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Thing from Another World

Monday July, 22 2019 at 05:00 PM

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A high watermark in the spate of science fiction films flooding movie screens in the 1950s, this Howard Hawks production is as remembered for its snappy dialogue and well-timed shocks as its unorthodox placement in the history of auteur cinema. The film bears a directorial credit for Christian Nyby, a seasoned editor who had been working with Howard Hawks since To Have and Have Not in 1944. He also earned an Oscar nomination for his challenging work on Red River (1948), which necessitated the creation of two entirely different cuts (both of which have their passionate advocates). The exact nature of the roles of Hawks and Nyby during the production of The Thing from Another World (1951) remains ambiguous, with Hawks on set throughout the production as producer in a more hands-on role than usual. The finished film is usually referred to as a Hawks production either way, with many writers treating it as part of his directorial body of work.

The 1951 film originated at Hawks' Winchester Pictures Corporation a year earlier with several screenplays drafted from the 1938 short story "Who Goes There?" written by John W. Campbell, Jr. under the name Don A. Stuart. The story first appeared in the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction, with the main elements lifted for the film including its arctic setting and a group of scientists under siege from an alien menace excavated from the ice. Otherwise the characters and the nature of the threat were significantly changed during the writing process, which included a treatment (as simply The Thing) by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer and multiple drafts by Campbell, still writing as Stuart. Hecht and Lederer had famously worked with Hawks on His Girl Friday (1940), a gender-twisting take on their earlier The Front Page (1931).

Cast in the leads were Kenneth Tobey as Captain Patrick Hendry and Margaret Sheridan as Nikki Nicholson, another example of Hawks's tough, fast-talking female leads. An experienced stage actor, Tobey caught Hawks's eye in the director's I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and was promoted here to star status. The film's success led to both a busy TV career and starring roles in two more beloved '50s sci-fi films, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), not to mention affectionate roles in a handful of Joe Dante projects. Discovered by Hawks while she was still in college, Sheridan was originally offered a leading role in Red River but had to decline due to her pregnancy. However, she flourished in her role here including a memorable scene of mild kink in which she playfully ties Tobey to a chair, a scene trimmed from many circulating prints and home video versions well into the 1980s.

However, the film is arguably stolen by some of its supporting players including one of the era's defining deluded scientists played by Robert Cornthwaite. The World War II vet had one of his most memorable turns here as Dr. Carrington, which was lauded with a Science Fiction Hall of Fame entry in 1993. A year after this film he reteamed with Hawks for Monkey Business and would also enjoy a long career on the big and small screens. Also among the cast are TV regular Dewey Martin, who had memorable appearances on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and a rare onscreen appearance by master impressionist Paul Frees, whose voiceover and voice acting work made him a familiar presence everywhere from Disney park attractions (including the Haunted Mansion) to movie trailers to TV's The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. The most unexpected name here, uncredited on the actual prints, is the "Thing" itself, played by James Arness four years before TV immortality as Marshal Matt Dillon on the two-decade TV run of Gunsmoke. Also a World War II veteran, he was an ideal choice here thanks to his imposing 6'7" frame and would also go on to star in another key '50s sci-film, Them! (1954).

The Thing from Another World would become a highly influential film among the '70s New Hollywood breed of directors; the aforementioned Joe Dante nods were legion, and John Carpenter prominently featured two scenes from the film in his groundbreaking horror classic, Halloween (1978). Carpenter would go on to mount a remake of sorts, simply titled The Thing, for Universal in 1982 with a far closer adherence to the original short story. That version has become a major genre classic in its own right, though in public appearances Carpenter still defers to the Hawks film as the definitive telling. The 1982 film also spawned a prequel bearing the same title in 2011, while elements of the short story and the films were affectionately included in one of the standout episodes of the first season of The X-Files, "Ice." However, its greatest contribution to pop culture may be Scotty's famous closing lines, which have transcended their original atomic age paranoia to now encapsulate the appeal of an entire decade of genre filmmaking: "Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"

By Nathaniel Thompson

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