THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD
A couple of weeks ago The Guardian newspaper recommended the podcast Inside Psycho. The weekly podcast is a treat for Hitchcock fans. Much is made, as it has been before, of the risk Hitchcock took in making a low budget horror picture. Psycho was released in 1960. Howard Hawks made the cheap horror The Thing From Another World in 1951. If anything, Hitchcock had more form. He had experience of making cheap American TV. Hawks was a major director, and his films had big stars and budgets. The diversion by Hitchcock somehow required explanation. The reaction to Hawks going into left field was accepted with a shrug. Perhaps it is because Hawks, unlike Hitchcock, refused to specialise in genres. Hawks also was not the credited director. If Christian Nyby did direct the film as both the credits and Nyby claim then Nyby was a slavish pupil. The Thing From Another World is a Howard Hawks film. Reports from the set indicate that Hawks was on the set during the film to give advice.
The film is great. It compares to the other Howard Hawks classic Only Angels Have Wings. In both films a small group of airmen combine to take risks and do their jobs as well as they can. Only Angels Have Wings was made in 1939 and had famous stars like Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. The airmen in Only Angels Have Wings operate an airfreight company. These heroes work in the private sector and take entrepreneurial risks. Six years and a Second World War later and people were thinking differently about the public sector. The US Air Force heroes in The Thing From Another World work for the Government. Their jobs, if not their lives, are secure.
Critics of the film refer to its hostility to science and curiosity. The mad scientist Dr Carrington wants to keep alive the murderous creature from outer space. The plain thinking airmen decide to fight and destroy the alien being. A scientist in self-defence claims, ‘We split the atom.’ An airman replies. ‘Yeah, and that sure made us happy.’ The Thing From Another World, though, is not anti-intellectual. At the end of the film Scottie reports to the newspaper and pardons the mad scientist. This is approved by the airmen who understand the need for tolerance and future cooperation. Hawks values men who have limited understanding of the world around them but persist, and ultimately this applies to both undereducated airmen and obsessed scientists. The airmen are not just baffled by science. They also find military bureaucracy and its overarching rules and regulations a mystery. Uninspired by intellectual ambition these men pass their free time playing cards. Reading books is too solitary an activity for them. Lacking privilege and access, they are obliged to solve front line and practical problems that the intellectual and powerful will never experience. The airmen have bosses at HQ. The scientists have intellectual freedom. The airmen are ordinary but, because of their limited knowledge, will need strength and courage. Hawks insists that they are entitled to respect and sympathy. In our better moments we know that he is right.
Captain Patrick Hendry leads the aircrew. He understands that he is not entitled to ceremony and status. Others in the crew make jokes at his expense. In the aeroplane Hendry and his crew exist in close proximity. When they take the huskies on a scouting mission in the snow, the huskies share the same space in the aeroplane. All are equal in the team, man and animal. Hendry speaks quietly and listens more than he talks. Critics have responded to the innovative overlapping dialogue. There is a marvellous rhythm to the speech in The Thing From Another World. In any other film the line, ‘An intellectual carrot, the mind boggles,’ would grate. But we accept it as a not too sharp comment from the newspaper reporter. It is just another remark from a fast talking character. The line arrives like all the others, one more wave that slaps on the beach and settles.
Characters not only interrupt one another but also finish the answers of the people speaking to them. The performance of the actors requires focus and control because delivering overlapping dialogue is difficult. That control, though, defines the characters in the film. Everyone shows respect to the others but also values their own contribution to the team. The clipped tone that they all have makes them sound like equal democratic partners and, just as important, level headed. They are not eloquent individuals but together they achieve poetical fluency. The heroism and glorification of leaders that exists in Only Angel Have Wings has been replaced by ordinary professionalism and mutual respect. Six years after the previous film times had changed. Fascist romance and Ayn Rand nonsense were unsavoury.
Captain Patrick Hendry is summoned to the North Pole to investigate odd readings in the sky taken by Dr Carrington and his team. In a marvellous scene they discover the space ship under the ice. There is not that much to the scene, nothing much except movie magic. The airmen work out the shape of the ship and rather than defrost the ice as they intend they accidentally destroy the ship. These men make mistakes but we realise errors do not preclude human strength, courage and good ideas, all of which come later. Hendry accepts that his team will be obliged to save the world but his initial concerns are about not compromising his accountability. Later, when the monster is on his destructive prowl, Hendry has less regard to his orders from the military big wigs. But even then, when the team are battling on behalf of mankind, we have a sense of how Hendry will be circumspect in his final report and protect his job. The genius of Hawks is that this human quality makes Hendry more and not less admirable.
Hawks accepts that even a democratic leader needs growth, which means moving on to another place. And in a team of equals the other men will have the strength to say goodbye. For Hawks moving on means leaving the other men and meeting a woman. In Rio Bravo Sheriff John T Chance played by John Wayne progresses to Feathers in the form of Angie Dickinson. When Hendry arrives at the North Pole after his summons from Carrington, he meets Nikki who supports the team of scientists. We discover that they have met before when Hendry was drunk and lecherous. This time Nikki is happy to sit and talk but Hendry has to sit with his hands tied behind his back. The scene is important. Nikki will be an equal in their relationship and she is sensible because she does not use a first impression to condemn another human being. Hendry admits his previous bad behaviour and accepts his punishment because he is mature and free of ego. He will soon be ready to leave the other men and accept something more important than physical challenge and heroism. Hendry is ready for domestic responsibility and knows that there will be other occasions when his hands will have to be tied by his equal partner.
Meanwhile the other men will do their jobs. And in a world without women and sexual competition they will be polite to one another, respond to pressure and enjoy their moments of Hemingway grace. The banter between the men in The Thing From Another World is gentle compared to modern standards, modest amusement about the predicaments of others. The restraint is valuable because it complements the overlapping dialogue. Points are scored but no one is allowed to take any of it seriously. The men tease one another, and we sense the sex free flirtation that exists between men proud of their physical capability.
The Thing From Another World has had two remakes. Both deny the positive Hawksian view of a human race that needs to survive, men and women blessed rather than cursed by limited knowledge and understanding. The remake by John Carpenter is a bold interpretation. The men in his movie collect empirical evidence but their work is without consequence. Disconnected from society and each other they are useless parasites surviving on supplies from another world they are free to ignore. They invite neither trust nor dependence. Both the original by Hawks and the remake by Carpenter are important and qualify as classic films. Hawks was an optimist who in 1950 remembered what was best about the past. Carpenter anticipated the future, the world of today where some argue that only those who have digital mastery or entrepreneurial clout are entitled to a living and respect. In the Hawks movie the virtuous team of ordinary men keep the monster at bay. In the remake unknowable men are possessed by the monster. The process of alienation that exists in the modern world is rendered complete. Well, before all that happens we have time to watch and be inspired by the heroes of Howard Hawks.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.