Jan 23, 2019

On Blu-ray: Sci-fi Classic The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Thing from Another World (1951) is deservedly regarded as a classic of the sci-fi genre. It’s got the requisite thrills and fantastic creature intrigue, while distinguishing itself with well-developed, interesting characters, a legendary soundtrack, and sharp production value given its relatively low budget. I recently watched the film in a gorgeous restoration on Blu-ray from Warner Archive in which it has been returned to its original theatrical length.

In a plot of slowly building tension, a team of researchers on assignment in the arctic discover a mysterious object which has crashed to earth and became suspended beneath a layer of ice. They soon realize it is alien creature inside a spaceship, and the being has somehow still clung to life. As they try to understand who has invaded their planet, and speculate whether there are more ships to come, the group fights off the attacks of this creature that lives on blood.

One of the best things about this movie is its effortless flow, which has much to do with the easy chemistry of the cast and the way their busy, overlapping conversations ring true-to-life. Sometimes the patter runs as fast as in a newsroom comedy. It has long been rumored that producer Howard Hawks directed more of the film than credited helmer Christian Nyby, and given the snappy rhythm I can see how that could be true. As the tension builds, the feeling of peril is intensified because you don’t want any harm to come to this vibrant, likeable crew. The camaraderie and skill of this team of soldiers, scientists, and a journalist are intensely appealing.

In this uniformly engaging cast, Kenneth Tobey is especially appealing as the captain of the mission; he projects reassuring ease as a hero who is inherently brave, but humble about it. Hawks created a female role on the originally all-male crew so that he could promote his new discovery Margaret Sheridan, who plays Tobey’s fiancé. There’s no mistaking why she appealed to him: she’s a dead ringer for his wife Slim. 

While the boost didn’t launch Sheridan into stardom, as a diligent, practical scientist she is a coolly intelligent asset and gently amusing in her banter with Tobey. Her inclusion is also remarkable for being a rare female role in that era in which she is an equal and has agency, though yes, she makes coffee for the guys; it’s still the 1950s. Both Tobey and Sheridan are especially intriguing because they’re not coy or silly as is often seen in roles like these. They’re just a pair of highly competent people who are entertaining because of the delight they take in their work and each other.

Robert Cornthwaite is also intriguing as a scientist who endangers the group because of his determination to learn more about the creature. As frustrating as it is to see him continuously create dangerous situations, it’s interesting how well the crew understands his desire for discovery. As a fellow scientist Sheridan in particular views him with compassion and patience. While the crew thwarts his plans in the interest of their own survival, they also protect him.

In a pre-Gunsmoke role, future T.V. western star James Arness plays the alien. It’s ironic that the only cast member who went on to great fame had in some respects the most thankless part. However, though he plays a roaring animate vegetable with no lines and little screen time, he’s the center of all the big scare moments and provides an exhilarating pay-off to all that slow-building tension.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s soundtrack is a genre masterpiece, broadcasting uneasy doom with its blasting horns and slithery Theremin (the instrument of classic sci-fi flicks). It is deservedly one of the most celebrated aspects of the film. In the final scene in particular, it amps up the sense of dread magnificently.

Special features include a pair of trailers: one original the other to promote the restoration.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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