Friday, February 17, 2012

Promiscuity & Gender in the 1950s: The Thing From Another World

Howard Hawks' 1951 Sci-Fi essential The Thing From Another World contains what is probably the most important dialogue trapped in celluloid during the 1950s between Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan) and Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey).  Using his sophisticated trademark techniques,  (the uncredited director) Hawks gives us an alien, "The Thing" (James Arness) who is a psychoanalytic projection for two characters, Pat Hendry and scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) providing Sci-Fi fans with a unique and high-stakes battle between dominant forms of masculinity; Nikki, however, aptly shows us the feminine gender crossing over into the masculine, numerous times and the consequences for not only women but men as well.
What I believe to be the most important conversation in film of the 1950s between Pat Hendry and Nikki Nicholson:
Pat: That was a dirty trick you played.
Nikki: Now, Pat, don't lose your temper.
Pat: Why did you do it? Just tell me why.
Nikki: Well, your legs aren't very pretty.
Pat: You didn't have to write a note and put it on my chest. Plenty of people got up before I did.
Nikki: I'm sorry, Pat.
The scene wherein this conversation takes place.
Pat: Six people read it before I woke up. Now the whole Air Force is laughing at me.
Nikki: Not so loud. They'll hear.
Pat: They probably all ready heard.  The only place it hasn't been is on a billboard.
Nikki: Oh, I didn't know you had such a nasty temper. Now, Pat, just be careful. Now take it easy. Now wait a minute. We had a lot of fun when you were up here. Then when you asked me down to Anchorage, you deliberately fed me a lot of--
Pat: Tell me something, did you really drink all those drinks?
Nikki: Hm-mm.
Pat: You didn't throw any away? Not a one?
Nikki: No. 
Pat: Holy cat. I thought I was good. And another thing, why did you leave? When I woke up in the morning you were gone."
Nikki: "I told you I had to take that cargo plane back here."
This title card is done well: the light coming through the darkness to form the words is like certain images in the film coming through the darkness of plot and history to reveal to us who is the thing and where this other world is.
Captain Hendry and Nikki have had a sexual affair without being married, and everyone in the Air Force knows about it. "When I woke up you were gone," clearly indicates that they spent the night together, after both being heavily intoxicated. To say the least, this kind of expose in the 1950s--why it might have become common place in practice--was still scandalous to mention so abruptly in film, but it is this exact moment that gives birth to the whole rest of the film. To know someone in the Biblical sense (to have sexual relations with them) without knowing them ("My," Nikki says to Pat, "you have a nasty temper" because she's just now finding this out, that is, coming to know him) is to create a Frankenstein monster of them, choosing what you know and don't know about them, and that is why The Thing, when finally destroyed and shriveled up into nothing, is electrocuted like Frankenstein's monster. 
The opening shot of the film, the Officers' club in Anchorage. It's interesting because when we first meet Pat Hendry, he's playing cards, poker, specifically, and the comment is made, "Everyone knows you can't fool the captain unless you're a woman" and Pat ends up winning that hand; when he meets with Nikki, however, he says, "That was a dirty trick you played," and the correlation between playing cards and playing a trick shows us what his friends were thinking about.
When you are watching the film, the first style-defining characteristic to sit it apart from other films is the dialogue: Hawks doesn't hesitate to have several people talking at once, over each other, interrupting, and this is an employment of noise (just like Steven Soderbergh in Contagion and Christopher Nolan in the upcoming Dark Knight Rises). There are several people talking, for example, during the opening card game in the officers' club, and that reflects how we, the viewers will be listening to the film: we won't hear everything that is being said because we will get distracted or not understand what is trying to be communicated. But, with several viewings and careful attention, we can, like gold miners, separate everything out and find the golden nuggets.
The group has found a flying saucer and groups around the ice-enclosed shape to distinguish its boundaries. However, what is really "alien" about this shape is that it's a source of life: it's shaped, with the tail, just like male sperm. What's the purpose? The "passenger" from this "sperm shaped craft," was thrown out, meaning that the purpose, nature and gift that a man's sperm is has been separated from his very self and destroyed because he looks at it merely as an aspect of the sexual instead of the vehicle of life. When a man denies the importance of his sperm, i.e., he gets separated from it like the passenger and the craft, he becomes a vegetable just like The Thing because he forgets his spiritual calling and the great dignity of his physical body.
As I said, The Thing is a psychological projection for two characters in the film, Pat Hendry and Dr. Carrington, because both men, while seemingly different, actually exhibit similar characteristics, but the battle of The Thing gives us an idea about their qualities and values. The Thing is a walking vegetable able to regenerate itself and it lives on blood. Its purpose is to make more of itself.
When they first meet The Thing face to face in the greenhouse. The greenhouse could be a polar symbol for the Garden of Eden, since mention is made of keeping it locked up because the Eskimos like to steal the strawberries (the stolen fruit in Eden). This is likened to Pat stealing sexual favors from Nikki although they are not married. As in Them! when it's Dr. Patricia Medford who first sees the giant ants, so we know to correlate the ants as a symbol for her, in The Thing From Another World it's Captain Pat Hendry who sees it so we know to correlate The Thing with him.
The qualities Pat and The Thing share is self-dehumanization. Pat's illicit affair with Nikki not only dehumanizes himself--because he has failed to treat his own body with respect (which includes getting really drunk)--but he has dehumanized himself before the entire Air Force by his behavior which they all know about. Pat wanting to have a sexual relationship with Nikki, but not a committed sexual relationship, is the prominent feature Pat shares with The Thing because it is by our committed relationships that our own humanity is not only expressed, but perfected. Without a doubt, this is a theme in the film because the day The Thing lands is November 1, All Saints' Day and the day Pat arrives at the pole is All Souls' Day November 2. Scott the newspaper man (Douglas Spencer) mentions two Biblical references: the parting of the Red Sea by Moses and Noah's Ark.  
When Pat tries to get the door closed on The Thing, he gets its arm stuck in the door. It's in the dog attack that the arm is completely torn off. Symbolically, for both Pat and Dr. Carrington, the dogs attacking are (for Pat) his authority being attacked by the scientist who disagree with him and so undermine his strength as a Captain and for Dr. Carrington, his authority as a Nobel Prize winner is undermined by Pat not allowing him to examine The Thing.
The landing of the craft on All Saints' Day acts as the collision between the spiritual and earthly realms, the natural and the supernatural, reminding us that we are all called to be great saints and the story contained within the film is going to show us how to avoid becoming a vegetable instead. The reason Scott mentions the parting of the Red Sea in conjunction with the space craft discovery is because every man is called upon by God to be like Moses and Noah, to serve the Lord and thereby save the world, not be monsters and aliens who destroy it by their immoral behavior. The parting of the Red Sea was God leading his people from the bondage of sin to be his own (foreshadowing Christ leading us by the Crucifixion).
The Thing bound by ice. It actually looks like a child, still in the mother's womb, but because we know this monster is a projection of Pat, we could say that because Nikki is being an "unnatural woman," so she has an unnatural womb, and by failing in her femininity she fails to help Pat be the man he was called to be. So instead of the womb being a warm place, it is ice cold because there is the lack of the warmth of love just the heat of lust.
Then, Scott mentions in his closing news cast that, just as Noah saved the world from the flood by the ark, so they have saved humanity by the arc of electricity. Why did God destroy the world and only leave Noah to survive? Because of the flood of sinfulness into the world caused by mankind. The electricity that was used in Frankenstein to give the creature life is used in The Thing From Another World to take false life so genuine life can thrive.
What does that mean?
There is another interesting dimension connecting Pat to The Thing: his arms. When he and Nikki are talking about her visit to Anchorage, she says that his arms were like an octopuses' because they were all over her. The Thing has his arm torn off and is studied by the doctors and realized to be vegetable, not animal. This relates to Pat because instead of using his arms to defend Nikki and love her (genuinely) he abused his strength (again) to fuel his appetites instead of using the impetus of his emotions, his attraction to Nikki, to start a deep and meaningful relationship with her (which he attempts throughout the rest of the film).
"False life" is a standard of living according to the world, the idea of "living it up," and doing what you want to, going with your appetites; "genuine life" is a life lived according to the spirit, not the flesh, and by acknowledging the spirit, we acknowledge the needs of the spirit: God, prayer, the sacraments and abstaining from sin which destroys grace within us and our very identity (because God is our creator, not Satan, God wants us to fulfill our destiny and the potential of our soul, whereas Satan wants to ruin and destroy our identity just as his was destroyed when he revolted against God). This brings us to how The Thing is also a projection of Dr. Carrington. He says: "Knowledge is more important than life," and elsewhere, " We've only one excuse for existing. To think. To find out. To learn. . . . nothing counts except our thinking. We've thought our way into nature, we've split the atom," and then Eddie says, "That sure made the world happy, didn't it?" which references, again, the atomic bomb.
Carrington trying to "make friends" with The Thing.
Carrington, by denying the spiritual aspect of man's existence (we live for God and eternal salvation, not just to think) is also making man into a vegetable the same way that Pat is making himself into a vegetable by not having a meaningful relationship with Nikki. The Thing From Another World, then, is a man who is neither spiritual nor emotional, and exists in a world that is very much what the earth is becoming as the number of people continues to increase who exhibit these characteristics. Of The Thing's "seed pod reproduction" (as opposed to sexual reproduction), Dr. Carrington says, "No pain or pleasure as we know it. No emotions, no heart. Our superior, our superior in every way." And that is false, because our emotions are a gift from God (they can be a curse when we fail to use them appropriately or develop them into maturity) but our emotions are one of the ways that God guides us through life. Carrington, surely an atheist by the way he talks, wants humans who have no emotions, no pleasure, no pain, no relationships: vegetables.
The pods that Carrington grew from samples taken from The Thing's hand that was chewed off by the dogs. He planted them and gave them plasma to grow them and the scientists can listen to them breathing with a stethoscope: "Almost like the wail of a newborn child that is hungry." If The Thing is like Carrington and Pat, how are they trying to reproduce themselves? Pat is reproducing himself by everyone in the Air Force knowing what he has done and so they will start to behave just as he does. Carrington makes more scientists like himself because he gets the others to disobey Pat's order and they try to get The Thing when it returns to the greenhouse (another aspect of the Forbidden Fruit).
So this is the big question: why blood?
It doesn't really make sense for a vegetable to live off blood, does it? But the dog that is drained, and then the two scientists hung up in the greenhouse rafters as in a slaughterhouse, gives us a progression of the appetites. As we become more dehumanized, so we dehumanize others; as we become holy, so we treat others with greater respect. The dog that is locked away in the box and drained of blood is Nikki, because both she and Pat were giving into their appetites and acting like animals; the blood symbolizes life itself, and because--just like in the iconography of vampires--we lose our life if we are not drinking the Blood of Christ and our blood is drank instead by those who wish our death (whether monsters or other people wanting to use us to satisfy their appetites). The two scientists show Carrington's appetite to destroy other scientists so he can have all the glory of this new discovery (which is living giving to him the way the sexual act is life giving to Pat) and the scientists giving in because they don't know any better.
The idea of The Thing re-generating its life is the same as Pat wanting to "start all over again" with Nikki, that is, grow a new relationship. Just as The Thing is bound in ice, so Pat is bound with a rope. Just as the warm blanket melts the ice on The Thing, so Nikki's affections and confession about how much she likes him warms Pat and frees him from otherwise being gentlemanly with a more feminine woman.
The last important item: Nikki.
Remember, just as Them! opens in the New Mexico desert, so The Thing From Another World opens in a desert of ice and snow but instead of being frigid, Nikki's red hot (like Nikki says towards the end, before The Thing is dead, "If I start burning up again who will put out the fire?"). Why does Nikki return from her time in Anchorage on a cargo ship? Because she is cargo and her repeated bad behavior has dehumanized her to the point that she has lost her femininity and is no more spiritually advanced than a vegetable herself. But Nikki's bad behavior isn't as much a focal point of concern for The Thing From Another World as the men's bad behavior is: she can out drink a man, let everyone in the military know she's slept with Pat Hendry, take a hit on the chin, and propose marriage, but male promiscuity and scientific arrogance are the forces at work in 1951 threatening to turn the world into "another planet" full of people "completely alien" to what we are used to thinking of as human. (But we shouldn't forget how Nikki feminizes Pat by saying, "Your legs aren't very pretty").
When Nikki reads Dr. Carrington's notes to Pat, before they set out to find the crash site, she reads, "Such deviation (12 degrees) possible only if a disturbing force equivalent to 20,00 tons of steel or iron ore had become part of the earth at about a 50 mile radius." What does this mean to the story? From our discussion on The Monolith Monsters, we know how sin is translated into hardness of heart, so the immense crashing comes from/is related to the 12 degrees of the compass being off. The directions being messed up, being unable to find where you are going, is what happens when sin is committed, because then one wants to keep going in a path (think of drug addiction) that will let you hold onto the sin but you can't go towards your goal (God, remember, this is All Saints' Day) and keep living in a state of sin. The immense amount of steel is the film's attempt at conveying to its audience how serious sin is and its consequences, like the flood during Noah's time, our personal behavior is to the rest of the world and humanity.
Truly a reference to Frankenstein, so we can understand how things have changed as a result of scientists developing the atomic bomb (just as Frankenstein was a scientist) and how we need to get back on the "true path" (note, please, the walk way upon which The Thins is standing; the path we are to take gives our soul life and, simultaneously, robs sin of its power over us).
The Thing From Another World is an essential film to see because of its documenting of what was happening to us as a result of the dropping of the atomic bomb and our experiences which forced us into World War II and changed us as individuals and as a country. The changing social norms were disrupting sexuality and relationships, practically rotting us from the inside out, and the changes was working in conjunction with science, trying to guide us into a new kind of dehumanization that film makers such as those for The Thing From Another World were seeking out religion and art (Frankenstein) to guide us in a different direction. As with other films of the era, The Thing From Another World uses a code of symbols in which to communicate with the audience, but symbols that still speak to us, warning us to "watch the skies," and commands of the Lord who lives there, so we won't become aliens to ourselves and those we love.