UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) were making headlines during the late 1940s/early 1950s. The sightings of UFOs in 1947 near Mt.Rainier, Washington, and Roswell, New Mexico brought about a government investigation called Project Sign, later replaced by Project Blue Book. Reports of “flying saucers” were coming in from around the globe, and no answers were in sight. Citizen’s nerves were already frazzled with the threats of “The Red Menace” and potential nuclear holocaust, and the possibility of an invasion from outer space just added to the collective existential angst.
Hollywood discarded its Old World horrors of Vampires, werewolves, and mummies and boarded the science fiction rocket ship. By 1951 a slew of space invaders was unleashed on box offices across the nation. That year alone studios released features THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, FLIGHT TO MARS, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, The Man from Planet X , and the serials LOST PLANET AIRMEN and CAPTAIN VIDEO: MASTER OF THE STRATSOSPHERE. But the film that stands out as most frightening is Howard Hawks’ production of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.
At an Air Force outpost in Alaska, Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew are sent to investigate a report by Polar Expedition 6 of a mysterious craft landing 48 miles east of their encampment. They fly out to the frigid wasteland, nothing but snow and cold for miles around them and, accompanied by lead scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwait) and his fellow researchers, find a large object embedded in the ice. It’s metal is of unknown origin, radioactivity emits from it, and it’s perfectly round shape lead them to one conclusion…they’ve stumbled upon a flying saucer. Their attempt to thaw it out using a thermite bomb destroys the ship, but not it’s occupant, an eight-foot humanoid encased in ice. The crew bring the body back to examine and discover it’s still alive.
‘The Thing’ escapes after being thawed, killing some sled dogs but losing an arm in the process. The scientists run tests and believe it’s a highly evolved species of vegetable, with the intelligence of a human. The arm on the examination table moves, and the scientists conclude ‘The Thing’ has fed on the dog’s blood, rejuvenating it. Carrington and his cohorts want to capture and communicate with it, but Hendry and his men seek to destroy it. When the alien visitor kills two scientists, hanging them upside down to drain their blood for nourishment, all but Carrington agree ‘The Thing’ must be stopped for the sake of humankind.
The ensemble cast isn’t made up of stars, just competent actors who give fine, realistic performances despite the fantastic nature of the script by Charles Lederer (based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by sci-fi author John W. Campbell). Tobey is perhaps the best known, gaining some fame in the syndicated 50s TV show THE WHIRLYBIRDS. Margaret Sheridan represents the love interest as Nikki. Her brief film career includes playing Mike Hammer’s secretary Velda in 1953’s I, THE JURY. Other familiar faces are Dewey Martin, Eduard Franz, Ben Frommer, George Fenneman (Groucho’s sidekick on YOU BET YOUR LIFE), and voice actor Paul Frees in a rare onscreen role. And we can’t forget about ‘The Thing’ himself. If you’re reading this, you probably know it’s James Arness, brother of Peter Graves, and star of the long-running TV Western GUNSMOKE. Yep pardner, that’s Marshall Matt Dillon himself playing the bloodthirsty alien under all that makeup in one of his earliest roles.
Christian Nyby is credited as THE THING’s director, but rumors abound that Hawks really called the shots. It’s never been proven or disproven, but there are so many Hawksian touches in the film it’s hard to believe he didn’t direct it. Nyby was editor on four Hawks films before taking this assignment. All I can say is Howard Hawks was one of the most distinguished directors in Hollywood, responsible for classics like SCARFACE, BRINGING UP BABY, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, SERGEANT YORK, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, and RIO BRAVO (which has a lot in common with THE THING). Christian Nyby had a mostly undistinguished career as a television director, with only four other features to his credit. I have my opinion; you can watch and judge for yourself.
TEH THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD inspired a remake in 1982 by John Carpenter, an admitted devotee of Hawks. The remake is excellent, but I prefer the original. The black and white cinematography by Russell Harlen makes the frozen North seem so much colder, adding to the feeling of isolation and fear. It’s a true classic of sci-fi, and movies in general. And remember, “Keep watching the skies!”