Intrepid soldiers and scientists battle a bloodsucking alien invader at the top of the world! The Warner Archive Collection releases Howard Hawks’ incomparable Science Fiction thriller, a long-desired favorite. Long handicapped by missing scenes, this RKO classic is intact once again, complete with its nerve-rattling bombastic Dimitri Tiomkin music score.
The Thing from Another World
Warner Archive Collection
1951 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 87 min. / Street Date December 18, 2018 / 21.99
Starring: Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, James R. Young, Dewey Martin, Robert Nichols, William Self, Eduard Franz, James Arness, Paul Frees, George Fenneman, John Dierkes.
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Art Direction: Albert S. D’Agostino, John J. Hughes
Film Editor: Roland Gross
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Charles Lederer from a short story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Produced by Howard Hawks
Directed by Christian Nyby
Still one of the all-time favorites of 1950s science fiction filmmaking, Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World was preceded in theaters only by Rocketship X-M, Destination Moon and The Man From Planet X. It’s not the first movie about monsters from flying saucers, but of the the genre’s first batch of releases it’s definitely the most influential. Far fewer space exploration pictures were released compared to the onslaught of rubber monsters from space, from under the sea, or out of some other dimension of the past or future.
The Thing from Another World was the big thrill of its day, the kind of picture that convinced kids that The Thing was hiding in their closets. It’s a polished show in every respect, made with as much care as any mainstream Hollywood picture. On TV in the 1960s we were always surprised at how scary it was — even on the second or third time through, moments made us jump. The Thing isn’t lacking for interesting sci-fi ideas, but what thrilled us kids were the high-tension scares.
The story is framed within the context of a military aviation adventure. Air Force Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his aircrew are sent to the Arctic research station of Doctor Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). A nearby magnetic disturbance leads them to the crash site of what appears to be a genuine, honest-to-Dixie flying saucer. The craft is accidentally destroyed but the men recover the corpse of its occupant — an eight-foot, bald ‘Thing’ locked in a block of ice (James Arness). It doesn’t stay frozen for long, and when it goes missing and begins killing the research station becomes a battlefield for survival. Hendry and his airmen do everything they can to contain or destroy the alien but Dr. Carrington undermines Hendry’s efforts. He even begins growing new ‘Things’ in the lab’s greenhouse. The alien lifeform is so important, Carrington insists, that it’s their duty to protect it even if it means sacrificing their lives. One viewpoint must prevail if The Thing is to be defeated.
Almost everyone loves The Thing from Another World. Hawks’ science fiction adventure has excitement, laughs and suspense in a remote and claustrophobic location. The realism of scenes on the ice is impressive and every opportunity for action is taken. The movie is packed with dialogue — military banter, technical jargon, and a lot of decision making by Captain Hendry. In the warren of rooms and corridors a homing device is used to track the Thing’s movements. It demonstrates its intelligence by sabotaging the station’s heating system: the human defenders are forced to fight before they freeze to death.
The show has original, chilling moments greatly enhanced by Dimitri Tiomkin’s terrific soundtrack, which promises untold scares even behind the dramatic opening title. The non-reveal ‘reveal’ of the flying saucer is brilliant. The idea of a monster glimpsed dully through a block of ice works as well — we ‘see’ it more clearly through the vivid verbal description of Crew Chief Bob (Dewey Martin). The Thing’s initial appearances are kept short and abrupt, with the result that he remains a startling menace despite his somewhat ordinary design. The most effective shock moment is a fleeting view through a doorway. It’s enhanced by an optical that slightly diffuses just that area of the image in which Arness appears. It gives the shot an extra kick of weirdness, a “Did you see that?” quality.
The big action moments are riveting, especially the fire scene with gallons of flaming kerosene being thrown around. It appears to happen just as we see it, in a couple of master shots, as if the assembled stuntmen just said, “Do it and let’s see what happens.” Note the mass of fire that erupts on and around the mattress in the corner, the one Nikki is hiding behind. It’s almost guaranteed that some noses and fingers were singed during this action.
The terrific Winchester Pictures production plays out in confines that really look assembled from prefab sections hauled in by plane. The frequent icy breath of the actors reminds us that the cold up there is real. The rooms all appear to have full ceilings, and mud rooms insulate against the presumed sub-zero temperatures outside. Possibly as a joke to razz the military brass, a general’s office has big heat-losing windows (with quaint curtains), and an impractical doorway that opens directly to the elements: “Shut the door, it’s 30 below outside.”
Howard Hawks had co-produced most of his own pictures since the silent days, but only recently had he been working independent of a strong studio mogul. He took a much bigger risk with Red River. Hawks’ Winchester Pictures experiment might be seen as an attempt to make popular pictures without expensive stars, relying on his name and storytelling prowess to win audiences. Although signed by Christian Nyby, The Thing is a Hawks picture through and through. The whole thing was planned and rehearsed by Hawks; in at least one photo from the set he’s seen working with his actors. One story says that editor Nyby needed a credit to join the Director’s Guild and Hawks helped him out.
Although Hawks was clearly committed to the show, his not taking a directing credit may also be a sign that he saw it as a threat to his status as a top director: it had no stars, wasn’t going to win any awards, etc. He was probably right. Sci-Fi pictures soon became stereotyped as children’s fare featuring little more than rubber monsters, a flashy poster and a no-name cast. Mainstream actors and directors avoided them. Perhaps Howard Hughes was the only studio head who liked Hawks’ two Winchester productions without marquee star power. Was The Thing accepted for distribution because of its aviation context?
For Hawks’ commercial experiment his own name was given possessive billing and Sci-fi thrills were to be the draw. Were any big stars approached? As the show was produced in concert with RKO, it’s possible that Hawks might have first considered RKO’s then-rising male lead Charles McGraw, he of the stern stare and gravely voice. The likable Kenneth Tobey might have had an inside track, having just performed an extended bit in Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride. Tobey exuded positive military values. He had mainly played light support as military men and cops and his role here would lead to several less rewarding parts as monster-fighters. The assured Tobey anchors a true ensemble, not the typical setup of The Star backed by a score of expendable supporting players. A star would have insisted on stealing the juicy dialogue lines given players Douglas Spencer and Dewey Martin. The rejection of ‘star logic’ made the story less predictable for 1951 viewers — even Tobey’s leading man might become a victim of the bloodsucking carrot.
But Kenneth Tobey’s Hendry does get the luxury of a live, warm girlfriend. The one other woman in the cast is briefly glimpsed serving the men, but our heroine Nikki (top-billed Margaret Sheridan) is a typical gutsy-but-sexy Hawks dame with a nickname. Nikki uses her coffee pot an excuse to butt in on the male discussions. She even offers suggestions as to the best defense against a murderous vegetable. She and Captain Hendry share a very good comic scene — she ties the wolfish Captain to a chair and feeds him drinks — it’s her kinky precaution against being mauled. The scene fits right in with Hawks’ screwball comedies about emasculated men: I Was a Male War Bride, Monkey Business.
Hawks built a career around movies featuring clever, believable dialogue in scenes that only looked improvised, an effect reached through creative collaboration on the set. The insistence on a natural flow of dialogue created an illusion of present-tense reality, a sensation that All This Is Happening NOW. Caught up in the moment, in scenes with few close-ups or cuts, we’re all the more unprepared for the violent disruptions. The technique freshened Hawks’ comedies and enlivened stories about what Robin Wood would call the ‘Hawks male professional unit:’ a group of like-thinking pros work to accomplish a goal, whether they be fliers, fishermen or pyramid builders.
Having bonded through their shared military experience, Captain Hendry’s airmen are a pleasant bunch. James R. Young is the tough co-pilot. Robert Nichols, a smallish joker (he reads the magazine reference to flying saucers) has a big part in This Island Earth. William Self, the fellow who didn’t know the blanket was electric, became a major network television executive. Dewey Martin we all know from his starring turn in Hawks’ next ‘Winchester’ picture, The Big Sky. Scotty the reporter is the ubiquitous Douglas Spencer (This Island Earth, The Kentuckian). All of these guys earn our respect. Despite his nervousness Scotty is established as a career frontline war correspondent. Hawks and writer Lederer give him the film’s famous final line of dialogue.
The fliers act as a cohesive group that functions as a natural gathering of like-minded peers. The scientists are by and large individuals; when Carrington gathers them together, it’s a formal meeting. The scientists tend to present theories while the soldiers dispense decisions. The scientists have disagreements but don’t directly contradict their ‘department chair.’ When Carrington gives illogical or unwise instructions his associates meekly obey instead of snapping back a sassy objection, as would one of Captain Hendry’s men. The one scientist with a wife in tow, big John Dierkes (The Naked Jungle, “X”, the Man with the X-Ray Eyes) is the first to defect to the soldiers’ camp.
The arctic lab is a little community that needs solidarity to prevail in its death struggle with the unknown. When monsters are banging on the door the soldiers know there’s no time to argue fine points of morality or philosophy. This makes The Thing an initial manifestation of the Cold War edict that demands that all citizens are either ‘with us or against us’ against a perceived threat. ‘United We Stand’ yells the bumper sticker, but the real message is that there’s an unspoken ‘we’ out there with the authority to decide policy, and the job for the rest of us is to follow. There’s no room for dissenting Carringtons, no matter how sincere. This is War.
A few film critics were offended by the way The Thing from Another World abandons the original story’s cerebral concept. Author Campbell Jr.’s alien is a shape-shifting horror that can duplicate other life forms, and the movie substitutes a simple Frankenstein-like bogey man. Instead of a philosophical search to define what is human and what is alien, the movie makes do with a more conventional battle between a monster and our gun-toting heroes.
Some critics sensitive to Cold War politics didn’t like the show’s pro-military, anti-intellectual bias. As opposed to Kenneth Tobey’s warm and sentimental airmen, the scientists are calculating eggheads. The atom bomb is blamed on scientists, not generals or politicians. Robert Cornthwaite’s suave researcher doesn’t just go nuts; his own secretary Nikki (Margaret Sheridan) tells Hendry that “…he doesn’t think the way we do,” effectively condemning Carrington as a quasi- Enemy of Humanity. Carrington pronounces the obviously dangerous monster as ‘superior to Man in every way.’ He makes a General Ripper– like speech about the beauty of asexual procreation. Knowledge is more important to Carrington than human lives or his own survival.
The dumb part of Carrington’s thinking is his assumption that The Thing is representative of the intellects that built the saucer — he acts more like a warrior goon, or perhaps an uneducated biological invader programmed to wipe out humankind, so the intellectual aliens — who might not even be super-carrots — can inherit the world without opposition.
Doctor Carrington’s icy misjudgment is blamed on overwork but his associates don’t share his blind zeal. One even informs on him as if he were a dangerous subversive. Come to think of it, Carrington even wears a ‘Russian’ fur hat. When the soldiers voice respect for Carrington’s willingness to fight for his beliefs, it’s the kind of grudging respect given an enemy only after he’s been neutralized.
In some ways Carrington is a magnificent character; audiences applaud his brave pacifistic plea to the monster. The original script was much more harsh, defining Dr. Carrington’s ‘altruistic idealism’ as ‘traitorous disloyalty.’ Only a few hints of a rigid vindictiveness remain in the finished story. It is disconcerting when Dewey Martin silences Carrington with a smile and the cool assurance that he could be shot if he doesn’t obey. Demonstrators face that kind of righteous brute force every day: ‘Right or wrong, you will follow orders.’
No complaints arrive when poor Scotty discovers that Air Force censorship will prohibit him sending out a news story until official approval can be obtained. It IS a security situation, so we acknowledge the necessity of going through channels. Of course, Hendry throws that concern out the window at the finale with the “Keep Watching the Skies” radio message. We hope Hendry doesn’t lose his stripes for his break with protocol.
The excitement of The Thing has never diminished. In the late 1970s RKO showed a perfect print at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It seemed that every fan and student filmmaker attended, along with many professionals committed to Sci-fi and fantasy. On a big screen, with the music and action working on the crowd, the show was a big success. I have no idea if it was a complete version or not. My group of friends met up for the show, Steve Nielson, Randy Cook and Robert S. Birchard. We had read that former student filmmaker John Carpenter was a total Howard Hawks fanatic, but we didn’t yet know that his dream was to direct a major remake of the 1951 classic. Randy would end up contributing monster effects to the remake.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Thing from Another World has a patchy record on home video. It shares a problem with several other RKO pictures that were shortened for reissues, without protecting the original cut. They Won’t Believe Me (1947) lost fifteen minutes, Rachel and the Stranger (1948) lost twelve, and The Big Sky (1952) lost a whopping eighteen minutes. The Thing was only shortened by six minutes, but they’re sorely missed — the presentations on laserdisc, DVD and as cablecast on TCM all used inferior 16mm to bring the show back to original length. Whenever ‘cut’ material came up, the jump in quality was very apparent.
The Thing is finally out on Blu-ray because 35mm materials were finally located to do the job right. Because one of the reissues was done after the advent of widescreen, RKO optically processed the main titles to fit a wider frame. TCM has been showing a widescreen adaptation of the film for the last several years. This restoration gives us the movie and its original title sequence in the correct 1:37 format.
The new Blu-ray is a delight and definitely not the eyesore that were the old transfers. I am now only slightly aware of the jump in quality when the restored scenes arrive — and am no longer certain exactly where the replacement footage takes over. I think this may be because Warners doesn’t jump between sources until a cut comes along. There is no jump in audio quality — is it fair to assume that an entire first-generation soundtrack was retained?
Dimitri Tiomkin’s jolting, aggressive music comes across in all its violent glory, with its sharp notes and wailing theremin accents. Just the title sequence must have scared kids in ’51, before the story even got going. The great music score stays out of the way of the drama, blasting in whenever the audience needs to be shaken up.
The only extras are two trailers, both in better quality than I remember. Largely made from alternate takes, we see one or two new angles of familiar scenes.
The general disc presentation gets an A+. The main menu does not have the film’s title theme in the background, spoiling its fresh appearance when we play the movie. Push PLAY and the film simply starts, without extra logos, FBI warnings, etc. We also like the generous number of chapter marks, one for almost every scene.
Now that the picture has been reconstituted does anybody still care what was once missing? Sometimes I feel like the ‘old keeper of unnecessary memories,’ of movies I saw for years in pruned cuts, only to eventually enjoy a longer and more rewarding restoration: The Wild Bunch, The Fearless Vampire Killers, 1941. For an earlier review, correspondent Robin Brunet spelled out the exact cuts in The Thing. Robin reported that:
“The first restored scene is Captain Hendry’s briefing at General Fogarty’s headquarters. Less than a minute long, it includes a messenger who enters with a weather report, and Fogerty’s pithy remark that, for all he cares, Hendry can ‘maroon’ newspaperman Ned Scott at the North Pole.
The other deletion is a block of time taken out of three scenes in a row. The second restored scene runs several minutes. Captain Hendry enjoys a shave in the barracks, while Ned Scott voices growing frustration over his inability to transmit his story to the outside world. There is also more banter between Hendry and his-co-pilot, Eddie Dykes.”
[Note: In this scene is a tiny jump cut, at 33:29. It’s in the old DVD as well. It’s also in the odd version being shown on TCM, but with tape splice marks at the cut point, so I don’t think it was present in original prints.]
Mr. Brunet again: “The third restored scene follows immediately. Hendry and Nicki converse in the mess room. Nicki: “What does that bogey man in the cake of ice really mean?” She invites Hendry to a private get-together in her office. He promises that she can tie his hands together, so she won’t have to worry about being pawed.
The fourth restored scene is the longest, the pivotal drinking scene between Nicki and Hendry. It’s a comic breather from the tension. Nikki becomes giddy at the idea that Hendry actually allows his hands to be tied; Hendry quietly loosens the knots behind his back. Without these three scenes, The Thing jumps from the point where the block of ice is stored away, far too quickly to the moment when the electric blanket is thrown over it.
Warners has also restored some minor ‘lost’ moments: back again is a location shot of Hendry’s crew and dogsleds climbing across a ridge towards the buried saucer. A half-minute of dialogue has been returned to the scene in which the scientists gather around an exhausted Dr. Carrington, who mentions his ‘minor’ skirmish between himself and Hendry.” — Robin Brunet
A myth has persisted that a scene was once included in which the alien’s victims, drained of blood, were shown hanging upside down in the greenhouse. A vivid verbal description surely inspired the ‘phantom memory’ — it’s one of those non-existent scenes that some people insist they’ve seen. Other examples of viewer-invented scenes are King Kong being towed back to New York on a raft, a shot of Walter Pidgeon being killed by the Monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet, and Ray Milland screaming “But I can still see!” over the darkness at the end of X, the Man with the X-Ray Eyes. All are fables, never filmed and dreamed up later. I personally dreamed the Kong/raft scene; I know exactly what it looked like!
After I’d already seen The Thing perhaps forty times, the observant Ted Newsom pointed out a blatant continuity detail we all missed. In the aerial shot of the landing site of the flying saucer, a long strip of slick ice shows where the saucer skidded to a stop. At the end of the skid is the machine that smoothed the ice to create the long skid mark in the snow. Also, when the thermite bombs go off, the camera tilts up to follow the blast and smoke, and tilts right off the exterior set’s painted sky backdrop.
Two more continuity ‘tricks’ create unintentionally funny moments during the Thing’s final attack. The defenders have barricaded a hallway door with 4x4s and strong braces, to keep it from being opened. But when Arness enters, the door proves to be hinged the other way. The exact same action is a laugh getter in 1948’s Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. Another continuity jolt follows immediately: Arness stomps in, each foot landing with a blast of Tiomkin’s terrific mickey-mouse’d music. The barricade is now just a pile of lumber on the floor. We cut to the nervous defenders. When we cut back to Arness, there is now a new 4×4 beam lying just under The Thing’s right arm, ready to pick up! Yes, with twenty viewings and a cynical attitude, you too can critique beautifully-made movies.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Thing from Another World
Video: Excellent with six minutes that are Very Good++
Supplements: Original trailer, reissue trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 5, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson