Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Many Halloween-shaded offerings are decorating Seattle screens this month, much to my delight. (It wasn’t always like this in years, and decades, past.) The Grand Illusion goes all in with its “All Monsters Attack!” program, which includes a Wicker Man revival and some Godzilla action; SIFF’s theaters bring back Snowpiercer and The Host, in anticipation of the Oct. 25 run of Bong Joon-ho’s new film Parasite; and the Beacon presents “The October Country,” various crepuscular titles including some key John Carpenter, the original Cat People, and a “sleepy seaside town” double-bill of Dead and Buried and Messiah of Evil.
There’s also SIFF’s run of Where’s My Roy Cohn?, which I think even Count Floyd would have to admit is really scary, kids.
The Beacon also has one of the greatest of horror movies, except that I misspeak here, because it is actually one of the greatest of movies. I refer to Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (1951), which will play all week.
Years ago (2005?) I showed The Thing at the Experience Music Project/Sci-Fi Museum (they’re calling it something different now, I think), and I came across some notes from that. So this is not a piece of writing, but notes meant to be read, with hilarious ad-libbed asides, which you will have to imagine. So let’s imagine that I’m reading from cards:
A science fiction landmark, and a Howard Hawks classic.
First film to kick off sci-fi boom of 50s, beating Day the Earth Stood Still by a few months.
Based on a story by John W. Campbell, “Who Goes There?”, which Howard Hawks read while on location in Germany and promptly bought the rights to, a story about an alien discovered at an Antarctic base(changed to the Arctic for the movie). The story was written in 1938, but Hawks was picking up on something very much in the air, so to speak, at the time, in 1950—flying saucers and the reports of them. It has long been suggested that the flying saucer craze was a symptom of Cold War anxiety (unless you really think they exist), and it has also that The Thing uses Cold War anxiety as a subtext. That’s always an interesting topic when it comes to 50s sci-fi pictures, and possibly screenwriters Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht (the latter uncredited) were thinking of Soviet threat when the adapted the story.
I doubt that Howard Hawks cared much about that aspect, however. Fans of the story will know that this film removed a central plot point of Campbell’s concept, which was the alien creature’s ability to shape-shift and perfectly impersonate people, which led to a paranoid situation where nobody could be sure whom they were talking to (a plot point revived in the John Carpenter remake of the film). For Howard Hawks, the title of the film is quite well-chosen. The thing is nothing more than a thing. Hawks does not have the slightest interest in what this thing intends, what it means, etc. His primary interest is in human behavior being tested, just as it is in his greatest films, Only Angels Have Wings, Red River, To Have and Have Not, Rio Bravo. How people treat each other, how they listen to each other, how they keep their cool. The Thing is an outside force, an Other, which precipitates the crisis situation; beyond that it is not important.
Many of Hawks’s best films are about very dangerous situations (or at least chaotic ones when it’s screwball comedy), that represent the director’s idea of paradise. The bleak Arctic of The Thing (most of the snowy exteriors of which were shot in the heat of the San Fernando Valley ) is an unlikely Eden, but that’s what it is to Hawks: a place where a small community can sort things out, talk through problems, and come up with solutions.
(Agee quote) “When Hawks concentrates on men working, or contesting leadership, or merely showing what they are made of, the picture practically blows up with vitality and conviction.”
That quote refers to men, but Hawks was also big on including a woman who could hold her own with the men or even turn the tables on them, like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, and he does that here as well, with a character who seems to occupy the traditional male role of a love-’em-and-leave-’em type.
Philosophical differences are aired, and personal wounds nursed, but the survival of the community is a kind of glorious mechanism.
You will notice that part of that mechanism involves overlapping dialogue. Hawks doesn’t use overlapping dialogue because it’s a gimmick—he uses it because A) that’s how conversations happen, and B) it suggests a group dynamic in which people are comfortable enough with each other to interrupt themselves and keep going, and C) it creates a sense of an organic whole, things clicking along even when people are stepping on each other’s words.
You will notice this expresses itself in a visual way, too. Hawks’s favored composition is the crowding of bodies within the frame, creating a sense of dynamism, cramped space, and warmth of community. But the greatest visual coup in the film is the circling of the men on the ice as they try to determine the shape of the crashed-landed spaceship. In that moment is the birth of the modern science fiction movie.
One of the things I love most about The Thing is the way the characters talk about how to do things. Movies have forgotten how to do this: either because nothing makes sense or relies on logic, or because filmmakers think audiences will get bored by people talking onscreen. But the opposite is true: The conversations in The Thing about how to fix this or that have the effect of inviting the viewer in on the process—we get to follow the logic of problem-solving, a weirdly satisfying process.
Some critics have suggested that these groups in Hawks’s films are a metaphor for the filmmaking process. His films are projections of his ideas of Eden.
Technical point. The film is credited as being directed by Christian Nyby, Hawks’s editor. This should be ignored. According to the testimony of all concerned, Hawks was helping his colleague get into the director’s guild, and there may also have been some sense on Hawks’s part of embarrassment about working in a genre considered beneath a class-A director. Every frame of The Thing looks and sounds and feels like a Howard Hawks movie.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.