THEM! Warner Brothers, 1954. James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory. Scr: Ted Sherdeman. Story: George Worthing Yates. Dir: Gordon Douglas. 94 mins.

“Oh, yeah,” you’re probably thinking, “the one with the giant ants.”

After 56 years, I guess the bug’s out of the bag about who the “bad guys” are in Them! But what most viewers seem to miss is how closely this film hews to Jack Webb’s Dragnet formula. In fact, I think of Them! as a Dragnet episode with monsters.

Them! neatly divides into three parts: The crime, the discovery of the identity of the perpetrators, and the pursuit and “capture” of the baddies in the denouement.

The crime: In the sparsely populated New Mexico desert, people are disappearing — and some are dying. Based on the available evidence, the police believe it’s the work of a psycho. How else to explain a caved-in trailer and a country store whose owner is found hideously mangled with his .30-.30 rifle broken like a matchstick but no money stolen from the till? This segment is played for mystery, shot in low light levels with darkly saturated areas often filling the screen — a very noir-ish look, if not in theme. Even though the first few scenes take place in bright desert sunlight, we’re soon moving with the investigating officers through the darkness of a dust storm to the discovery of the store owner’s bloody carcass. The whole sequence is played for maximum mysterious effect: the wailing of the wind; a lamp swinging in circles, blown by the wind because the side of the store has been pulled OUT, not crushed IN; a disembodied voice in another room that turns out to be a radio left turned on (and it’s clear we are meant to infer that the store owner didn’t have time to turn it off while he was being attacked); and the man’s crushed corpse, briefly glimpsed in the light of the swinging lamp.

The discovery of the identity of the perpetrators: The middle section of Them! has the investigators searching for the cause of these atrocities. In another dusty desert wind storm the perps are finally revealed. The mystery is over; now it’s not a matter of whodunit but how do we catch ’em? After all, they’re from 9 to 15 feet long and couldn’t care less about arrest warrants. The lower level members of the gang are killed, but Mr. (really Mrs.) Big makes a getaway, and the chase is on.

The pursuit and “capture” of the baddies in the denouement: Catching Mrs. Big proves to be a major headache, since she has nearly unlimited mobility because she can fly. The authorities try to keep the pursuit a secret as long as feasible in order to avoid panic. Finally, thanks to slogging, shoe leather grinding police work — tracking down every possible eyewitness report that might even be remotely related to their hunt — the investigators locate Mrs. Big in the sewers of Los Angeles (shades of The Third Man and also another film — see below). Sixty tons of sugar are stolen from a railway car in the marshaling yards, and a little boy has gone missing, two events that are closely related. Fearing the worst, our tireless investigators go from one thin thread to another in trying to find the kid, even interrogating the normally unreliable inmates of a nearby asylum. It’s a race against time now. Unless our heroes locate the perps’ hideout, it won’t simply be the life of one little boy that will be at stake but also — dare I say it? — the fate of the world.

Not only does Them! remind me of Dragnet but it also invites comparison with He Walked by Night(1948), a suspenseful hunt-the-man-down film noir. Switch giant ants for Richard Basehart and you pretty much have Them! I regard He Walked by Night as the template which Jack Webb followed in his radio and TV series. In fact, Webb appeared in He Walked as, of all things, a crime lab technician.

So there you have it: a Dragnet episode blown up to giANT proportions. Only the names have been changed to protect the … producers.

Note: A slightly different version of this review was posted on Steve Lewis’ Mystery*File blog.

Mike Gray