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Life in the Dark: “The Thing from Another World”

I think of the 1950s sci fi / horror classic, The Thing (1951)—aka The Thing from Another World—as a Howard Hawks film. But watching it on video the other night, I had to confront the fact that this is not technically accurate. While it was produced by Hawks, he isn’t credited as director, but rather the unknown Christopher Nyby. Still, not only did Hawks produce, but he also reportedly contributed to the screenplay—which was by Charles Lederer, based on a short story by John W. Campbell, Jr. And he’s frequently cited as at least a co-director, if uncredited.

Whatever the truth of its directing, it certainly displays many of the characteristics of the “Hawksian” film. There’s the group of professionals in an isolated setting—like the jail in the small Western town in Rio Bravo, the dinky South American airfield of Only Angels Have Wings, or the safari camp of Hatari!. There’s the sharp woman negotiating a relationship with the main protagonist. As in many of these movies, integrating a newcomer or outsider into the group is an important issue in the arc of the story—often the woman, but also often a new man, who must prove himself and also learn to respect the group dynamic.And of course there’s the banter—the key unifier of the group, self-deprecating, but also generally highlighting the professionalism of the group. The banter and group dynamics being so Hawksian, it seems likely that these were aspects of the script to which Hawks contributed. The snap and verve of much of this banter may reflect the contributions of the terrific Ben Hecht, who also worked on the script.

There are some differences from the archetypal Hawksian film, but they seem fairly minor. The opening sequence is so “Hawksian” that it tends to definitively rewrite the authorship of the film, erasing the official director credit that has just been shown. It’s the group of professionals sitting around a table, playing cards, with the subordinates engaged in that light, witty, cross-cutting banter which is so quintessentially Hawksian, particularly with its deprecating celebration of the prowess of the main protagonist.

In some ways, the Hawksian qualities of The Thing tend to undermine its success as a scary sci fi/horror film. There are moments of danger, even death in Hawks movies, but there is never really terror or horror. And so, in The Thing, while we are apparently meant to feel a sense of horror or dread over the monstrous alien entity lurking outside in the dark, it never really comes across. The characters talk about the menace, but don’t really seem to feel it—nor do we. For one thing, their cool professionalism and wit makes their triumph seem even more of a foregone conclusion than it is in other movies.

The opening is great and promises real scares to come, with the burning-in of the letters of “The Thing” and the menace of the score—an under-appreciated gem by Dimitri Tiomkin—but the film doesn’t really make good on the chills that this opening seems to promise.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 remake, on the other hand, not only resurrects the shape-shifting quality of the alien from Campbell’s original story, which was ditched for the Hawks version, but also does a superb job of generating dread and terror.  It’s a genuinely scary movie, and Kurt Russell is excellent in it. (He does well in science fiction movies—he’s also great in Soldier (1998).)

With the ending, on the other hand, an imperative of 1950s science fiction overwhelms the Hawksian qualities of the film. The endings of Hawks movies are all about celebrating the triumph of the group, and the group as a group. There’s banter, camaraderie.  But that’s not what we get in the finale of The Thing. Instead, we get the reporter Ned Scott talking into a microphone but facing out, as if to address the movie audience, with his strident warning to “watch the skies.”

It’s the sort of ending you get in other 50s science fiction films—perhaps most famously in another movie featuring vegetable invaders from the stars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). I appreciate the ending—it’s fun and hokey—the hokiest moment in the film, I think, for a modern audience, and very much of its time and genre. But it’s not a “Hawksian” ending.

However Hawksian the movie is or is not, it’s one of the standout science fiction films of the 1950s, and you can—amazingly enough—watch it online through Google video here: The Thing From Another World.

In 2001, the Library of Congress designated The Thing from Another World as “culturally significant” and it is now preserved in the National Film Registry.

A couple of final thoughts….

The conflict between the military men, led by the main protagonist Captain Hendry, and the scientists, particularly the head scientist, the Nobel Laureate Doctor Carrington, is at the heart of much of the movie and it is an interesting dynamic to consider in relation to other science fiction movies of the era.

It’s far more common to find a scientist as the main protagonist trying to convince the military of the danger rather than the other way around. One has to wonder if Hawks’ political and social views might have influenced this reversal of the normal trend.  It’s significant—although perhaps only or mostly to film and popular culture scholars—because the tension between military and scientist seems to reflect and be bound up with attitudes towards science in the 1950s and concern over nuclear weapons. This is perhaps most apparent in all the giant radioactive monster movies.

Lastly, an embarrassing admission. I can’t believe that—as often as I’ve seen both movies—it never registered with me before just how much The Thing is an obvious influence on, a precursor of, Alien (1979), directed by Ridley Scott from a script by Dan O’Bannon. What really brought this home to me, watching The Thing on video, were the scenes where they are using the Geiger counter to detect the approach of the monster—so much like that “air displacement” detector in Alien. And in both you have this isolated group under threat by a monster lurking in the dark/offscreen, apparently vulnerable only to fire.

Alien, of course, really and truly captures and exploits all the scariness possible in the scenario. I had to hide under my jacket when I first watched it, at the long-gone Northpoint on its opening weekend.

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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