THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) B/W 87m dir: Christian Nyby
w/Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, James Arness, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, James Young, Dewey Martin, Robert Nichols, William Self, Eduard Franz, Sally Creighton
From The Movie Guide: "Classic sci-fi chiller about a slimy alien presence (James Arness, who would later be Marshall Dillon on TV's 'Gunsmoke') that invades an arctic station. THE THING is very much a film of its producer, Howard Hawks, although Christian Nyby, Hawks's editor on RED RIVER, was credited as director. Hawks's style, themes, and handling of actors arguably dominate the film.
"Set in the subzero environment of the North Pole, the film follows an Air Force captain, Tobey, as he and his crew fly to Polar Expedition Six --- a group of scientists led by Cornthwaite who are studying arctic conditions --- to investigate reports that a flying craft of some sort has crashed into the ice. At the base camp Tobey finds an old flame, Sheridan, who is working as Cornthwaite's secretary. Sheridan is a tough woman in the Hawksian mold, and the romantic banter between her and Tobey is a joy to watch. When Tobey meets with Cornthwaite, he is shown pictures of the strange object as it streaked across the sky. A party is organized to investigate the crash site, and when they arrive they discover that the object has sunk into the ice and has been frozen. The soldiers, scientists, and Spencer, a journalist, fan out to determine the shape of the object. When they all take their places at the edge of the object, they have formed a perfect circle.
"The men decide to melt the ship out of the ice by detonating thermite bombs around it, but the plan goes awry and the ship is destroyed. Gravely disappointed, the men head back for their plane only to discover something else frozen in the ice --- an alien. Using axes, they cut out a block of ice encasing the extraterrestrial corpse and bring it back to the base camp. While the soldiers and scientists debate over what to do with the creature, the ice melts and the eight-foot tall thing breaks free of its prison, very much alive --- and not at all friendly.
"THE THING was based rather loosely on a science-fiction story by John W. Campbell, Jr. (it was first published under his pseudonym, Don A. Stuart), in which the alien had the ability to change its shape at will, causing havoc among the soldiers who begin to suspect each other of harboring the monster. [Charles] Lederer's screenplay (rumor has it that frequent Lederer-Hawks collaborator Ben Hecht had a hand in it as well) streamlines the narrative and allows Hawks to concentrate on the human interaction in the face of crisis. Whereas the original story (and [John] Carpenter's  remake) is a study of paranoia among comrades, Hawks's film revels in the interworkings of a tough group of professionals capable of handling any crisis if they stick together. The characters operate as an ensemble with no one being given much solo screen time. Their unity is what the film is about, a familiar Hawksian theme.
"In a genre often dependent upon elaborate special effects, THE THING is relatively stark and restrained. The monster is only glimpsed in shadows and darkness, thus letting the imagination of the audience fill in the terrifying details. [Russell] Harlan's cinematography and [Dimitri] Tiomkin's eerie early electronic score (he used a theremin) provide enough chills to satisfy any horror fan. No ray-guns, strange costumes, or futuristic inventions are needed here; even the spaceship is only suggested, never seen. The fact that the alien closely resembles a man heightens the sense of personal, human struggle that is the corner stone of all good drama."
From the Alternate Ending website (www.alternateending.com), this 2014 essay about the film, "Summer of Blood: And another Thing," by Tim Brayton:
"1951's The Thing from Another World is one of the weirdest cases that those of us who generally subscribe to auteur theory will ever have to deal with. It's a Howard Hawks production (Hawks was one of the key names when the Cahiers du cinema crew began formulating the theory), but not a Howard Hawks film; directorial credit was given to Christian Nyby, an editor who had cut several of Hawks's directorial efforts. But it looks for all the world like a Hawks film, and it sounds like a Hawks film, and over the decades, many people have rather casually assumed that Hawks actually directed it, giving Nyby credit as a favor; that, or he simply leaned on Nyby awfully hard, taking the film away from him without openly confessing to it. That assumption, though, runs against the recollections of the cast and crew, who deny that Hawks was more than a particularly attentive producer. Except for the cast and crew who assure us that yeah, Hawks totally took over and Nyby was just there to watch.
"It's insoluble (though not quite as much so as the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg film Poltergeist), but the general consensus is that Nyby was learning by doing on the set of The Thing from Another World, practicing the craft of directing by mimicking Hawks, and constantly checking in with Hawks to make sure he was doing things right, and occasionally handing his producer the reins when things got too difficult. And that results in a Howard Hawks film that was physically directed mostly by somebody else. The results were that Nyby worked almost exclusively in television for the rest of his career, and Hawks never again made something even remotely in the same generic wheelhouse as The Thing, and so it feels like a weird outlier either way. But a good 'un.
"So having at least acknowledged the one Big Difficulty with the film, let's turn to the next: any viewer coming to the film in 2014 --- or hell, even by like 1956 or '57 or so --- is going to be doing it at the significant disadvantage that The Thing from Another World was one of those groundbreaking, genre-defining masterpieces that set out a new litany of rules that proved so influential that everything amazing and revolutionary within it very quickly became indistinguishable from dozens of other movies. If you didn't know that The Thing more or less invented the alien invader genre of the 1950s, but assumed it simply came out alongside all the others, the only things that would distinguish it even slightly would be its more naturalistic-than-usual dialogue and a far more present, effective female lead than just about any other American genre film of the decade that I can immediately recall. But for the most part, it seems every inch as cliched and dopey as the likes of It Conquered the World or The Deadly Mantis (which isn't an alien movie at all, but the shared Arctic setting has always led me to think of it and The Thing in the same thought), if you just come to it blindly.
"And there's no real way to undo that impression, which makes The Thing from Another World neither the first victim of its own success. Still, it doesn't take strict historical contextualising to see how this is, for all its generic elements, a much better piece of filmmaking than most of movies it's most easily compared to. For it does have that dialogue, and it does have that female lead, and other charms besides.
"Based, with very little fidelity, on John W. Campbell, Jr's 1938 novella Who Goes There? --- which would be adapted again and much more closely in 1982, with John Carpenter's The Thing (the films are dissimilar enough that I don't want to go on a whole 'which is better?' tangent, but if I did, I wouldn't hesitate for a second before picking the one from '82) --- the script credited to Charles Lederer with known, and rather apparent, additions by Hawks and Ben Hecht tells of an Air Force detachment send to a remote Arctic research station to investigate the crash of an unidentified flying object. The leader of this mission, Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and the head of the research station, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) butt heads repeatedly over what should be done with the find: a large flying saucer that is accidentally destroyed in the attempt to remove it, and a giant humanoid body (James Arness) in the ice some way apart from the ship. Carrington desires to study the thing for the Advancement of Science; Hendry mistrusts anything unknown as likely to be dangerous, and he turns out to be quite correct in this doubt. When mischance causes the thing to thaw out, it goes on a bit of a rampage, killing two of the facility's dogs, and losing an arm. Carrington and his team are able to determine from this limb that it is in fact a plant, not an animal, and later events reveal that it's a plant that feeds on mammalian blood. And so do its seedlings, which it begins to raise in the station's greenhouse.
"The primary conflict of The Thing isn't between man and alien, but between science and action. This is the background of damn near every science fiction film of the era, of course, but few movies are so interested in making it as clear as this one, with its depiction of Dr. Carrington as the worst kind of meddler who speaks of the emotionless thing with awestruck admiration, and whose desire for knowledge leads him to openly confess that he'd rather die along with every other human in the station than allow the thing to be destroyed. Between its prodding dialogue and visual codes, the film makes an explicit connection that scientist = sociopath = communist = homosexual = the worst kind of insidious Other that wants nothing more than to stop the barreling might of the U.S. military making things safe for everybody. Hard rightwing overtones in sci-fi and horror are nothing new, but the unmissable way that The Thing from Another World says, all but in so many words, that anyone who wants to think and use reason is bad news, and should be barred from any position of authority.
"Being as I am entirely unsympathetic to that message, I guess I should find the movie problematic, but the thing is, it's such a terrific thriller, with such tight, relentless pacing. Even though the thing doesn't begin to make its presence felt till near the halfway point (of 87 minutes, none too short by '50s sci-fi standards), the control of character scenes is so great that the simple act of watching men discuss strategy ends up being terrifically absorbing. We owe that in part to Nyby's appropriation of the most important of all Hawksian innovations, overlapping dialogue; nothing this side of Hawks's His Girl Friday (adapted by Lederer from an original co-written by Hecht, not coincidentally) shows off the extreme kinetic energy of people talking over and around each other, trying to pull as much attention for themselves and their ideas as possible, recklessly blasting by the stateliness of so much filmmaking and sci-fi filmmaking especially. Oh, how many sci-fi pictures bog down in scenes of grave men gravely describing grave ideas with ponderous import? Most of them, but never The Thing, which is full of messy, vividly human moments of bickering and hashing-out ideas and sardonic asides. It's a movie where the sheer impact of how people talk is enough to make you lean in to absorb it all, making an absolute virtue of the small variety of locations.
"The other great Hawksian element is 'Nikki' Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), Carrington's secretary and a failed conquest of Hendry's, who represents one of the best examples of Hawks's women who can best all the boys at their own game. The first thing we find out about her is that Hendry's attempt to get her drunk enough to give in to his advances ended with her outdrinking him, and leaving him in a woozy stupor; as the film advances, she'll tie him up in a surprisingly open admission that BDSM is a thing for a '50s movie, and later gets one of the best lines of dialogue in the genre's history, when an exhausted Hendry announces, 'I've given all the orders I want to give for the rest of my life.' Without missing a beat, she tosses back, 'If I thought that was true, I'd ask you to marry me.' She's still ultimately just the Love Interest (her entire contribution to the plot consists of informing Hendry that Carrington has been cultivating thing-seeds on the sly), but there are few women who fill that role, and virtually none at all in this genre at this period, whose fulfillment of Love Interest duties is so clearly on her own terms and at her own pleasure. Sheridan's performance isn't great, necessarily --- she's too obviously being coached to ape Rosalind Russell, and isn't quite able to do so successfully --- but it's certainly good enough, and an already sturdy, tense film explodes with life every time she enters the frame.
"Aesthetically, The Thing is perfectly solid without being necessarily brilliant: the early going, with the team investigating the crashed ship, features some great images contrasting the men with the blank tundra, but once the action moves permanently inside, Nyby/Hawks and director of photography Russell Harlan pretty quickly exhaust the potential options for shooting groups of people talking in close interior spaces. Far better are the pace, and Roland Gross's editing; horror as it was practiced in 1951 barely resembles horror today, and I don't suppose most people would find this movie particularly scary anymore, but there's one superlatively-timed jump scare relying on the thing showing up considerably earlier than the beats of the scene would lead us to expect, and the slow accelerations in the speed of cutting let the film move smoothly from its tense opening to its frantic climax. The only problem, really, is the thing itself: Arness looks like a dimestore Frankenstein monster (he disliked the movie immensely, we are told), and while the filmmakers play the usual 'keep the creature offscreen as much as possible' game, even the handful of glimpses of the alien we see are enough to puncture its effectiveness. And this isn't chronological parochialism talking: I am a great fan of many '50s movie monsters. The thing just looks damn cheap, is all, and not Corman-style cheap-thus-delightful; just plain and boring and bereft of imagination.
"But luckily, The Thing isn't really about the thing, but about how the characters respond to its existence, and the internal friction that comes up as a result, somewhat like a latter-day zombie movie only with a more overtly pro-militarism theme than any zombie movie I've ever seen. Still, the main takeaway from the movie isn't 'fuck yeah, the Air Force!'; it's about how people deal with a tense, dangerous situation, and how interpersonal conflicts can exacerbate external threats. And also how you can never trust when those damn space Commies will show up next time. It's obviously dated, and it takes some willingness to look past its genre trappings to really appreciate how smartly crafted and beautifully written it is, but it's not the fault of a movie from 1951 that it's a movie from 1951, and the rock-solid core of the piece is just as nervy and insightful as it ever was.
"Body count: 2 humans, unseen; 3 dogs, all seen, and possibly more unseen; and 1 thing from another world, plus an uncertain number of seedling things that had not yet emerged as independent life forms."