Farber: "Howard Hawks's science-fiction quickie directed by Christian Nyby; fast, crisp and cheap, without any progressive-minded gospel-reading about neighborliness in the atomic age; good airplane take-offs and landings; wonderful shock effects (the plants that cry for human blood as human babies cry for milk); Kenneth Tobey's fine, unpolished performance as a nice, clean, lecherous American air-force officer; well-cast story, as raw and ferocious as Hawks' Scarface, about a battle of wits near the North Pole between a screaming banshee of a vegetable and an air-force crew that jabbers away as sharply and sporadically as Jimmy Cagney moves."
I presume that this film needs no introduction. And I'm hardly the first person to note what an exhilaration it is to go through Farber on Film and read his smart, plain, piety-free analyses of future classics—stuff that became the building blocks not just of auteurism but of film studies in general. And stuff that's still crisp and enjoyable. The Thing From Another World remains one of the most engaging and watchable pictures of its kind. A lot of it has to do with the atmosphere. While Hawks is credited only as producer here, and never attempted to wrest any credit from director Nyby in interviews, that atmosphere has Hawks' stamp all over it. There are stretches here that make this, like the previously discussed His Kind of Woman, something of a great "hangout picture." The weather outside may be frightful at the Arctic outpost where most of the picture takes place, but inside there's cards and booze and banter (the sharp jabbering Farber evokes) and a very warm stove. The group dynamic remains pretty cozy even as the tension generated by the film's murderous alien visitor ratchets up. (It's interesting to that when Hawks idolizer John Carpenter essayed his own version of this story, that warmth was pretty much sucked out of the scenario straight away.)
One might expect that the one-girl-for-every-ten-or-so-boys ratio at the camp might generate some discontent, but no. The primary male-female relationship in the picture is between Tobey's Captain Hendry (as superb as Farber says) and Margaret Sheridan's Nikki, secretary to science crew chief Dr. Carrington. Their flirtation leads to the above bit, really a legendary episode in the Hawksian saga of the battle of the sexes, in which Nikki tries to elude Hendry's wandering hands by tying them behind his back before making cocktails for two. The open secret that is this relationship does little more than elicit some good-natured ribbing of Hendry from his men.
What splits the group up is...ideoogy. "The central conflict in The Thing is not between humanity and a destructive invader, but between two opposed concepts of value embodied in the two opposed groups whose clash the Thing precipitates." But by the picture's end it's Hendry's tough-minded pragmatism that wins the day and reunites the group, with only head scientist Carrington still insisting that there's too much to learn from the Thing to allow its destruction. His final pleading with the brutish being really makes him look like one of the cinema's Great Simps, but the film sorta/kinda forgives him—key line: "Good for you, Scotty."
This is all quite fascinating, and kudos to Charles Lederer's tight, unobtrusively smart script for evoking pretty complex philosophical/existential dilemmas so deftly. The sensationalism of the "frying" of the Thing at the end tends to make one forget about all the intellectual stuff (the special effects are simplicity itself, and yet it's still a striking, one-of-a-kind sequence). But don't forget that the film ends not on a note of triumphalism but with an admonition: "Keep watching the skies!" No, not exactly "progressive-minded gospel-reading about neighborliness." (Jeez, can you imagine what a Mark Steyn could come up with if somebody reminded him of this film's existence?)
In the "You Know You're Old When..." department, you know you're old when you watch this film and you look at the guy above left and the phrase "Say the secret word" pops into your head. DIscuss in comments. The guy above right, by the way, is Paul Frees—second week in a row he's turned up in this Farber series!
The picture's available, for a ridiculously low price, in a good-looking but extras-free DVD from Warner.