Monday, December 13, 2010

The Thing From Another World (1951) Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks

Think 1950s science fiction and this film has to be near the top of the list. The director credited with the movie is Christian Nyby, and there are divergent opinions on the level of Hawks’ involvement. But after you watch it, you will know that it’s a Howard Hawks film. Hawks was noted for quick, overlapping dialogue (remember “His Girl Friday”?), and this movie is replete with it.

The movie opens in a Officer’s Club in Anchorage, Alaska, and a group of Air Force personnel are soon sent to investigate a mysterious crash at an arctic scientific outpost. They arrive and are in immediate conflict with a brilliant but naive scientist. Preserve our lives and possibly the world’s, or the protect a source of possibly superior knowledge and information? And who gets to decide?  “There are no enemies in science, just phenomena, and we are studying one.”  “No pleasure, no pain, no emotion, no heart. Our superior in every way.”

There’s a wonderful scene early on when air force personnel and scientists are gathered at the scene of the crash. As they circle with their elongated shadows, the light slowly dawns on their faces as to what they have found.

The characters are on the whole quite likeable, and their dialogue and interactions are laced with wit and humor. (“We’re getting nowhere.” “We’re consistent!”) There’s also a  good deal of suspense and no wasted scenes. 

You won’t see “The Thing” until about an hour into the movie, and slowly, more and more of it is revealed. You’d never know it but it’s James Arness in a role he took, and hated, before his Gunsmoke fame. No other big name stars will be found here, just a cast full of experienced character actors, some with familiar faces.

The cinematography by Russell Harlan makes heavy use of light and shadows for dramatic effect. A noted cinematographer, Harlan has over 100 credits to his name, including his work in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Dimitri Tiomkin was a well-known Hollywood composer and conductor with hundreds of musical score credits (e.g., “High Noon,” “It’s a Wonderful Life”). His score for “The Thing” is suitably eerie when there’s about to be an alien moment, complete with a soprano descant at one point, and theremin by Samuel, and is altogether effective. 

John Carpenter remade the movie in 1982 starring Kurt Russell. I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on any comparison. But I can recommend the 1951 version. How can you resist a closing like this?

“Watch the skies everywhere! Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!”

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