Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Directed by Christian Nyby; produced by Howard Hawks

This classic thriller concerns the crash-landing of a flying saucer in the high arctic. The passenger is frozen in ice, and found by a mixed group of civilian scientists and U.S. servicemen, who take the alien back to their research station. There, the creature is inadvertently thawed, and begins to wreak havoc.

Usually, a movie that deviates far from the source material (in this case, a novella entitled Who Goes There?) is heading down a detour to lukewarm reviews. The Thing from Another World, however, forges its own road and creates one of the best science fiction / adventure films you will see. Everything works in this gem, with excellent writing, acting, and direction.

I am a big fan of good writing, so I will start with that. The script (by Charles Lederer) is smart and clever, with explanations of what is happening, what the creature in question is and how to deal with it, conveyed by means which make neither the speaker seem stilted or unnatural, nor the listener artificially ignorant. The characters are almost immediately seen as three dimensional, with personalities shown not just by what they say but just by the mere fact that they are saying it. There is humour, as well; not the misplaced humour of the generic joke inserted without reason, but the sort that people under stress would create, either intentionally or otherwise, and the sort that people who are intrinsically amusing might use.

The characters are, for the most part, likeable people, which is something one doesn’t come across too often in films. There is usually a character who is abrasive, abusive or otherwise unpleasant, thrown in to create tension or conflict. His motives are usually weak or simply not demonstrated. There is none of that here. These are ordinary people, individuals, with whom, while one may not want them as best pals, one doesn’t mind spending time. Even the ‘human villain’ of the piece, though he may come across as fanatical, exudes a certain sympathy.

The actual dialogue is very natural and smooth. At times, two or more characters speak at once, cutting each other off, talking over each other and finishing each other’s sentences. Think of how many times this happens in real life and how many times it doesn’t occur in movies, and you’ll get the idea of how realistic the dialogue is.

Translating the script into the spoken word are a number of actors, only one of whom would be familiar to most viewers. Kenneth Tobey plays an, admittedly, average man who shows why he’s a good officer; Margaret Sheridan - producer Hawks’s ‘discovery’ and of a regrettably short career - is the female lead, intelligent, fun and able to drink Tobey under the table. The cast is filled with capable supporting performers. The only member who would become recognizable in later years is, ironically, unrecognizable here: James Arness fills the role of the alien. (A recent review was of The Ride Back, which starred William Conrad, who played Gunsmoke’s Marshal Matt Dillon on radio; Arness would play him on television.)

The direction is disputed. Christian Nyby is credited with the job, but it has long been believed that producer Hawks had a large hand in it. Whoever was in the chair, his work was lean, exciting and very good. There are scenes which easily rival some of the best bits from fine movies these days. The scene in which the humans try to fight the alien with fire is thrilling, and must be one of the earliest in which a stunt-man was fully engulfed in flames for filming.

I look for attention to detail in movies, attention which shows that the writer or director or producer cares about even the incidental aspects of his work, the little things that add to the enjoyment or interest. In The Thing from Another World, there are brief glimpses of civilian cooks at the remote research station (ever wonder who makes the meals or washes the clothes at these isolated locations?) and remarks about stray bullets that almost hit people (an indication that, while the viewer may have forgotten minor characters, the writer didn’t.) There is one tiny aspect with which I quibble: the movie takes place in November in the far arctic, yet there are scenes in broad daylight… (Yes, I do like detail in my movies.)

The Thing from Another World is a snappy and fun night at the pictures. Many movie-makers of the twenty-first century could learn lessons from this old-time entertainment.


  1. john; have this on DVD; have watched it several times and will watch it several more; I couldn't agree more; this was the era when sci fi was best !!!!! the computer generated movies of the last few decades don't really hold wash with me; and totally off track, but if you ever get a chance to see the silent "thief of bagdad" from 1924; it's a must see; the cinematography from that era was amazing given the time frame. I actually st enthralled during the film; something I don't think I've ever done with any other "silent" I caught ♥♥

    1. I have not seen "The Thief of Baghdad", but will see if it's one I can obtain. I am behind on my silent films, though my favourite is probably "City Lights" - so redolent of its era.

  2. Oh, thanks for reminding me about this one! I love vintage sci-fi/horror films, and "The Thing..." was one of the best.

    Aaaand...I see I can stream it (for a rental fee) on YouTube. Excellent.

    1. Science fiction then was almost an undiscovered country: anything was game because it hadn't been done. What opportunities!

  3. I take it this was the original that was later remade by John Carpenter? Not often that two versions of the same film are excellent.

    1. Yes, though in story-line Carpenter's is closer to the novella. There is a third movie, from 2011, I believe, which is a prequel to the 1982 version.