The Thing from Another World is a singular motion picture. It’s a combination of Howard Hawks’s fast-paced, overlapping dialogue and 1950s science fiction. It might even be the first of the 1950s sci-fi genre, the one setting the standard. There is a lot of supposition about the director’s chair–it is hard to believe television director Christian Nyby turns in such an exquisitely directed feature (his first), especially when Hawks is the film’s producer and so much of it has Hawks’s fingerprints. James Arness (the eponymous thing) has said it was Nyby, with Hawks on set a lot. Regardless, the film has some fantastic scenes, unlike anything in science fiction movies for years to come (until the filmmakers who watched The Thing got around to making their own movies).
But the technical achievement–down to the excellent use of Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for mood-generating effect–gets ousted, eventually, by the problematic script. The Thing is a metaphor for the battle against Communists in our ranks. If one’s looking for it, he or she can certainly read it in that manner. But just looking at the picture itself is far more interesting, because it reveals the defects related to propagandizing an unwilling production.
In the film, the scientists urge to discover–outweighing self-preservation–is evil. It’s also unbelievable. It doesn’t help Robert Cornthwaite’s make-up makes him look like a suspicious, mildly British intellectual, who must be bad news. The script sabotages any chance for Cornthwaite to turn in anything but a hackneyed performance. His character has less depth than a guest star on “The Love Boat” and makes a lot less sense.
There’s also the problem with Douglas Spencer, who plays the Hawks reporter. The Thing doesn’t exactly have room for a reporter, so they make room for him. He tells jokes (but not the film’s funniest ones, which involve air force captain Kenneth Tobey’s misadventures romancing Cornthwaite’s assistant, Margaret Sheridan) and spouts off about freedom of the press and gets to make the big “Watch the Skies” speech at the end. The reporter character is the film’s silliest part–it doesn’t fit and always seems contrived–and it really doesn’t help how bad a performance Spencer gives.
But on to the good performances. Tobey’s great as the captain and his romance with Sheridan provides all the tension relief the film needs. Tobey projects that 1950s sci-fi leading man calm perfectly, with the writing coming through to make he and his crew into (Hollywood) believable combat veterans. But it’s Dewey Martin who takes over the last third of the film as an enlisted man who comes up with every good idea. It’s a strange move–everyone just waits for him to tell them what they should do next–given the character isn’t even named in the end credits, just “Crew Chief.”
The film’s problems are those of its era, which–try as they might–can’t defeat its superiority. The Thing from Another World runs less than ninety minutes and, from around minute five, has the viewer totally engrossed (with nothing more than a plane flying over white Arctic expanses).
Directed by Christian Nyby; screenplay by Charles Lederer, based on a story by John W. Campbell Jr.; director of photography, Russell Harlan; edited by Roland Gross; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by Howard Hawks; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Margaret Sheridan (Nikki), Kenneth Tobey (Captain Patrick Hendry), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Carrington), Douglas Spencer (Scotty), James R. Young (Lt. Eddie Dykes), Dewey Martin (Bob, Crew Chief), Robert Nichols (Lt. Ken McPherson), William Self (Corporal Barnes), Eduard Franz (Dr. Stern), Sally Creighton (Mrs. Chapman) and James Arness (The Thing).