#31: Invasion of the Body Snatchers


1956

Director:  Don Siegel

Cast:  Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Larry Gates

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class B (2/7, hot blue-white star).  By now you may have figured out that I don’t give many Class Os, and a lot of people would have done so here.  It’s a subtle and sophisticated ride which taps into Cold War fears, as well as the ideas of alienation and loss of identity, and it’s suspenseful and scary, to boot.  The fear comes from a simple and well-executed idea, and it’s a classic that deserves its reputation.

Introduction

Everyone who talks about Invasion of the Body Snatchers has something good to say.  The film is widely regarded as a classic, and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry—which means that the film is considered to be of cultural, historical or aesthetic significance (Wikipedia has an interesting article with a list of the films preserved in the archive; as always with online sources, trust at your own risk!).  The film is based on Jack Finney‘s novel The Body Snatchers, which was serialized in Collier’s Weekly in 1954.  It has been remade three times (1978, with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy; 1993, with Gabrielle Anwar and Meg Tilley; and 2007, with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig).

As a result, I’m probably not going to be able to say anything new and interesting about the film, though I’ll give it my best shot!

We all know the basic premise behind the movie:  aliens arrive on Earth and begin replacing humans with “pod people,” a description which has entered our cultural lexicon.  Our hero realizes that something is wrong, and attempts to stop the infiltration and invasion.  Thematically, the film invokes the ideas of loss of identity (a common theme in science fiction, for some reason, though it may hinge on fear of the other disguised as something recognizable), as well as the creeping menace of—depending on who is reviewing the film—communism or McCarthyism.

One thing no one talks about or seems to remember is that this was a fairly low budget film—though originally planned as a 24 day shoot with a budget of about $450,000, the studio requested and received a reduced shooting schedule of 20 days and a budget of $350,000.  The two leads, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, were not big name stars, and the effects are simple and the settings commonplace.  That may contribute to the success of the movie, which achieves much of its effect by the depiction of normal, everyday people in a normal, everyday setting, going about their normal, everyday lives—as a creeping menace bears down on the unsuspecting town.  In that sense it is much like the movie I Married A Monster From Outer Space, which was filmed some two years later.

Plot Summary(Skip ahead to Impressions)

Boy meets Girl, an old flame.  Girl is worried about her cousin, who believes that her uncle is not her uncle.  Wierdness ensues.  Boy and Girl discover that plant pods are growing into exact duplicates of real people and replacing them, minus their emotions.  Boy and girl are targeted by the pod people for replacement.  They go on the run.  The pod people give chase.  Boy escapes to give the warning about what’s going on.  The day might be saved…or it might be too late.

Impressions

The visuals in this film are anything but over the top.  That’s in keeping with the low budget nature of the film—the $350,000 budget equates to about $2.9 million this year (courtesy of the CPI inflation calculator at the Department of Labor’s website).  But they are well-done.  The pods are a little too much alike to be truly convincing—but then, that very similarity feeds into the thematic elements.  And the visuals of the pods hatching out, as well as the nearly-formed bodies, is very nicely done.

In fact, it’s worth seeing:

What the lack of snazzy effects means, of course, is that the acting and the script have to carry the load, and they do so quite admirably.

The two lead actors, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, do a very nice job.  McCarthy is believable precisely because he’s very ordinary, and instead of having leading man looks, he’s definitely older and more distinctive.  McCarthy’s Miles Bennell begins the movie completely in control, a wise and intelligent small-town doctor who begins suavely courting an ex-girlfriend.  But by the end of the film he’s a hysterical, panicked man who’s lost everything that matters to him, and the transition is believable and intense.

Dana Wynter (a German-born actress raised in England) is something of a stunner, and she brings an elegance and sophistication to her role as recent divorce Becky Driscoll.  Her main contribution to the movie is not just screaming, as she gives a believable performance as a woman playing coy to her suitor, while not being so hard to get that she won’t go out with him.  She also delivers one of the key lines in the film, regarding the pod people:  “I don’t want to live in a world without love or grief or beauty.  I’d rather die.”

The chemistry between Becky and Miles is really good and quite believable, and of course ultimately it adds to the tragedy of the film.  They really have a nice rapport.

The other actors also do a nice job—from Miles’ and Becky’s friends to the pod people, everyone turns in believable performances.  King Donovan and Carolyn Jones, as the friends Jack and “Teddy” Belicec, get the most screen time, and they in particular display an easy cameraderie with the two leads, as well as believable fear and, later in Donovan’s case, a flat affect as one of the pod people.

The film score is, to modern ears, a nearly stereotypical example of its ilk.  But when viewed as an original, it’s actually pretty effective if not particularly brilliant.  On the other hand, the composer’s name was Carmen Dragon, which has got to be worth extra points all by itself.

The script is also quite solid.  Narratively, the movie has a frame story:  Miles Bennell, the protagonist, is picked up by the police and taken to a mental health institution because he’s raving about pod people in the middle of the highway.  Then the movie flashes backward and Bennell narrates the whole chain of events which led to his arrest.  As a result, the narrative structure resembles that of a modern-day thriller, though the viewpoint remains with Bennell throughout, and the frame also foreshadows the events of the film—it’s pretty obvious that something bad has happened to everyone Miles knows.  Interestingly, Director Don Siegel added the frame device at the studio’s insistance.  The idea was that the frame would give a glimmer of hope and so make the movie less bleak.  It has the unintended (?) effect of giving us the ambiguous ending common to a lot of modern horror…

The story within the frame starts off slow and quiet, with only a slight hint of mystery, and offers human interest with Becky and Miles getting to know one another again while the mystery deepens.  But the script doesn’t drag it out, either:  we see a blank body, with no finger prints or signs of aging, very early on, and from there it’s obvious that something’s wrong.  The movie doles out revelations until we get to the point where Miles and Becky are on the run; real explanations come from the pod people themselves, when they have Miles and Becky trapped near pods set to take them over.  At that point, sleep is the enemy, since that’s when the pods finish the take-over.

One of the neat things about the film is its look at ’50s life.  Because the movie shows us somthing subtle and insidious going on in the small town of Santa Mira, it has to show us that small town just the way it really is before the bad things start happening.  In that sense, the movie is a time capsule from another era (which is also evident in I Married  A Monster From Outer Space, the 1958 invasion film which puts a different spin on the Body Snatchers idea).  That look is interesting: it gives us formality and civility, as well as a disdain for the strange and unusual.  People are dressed to the nines all the time—Miles even wears a dressing gown over his pants, shirt and tie when he receives visitors, and our first view of Becky Driscoll includes a dress which wouldn’t be out of place for a night on the town these days, which she wore for a visit to an old friend (though possibly an old boyfriend she wanted to impress…).

The snappy dialogue with sexual overtones really surprised me.  At one point, Becky asks Miles if his behavior is an example of his bedside manner, and he says that that comes later.  This is on a date—and I thought the ’50s were repressed, much like the Victorian era.  I may have learned differently thanks to this movie.

Thematically, the movie taps into the fear of the other, one of our earliest and most primitive fears.  But it puts a twist on that fear, in that the other is masquerading as one of us.  We’ve seen this before—it’s in I Married A Monster From Outer Space, It Came From Outer Space, Invaders from Mars, and The Thing, just to talk about the Top 50 Films list entries we’ve already seen.  Regardless of the political context, it’s always an effective technique in fiction.  By tying the fear of the other with a loss of identity—another science fiction trope that shows up again and again, and which psychologists could probably write reams about—and with a creeping, insidious menace which threatens the American way of life, Siegel made sure that we could all relate to the movie.

Given the Cold War fears of creeping communism, the political parallel between the pod people and the Communists is obvious.  Similarly, all it takes is a slight spin to regard the movie as a warning against McCarthyism—all we have to do to allow tyranny to thrive is to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the subtle warning signs, and tyranny will take society from within (at least one commentator has suggested that with the frame, the message is anti-communist, while without it, the message is anti-McCarthy).

What’s interesting is that many of the actors and producers involved with the movie have publicly stated that there was no intentional allegory to communism, the Soviets or McCarthyism.  However, director Don Siegel was aware of the political context:

I felt that this was a very important story. I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow…The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable but I tried not to emphasise it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach.

Siegel’s comment gives voice to another way to look at the film:  the pod people do not experience emotion, and they conform to the status quo.  In fact, they urge Miles and Becky to do the same, pointing out that when you give up emotions, including ambition, that life is much, much easier.  In other words, it’s easy to be part of the herd, as opposed to an individual with thoughts and feelings all your own.  In that sense, the movie is about the loss of self due to, of all things, peer pressure—if you can consider an alien plant a peer, at any rate!

There are a lot of nice little touches in the movie—probably too many too mention.  I’ll just point out that the town is named Santa Mira, and Mira is Spanish for the verb “to look,” though it can also mean a gun sight.  The pods, which take on the physical form of the person they’re near, absorb the mind of the victim while they sleep—this adds a nightmarish dimension to the film, and for the imaginative I can only assume that it’s an additional thing to be frightened of…

The science in the film isn’t really all that serious.  The pods come from some kind of space seed that landed on earth and germinated, and the pods have the ability to mimic any life form.  I don’t think we’re supposed to take that all that seriously, though one of the hypotheses for the origin of life on earth, exegenesis, is not all that far off from the space seed idea.  Basically, exegenesis suggests that life on earth was seeded by some kind of lifeform hitching a ride on a meteorite or the like to get to Earth.  The closely related, though more expansive, idea of panspermia posits that life exists all throughout the universe, in every place that conditions are ripe for life, and that it’s spread about by meteorites and the like.

Wrap-up

This is a great movie, no matter how you interpret it.  It draws you in to the lives of the protagonists, and then it slowly ramps up the fear as the clues begin to build that not all is well in Santa Mira.  Given the lack of gore and overt violence, even children could probably watch this movie, though it might trigger a refusal to sleep…

The various thematic interpretations all turn on the fear of the other, a nearly primal fear which might be at the root of our tribal behavior patterns.  But that means that it’s a nice scary little yarn, regardless of what it may or may not mean, and everyone should be able to enjoy it.  I highly recommend this one.

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