Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Some films are so perfectly constructed that they become instant classics. Such films not only represent a turning point in the artistry of cinema but also help to define a generation or time in our culture. One movie that has always filled that capacity for me is the 1956 version of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. Superficially some may think this just another fifties science fiction but that is only the tiniest tip of what this movie has to offer. Not only does this film retain its place the Sci-Fi hall of fame but it also provides a time capsule of one of the most turbulent times in American history. The film’s theatrical release was barely two years after the fear of communism took hold of the nation as evident by the devastating effect of the Senate ‘McCarthy hearings’. ‘Better Dead than Red’ became more than a slogan; it was the mantra of a generation. Countless films of this Cold War era attempted to capture this sense of impending doom but ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is universally considered the benchmark that other movie strive for but virtually none have every come close. One of the most important aspects of science fiction is the way it affords the writer with a platform for social commentary under the guise of imaginative fiction. In Sci-Fi stories about robots or androids can frequently provide greater insight to the state of the human condition than a straight forward morality play utilizing human characters. In the case of this film strange ungodly invaders from a distant planet intent on undermining and ultimately destroying our way of life. It is especially important for younger viewers to try to imagine what the prevalent mood was in this country at the time this film was released. As much as domestic terrorism affects the average citizen now the fear of a communism take over was drilled into all of us from school air drills to basement bomb shelters.
The most frightening result of the McCarthy hearings was to spread a sense that the enemy was hiding in plain sight, undetectable yet waiting to infiltrate our society and destroy it from within. Not since the Salem Witch Trails of the 1600’s has such fear and paranoia take n such a hold on the population. But for a doctor in a small town in California that was about to change drastically.
The screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring was roughly based on the serialized story by Jack Finney which ran in Collier’s magazine. It is now quite well known that several last minute changes were made in the script to soften the original ending in order to provide a more optimistic conclusion. Even with that softening the message remains squarely on point. Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is just returning from a trip to the small town of Santa Mira, California where he has a nice practice as the local physician. In short order he begins to notice some subtle changes in his neighbors. It was nothing drastic at first; a young boy afraid his relatives are not who they are supposed to be. This begins to gel with the doctor when his former girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) has a similar story. She returned home to recuperate after a divorce only to feel there is something not right about her ‘Uncle Ira’. He has all the right memories but seems to be wrong especial in some emotional interactions. The horrible truth begins to become clear when Miles and Becky visit some friends Jack Belicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones). Jack shows Miles something lying on his pool table; a strange vaguely human shape. Jack tells Miles it started as what looked like a giant seed pod and is turning into an exact replica of Jack. They destroy it but discovery four more pods turning into each of the in the greenhouse out back. The conclusion they reach is these pods have been drifting through space for untold eons until they happened upon earth. Having found a suitable planet they invaded, not by a war but through the far more insidious method of taking us over; replacing humanity with their duplicates that are devoid of all emotions. The entire town has been taken over and after Miles and Becky intent on changing them.
This film is a perfect reflection of what Americans feared most about communists. The pod people had no emotions just as the godless communists were typically portrayed. The McCarthy hearing drove home something even more frightening about the communists than them dropping the H-Bomb. The fear that rose up after the hearings was communists moving in without notice. McCarthy sowed the seeds of mistrust among Americans. Anyone could be a ‘Commie’. They could be right next door or teaching your children infusing them with the communist manifesto. Like the pod people there would be almost no clue to what was going on until it was too late. In this movie Miles stood in for any American. He found himself in the terrible position of knowing the truth making him a specific target. They have to convert him or kill him in order to keep their nefarious plan on track. It is understandable why the studio pushed for a change in the ending. In the original conclusion Miles is lost on the road trying to warn people or ignore him thinking him insane. In the common ending Miles gets some to believe him when a truck carrying giant seed pods crashing just outside Santa Mira. Immediately the U.S. military is called out to stop the worldly invaders. The direction by Don Siegel is absolutely perfect. For those not used to black and white cinematography this will open your eyes to an entirely different format of expression. With themes like what are presented here Black and white works exceptionally well. This view of communist is how they work in the shadows, removed from the revealing light of day. Siegel plays with light and dark, casting shadows over the characters giving a real sense of impending doom. This film is a masterpiece and will continue to be an important piece of cinematic history for a long time to come.
Unfortunately this country has begun to sink back into such a drastically fearful state. Instead of a conflict between two diametrically and mutually opposing socio-political paradigms it has returned through the oldest motivator for hatred, religion. Ever since the tragic events of September 11, 2001 terrorism has subverted almost every nation on the globe. A major political campaign for the upcoming presidential elections relates to fanning the flames of hatred against foreigners; particularly Mexicans and Muslims. This same concept that the enemy is here and we are asleep at the watch is identical to the Red Menace of the 50’s. This movie contains such well-defined characters that what they represent translates to any period of time. Miles was an educated man, as a physician he was arguably among the best educated members of the community and the most trusted. The evidence is revealed slowly; first with the frantic pleas of a young boy, the epitome of innocence. The performance by Mr. McCarthy was incredibly controlled, allowing the scientist and rational doctor to be slowly convinced that the unimaginable was true. His peaceful town is ground zero for an extraterrestrial invasion. The general population is represented by Miles best friend, Jack. Initially a skeptic he has a difficult time psychologically to process the mounting evidence. This demonstrates just how insidious the enemy is; ably to infuse their agenda into a stable man fully invested in his American way of life. When he becomes an automaton it shows no one is safe. The most powerful moment in the character arc of Miles is when Miles and Becky are on the run from the mob of changed neighbors they rest a moment in a tunnel. When they kiss Miles can immediately tell that all the emotion has been drained from her; the old Beck is gone, replaced by something inhuman. One of the hallmarks of a true classic film is timelessness. A story that transcends any specific time and placer to be interpreted by the current generation filtered through their own experience.
Lately one particular distributor, Olive Films, has been remastering a number of truly important examples of the importance of cinema as a conduit of artistic expression and social significance. A couple of years ago this film was added to the collection and even if you have a previous DVD release the improved video and audio. Unlike the lauded Criterion Collection Olive does not included the original technical specifications or the scholarly additional material but until they get around to these movies Olive releases are worth the re-purchase.
Posted 08/03/2010 Posted 05/16/2016