” MacPherson (Robert Nichols) and Ned “Scotty” Scott (Douglas Spencer) a reporter looking for a story, who thinks he might have stumbled upon the biggest one of all time.

But there is more on Hendry’s mind that a crashed UFO when he gets off the plane at the outpost. His first interest is Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), who is not the only woman at the outpost, just the prettiest. Apparently there Hendry and Nicholson have a backstory, which we learn involves time spent together at the outpost and back in Anchorage, where she apparently drank him under the table and left a note on his person that other people read first about his legs. But we can tell that he won’t stay mad at her for long.

Capt. Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) has the hots for Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan)
Dr. Carrington briefs the servicemen about his find, enlisting help from Dr. Redding (George Fenneman) to explain the science behind their discovery. While the explanation is somewhat vague it is enough to get the expedition started. 48 miles away, they come across the crash site, which is now buried under the ice. It is a large flying saucer made from a metal, not of this world. (Sound familiar, like you’ve heard that line in every film about space invaders?)

Outlining the flying saucer crashed under the ice.

When the crew attempts to melt the ice, they actually set the spaceship on fire and it gets destroyed. But all is not a total loss. They discover the body of an alien frozen in the ice. With a storm approaching, they dig out a block of ice with the body in it and take it back to base.

When the crew tries to remove the ship, they set it on fire.

While Dr. Carrington wants to melt the ice and examine the body, Hendry puts the kibosh on that. He wants to get authorization from General Fogerty first. (Hendry won’t let Scotty file a story about the find for the same reason.) This sets into motion the conflict of scientists vs. military which will continue throughout the rest of the film. With the body in a block of ice, the servicemen take turns as guard. Corporal Barnes (William Self) takes the second watch and puts a plugged-in electric blanket over the ice so he doesn’t have to look at the alien within. They should call him Corporal Oblivious since Barnes never notices that the block of ice melts and the Thing (James Arness) emerges. Barnes shoots at the Thing, but it isn’t hurt by the bullets and escapes.

When the Thing goes outside, the sled dogs attack it and while it kills two dogs one of them bites of the Thing’s arm. When Carrington examines the arm, he finds that it is not meat but plant. They discover that the dog’s blood on the arm brings it back to life. Carrington starts to use blood plasma from the infirmary to incubate seed pods found on the arm.

Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) (far left) shows off the pods he's been cultivating.
Carrington is undeterred from his experiments even when two of his scientists, Olson and Auerbach (who are not seen) are found in the outpost’s greenhouse, killed and drained of blood. Dr. Stern (Eduard Franz) narrowly escapes. Carrington seems to be willing to concede to the will of the Thing, which he assumes to be over superior intellect.

Nicholson tips Hendry off to what Carrington is doing, Hendry leads a group to the greenhouse and are confronted by the Thing, which has regrown its severed arm. The Thing escapes through the exterior door and re-enters the compound through another door. This time Hendry and his men set the Thing ablaze using a flare-gun and buckets of kerosene, forcing it back outside into an Arctic storm.

The Thing doesn't let a little thing like fire stop him.
When the creature tampers with the heating fuel line, the temperature in the compound drops, forcing everyone to make a final stand near the generator room. The crew rigs an electric fly trap hoping to electrocute the Thing. But Dr. Carrington sabotages the effort by turning off the generator. He tries in vain to reason with the Thing, stopping short of promising to be the creature’s minion. But the Thing swats him away with the back of his hand, breaking the doctor’s collarbone and knocking him out.

Dr. Carrington tries in vain to reason with The Thing (James Arness)
With the Thing approaching, one of the servicemen throws an ax in his path to force him back onto the wire fence grid. Hendry throws the switch and the subsequent arc of electricity reduces the creature to a smoldering pile of ash.

The Thing being electrocuted.
The next day, Hendry and Nikki renew their romance. Scotty also gets to file his report, telling reporters on the other end of the line to “Keep watching the skies’; a warning meant for all of us in the audience. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Any science fiction film will have special effects and usually, when you’re watching a low budget film like this one, the worry is that the effects will come across as obvious and bad. While the special effects were added post-production, they are not jarring. Perhaps they are helped by the film being black and white, but they work well.

For a low budget film, the movie has a lot of A-list talent behind it. To begin with, Howard Hawks produced it. Hawks is one of those geniuses behind the camera that could do handle pretty much any genre. He worked easily with comedies: Bringing Up Baby (1938); His Girl Friday (1940); Ball of Fire (1941); I Was a Male War Bride (1949); and Monkey Business (1952); westerns: Red River (1948), The Big Sky (1952) and Rio Bravo (1959); gangster films: Scarface (1932); war: Sergeant York (1941); musical: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Hawks made two films with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, To Have and To Have Not (1944) based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway and The Big Sleep (1946) based on the private detective novel by Raymond Chandler.

Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby
Hawks, who produced The Thing, is rumored to have helped to direct the film as well, though the credit is given to Christian Nyby, For Nyby, who would have a long career in television, had not directed a movie, or anything for that matter, prior to this film. While both Hawks and Nyby deny Hawks’ involvement with directing the film, no doubt Nyby was greatly influenced by his mentor. For a low budget film this bears the stamp of one of the great directors.

Hawks is also rumored to have helped with the screenplay, credited to Charles Lederer. Unlike Nyby, Lederer was a veteran of Hollywood, having worked with Hawks on prior films, like His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monkey Business, I Was a Male War Bride. It would be easy to see that Hawks might have been involved in the screenplay though Lederer was an accomplished writer on his own.

The score was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, considered to be one of the giants of Hollywood movie music. He worked a lot with the likes of Frank Capra: Lost Horizon (1937); You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1947). Tiomkin wrote music for many westerns including Duel in the Sun (1946), High Noon (1952), Giant (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Rio Bravo and The Alamo (1960). He also wrote music for Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Town Without Pity (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Four Alfred Hitchcock films also have a Tiomkin score: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers On A Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial M for Murder (1954).

Tiomkin had worked with Hawks on such films as Red River, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), The Big Sky and Rio Bravo. His score for The Thing employs the Theremin, an early electronic instrument which gives the music a modern and unworldly quality.

While none of the actors would ever win awards for their work, they are more than adequate for this movie. Hawks’ project Margaret Sheridan, who received top billing, never had much of a career and this is definitely her best-known movie role. Kenneth Tobey is perhaps best known for the starring role on The Whirlybirds which ran on CBS and in Syndication for 111 episodes.  He caught Hawk’s eye with a short comedy bit in I Was a Male War Bride which lead to his role in The Thing. After this film, he would land other roles in sci-fi films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1956).

Any mention of the actors would be incomplete without mentioning James Arness as the Thing. After this movie, Arness would star in Them! (1954), about giant ants invading Los Angeles, and Hondo (1954) with John Wayne. Arness is best known as Matt Dillon on the TV version of Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955 to 1975 on CBS. Arness is also the older brother of Peter Graves best known for playing Jim Phelps on the TV series Mission: Impossible.

The Thing From Another World is a well-made piece of Cold War-era science fiction. It is one of those low-budget films that doesn’t look cheap. Since it was remade by John Carpenter in 1982, the original is worth seeing if for no other reason than that. But if you watch the film, you will be pleased to see a quality piece of filmmaking. While Hawks may not have written or directed the film, his presence is clearly seen by what is on the screen.

The Thing From Another World is available at the WB Shop:

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