Director Howard Hawks was in a PX in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1948, waiting for a scene setup during the filming of his I Was a Male War Bride. He picked up a copy of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine, and started reading a reprint of John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There? Hawks got lost in this story of a group of scientists stuck on a remote outpost in Antarctica. When they discover a long-buried spacecraft under the ice, they try to blast it out but destroy the ship. However, they are able to rescue a . . . thing:
"The broken half of the bronze ice-ax was still buried in the queer skull. Three mad, hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-spilled blood, from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow."
Luckily for the Thing, it didn’t have to live out its life with wormy hair. It could shape-shift at will, and take over other living organisms. The terror in Campbell’s story is ratcheted up by the characters’ -- and the reader’s -- not knowing who is human and who is an alien in human form.
Hawks liked the story, and later said, in an interview for Cahiers du Cinéma, "I thought it was an adult treatment of an often infantile subject." He bought the film rights for $900. After spending some time trying to develop a script that made sense, Hawks hired Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, two writers from his hit His Girl Friday (1940), to flesh out the story. They spent a few weeks working at Hawks’ home, and turned a psychological thriller into a sci-fi potboiler. (Those interested in seeing a film that hews closer to Campbell’s story should see John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a classic in its own right, though for reasons far different from Hawks’ version.)
The Hawks-Lederer-Hecht script aims at building tension slowly, with a few jump-out-of-your-seat moments of fright, as well as a hilarious discourse on the role of science in a kick-ass world. There’s also a barely hidden cold-war homily on the evils of communism in general and of the USSR in particular. In the film, the setting has been switched to the North Pole, presumably so that we could worry over whether the alien might be a giant Russki. The Thing turns out to be more vegetable than animal, let alone human; it grows little seed-Things, except, instead of water and sunlight, they require human blood. The sense of foreboding begins early and soon evolves into a kill-or-be-killed version of hide-and-seek.
What makes The Thing from Another World great is the contrast between the easygoing banter and byplay of the humorous crew -- almost a direct steal from the chattering newsroom reporters of His Girl Friday -- and the dead-serious counter-enlightenment of the scientists and the Thing. Then there are earnest discussions of the relative importance of science and research vs. loyalty and love. "No pain or pleasure as we know it. No emotions, no heart. Our superior. Our superior in every way," is how the scientist describes the thing. "An intellectual carrot," the reporter retorts. "The mind boggles."
And a big carrot, too. Makeup was a big problem in filming The Thing from Another World. Hawks picked James Arness to be the Thing, largely because of his physical attributes -- at 6' 10", Arness was already pretty scary. But no matter how they tried, they couldn’t make the "face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow" look anything other than silly. Arness hated his costume, claiming that it made him look "like a giant carrot." He was being charitable. But the costume’s weakness forced Hawks to make a stronger choice: he never quite lets us see the Thing clearly, thereby leaving its frightfulness to our imagination.
But even though you know it’s hokum throughout, watching The Thing from Another Planet is still captivating fun. The genius of directors such as Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford was their ability to transform corn into sentiment, using their talent in governing the ebb and flow of drama and comedy to convert claptrap into art. Audiences agreed, and made this low-investment film into a huge moneymaker for RKO Radio Pictures. With the success of The Thing in 1951 and, five months later, of The Day the Earth Stood Still, scary, alien-driven science-fiction entered its golden era.
Fifty-eight years after its release, two questions always arise in discussions of The Thing. If Ben Hecht wrote it and Howard Hawks directed it, why do their names not appear in the credits, which list only writer Charles Lederer and director Christian Nyby?
Despite Hecht’s huge earlier successes with Hawks and Hitchcock (Notorious, Spellbound, The Paradine Case), most of his work at the time was uncredited. Hecht was a hard-core Zionist who had worked tirelessly for the recent, postwar exodus of Jews from Europe on their way to Palestine. He saw the British as the biggest opponent to the founding of an independent Jewish state, and publicly stated that "every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts." After that statement had made its way across the Atlantic, any movie with Hecht’s name on it was banned in Britain. Hecht kept working in Hollywood, but almost always without screen credit.
The only thing that kept The Thing from going directly to drive-ins was the name of Howard Hawks, who is widely rumored to have directed it. Listen to the rapid-fire, overlapping dialog and watch the macho interplay, and it seems that no one but Hawks could have directed. Why didn’t he take proper credit for the job?
Christian Nyby, a longtime film editor (often for Hawks), had been wanting to make the jump to director, and it seems likely that his mentor, Hawks, was doing him a favor. Actor Kenneth Tobey, who plays Captain Patrick Hendry and was present throughout The Thing’s shooting schedule, said, "Howard Hawks directed it, all except one scene. Chris Nyby directed us coming through a door, and it’s the worst scene in the picture!"
Producer Ed Lasker said, "Chris Nyby didn’t direct a thing. One day, Howard was late and Chris said, ‘Why don’t we get started? I know what the shot should be.’ And I said, ‘No, Chris, I think we’ll wait until Howard gets here.’"
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, for the rest of their lives, neither Nyby nor Hawks deviated from the official version of the story. But of the rest of the cast and crew, only James Arness stuck with Nyby, throwing into the argument the credibility he’d earned as Gunsmoke’s Marshal Matt Dillon by stating flatly that Nyby had directed the entire film.
Regardless, The Thing from Another World crushed Nyby’s hopes for a directing career. First, it stuck him with a "sci-fi only" tag that he had a hard time shaking off. More important, because his skills weren’t a tenth of Hawks’, he was never able to replicate the quality of work he’d supposedly done on The Thing. He spent the rest of his career directing TV shows, including episodes of Gunsmoke (starring Arness), Bonanza, Kojak, and Adam-12.
Hawks had a few more good films ahead, especially Monkey Business (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Rio Bravo (1959). He directed his last film, Rio Lobo, in 1970, at the age of 74. Five years later, when someone at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences noticed that Hawks had never won an Oscar, they bestowed an Honorary Award on "A master American filmmaker whose creative efforts hold a distinguished place in world cinema." Hawks joined a distinguished group of Oscarless directors that includes Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, and Alfred Hitchcock. And while it took a half-century for anyone in the Hollywood establishment to take notice of The Thing from Another World, finally, in 2001, the film was selected by the National Film Preservation Board as being worthy of safeguarding in perpetuity at the Library of Congress.
Even Turner Home Entertainment, a company often willing to drag drivel into classic status, has done little to give The Thing the treatment it deserves, though their DVD edition looks good enough. Most people alive today have never seen the film in a theater, so we can only guess at its quality -- but other B&W films filmed by cinematographer Russell Harlan, such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Red River (1948), have great depth and clarity. Unfortunately, there are no extras, and it would be good to make some documentaries about this film before everyone remotely connected with it is dead. Even a commentary track would be helpful -- perhaps one by Todd McCarthy, author of the definitive book Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood; or director John Carpenter, a man so enamored of Hawks that he remade two of his films: Rio Bravo (as Assault on Precinct 13, in 1976) and The Thing from Another World (as The Thing). The worst DVD choice of all, and one to avoid at all costs, is the grotesque colorized version of The Thing from Another World.
All carping aside, the SD DVD is its own reward, and will do just fine until we can get a tricked-out Blu-ray edition. A brand-new copy of the DVD in glorious B&W from Amazon.com runs $5.79 -- a small price to pay for a classic. Enjoy it this Halloween.
. . . Wes Marshall