Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1933)

Film Review

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS

Release Date: 5 February 1956

Studio: Walter Wanger Productions

Director: Don Siegel

Stars: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones

Writers: Daniel Mainwaring, screenplay; Jack Finney, Collier’s magazine serial

Cinematographer: Ellsworth Fredericks

Synopsis

A distraught and disheveled Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), having been arrested for obstructing traffic and generally acting deranged, is brought into a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. He tells his story to a skeptical psychiatrist: Returning to his small-town home from a trip, Miles finds that something strange is going on. Some members of the community are reported by their friends and relatives to be “different” from their normal selves: Uncle Ira isn’t really Uncle Ira any more. Oddly, after a day or two these same friends and relatives admit to having been wrong; Uncle Ira really is Uncle Ira after all. The doctor ascribes the initial paranoia to some form of mass hysteria and goes about his normal business. Some days later, he and his girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) are summoned to the home of his friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) and Jack’s wife, Teddy (Carolyn Jones). The Belicec’s have discovered a curiously unfinished human body lying on a table in their house; it is lifeless but bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Jack. Further exploration leads the four friends to the greenhouse behind the Belicec residence, wherein they find several human-sized pods containing more of the humanoid forms. Miles dispatches them with a pitchfork. He then tries to notify the FBI and the state police of an extraterrestrial invasion, only to discover that the phone lines have been taken over by the aliens. Miles and Becky go to Mile’s office hoping to find a phone that works. Jack and Teddy fall asleep and are taken over. The “pod” Jack urges Miles and Becky to surrender peacefully to the inevitable. Miles and Becky, the only humans left in the town, are pursued by the “pod people”. They know that they must stay awake or be taken over. They hide in a cave. While Miles goes out to reconnoiter, Becky falls asleep and is replaced. Miles realizes the change when he returns and tries to kiss her. “Becky” is unresponsive. She calls loudly to the other pods. Miles, now alone, runs to a nearby highway and desperately tries to stop the speeding cars, only to be ignored and jeered at by the passing motorists. Miles looks directly at the camera and shouts “You’re next!”

Back in the hospital, the doubtful psychiatrist is about to institutionalize the seemingly crazy Miles. At this moment, another character enters and announces that there has been a terrible accident on a nearby highway. A truck has crashed. The vehicle was found to be carrying a cargo of man-sized pods. The psychiatrist, realizing that Miles’s story is true, picks up the nearest telephone and asks to be connected to the FBI. A heart-broken, but relieved, Miles slumps against the wall. There may still be time to stop them!

Discussion

“Peace, Progress, and Prosperity.” That was the presidential election slogan of Dwight David Eisenhower in 1956. He won. For many Americans peace, progress, and prosperity were the realities of the 1950’s. They remember that decade as a tranquil time when things were good. World War II was long over, and, save for the Korean Conflict, America was at peace. The economy was booming. Consumerism was in full bloom. Many families, especially white families, were moving out of the cities and into affordable new homes in the suburbs. The American Dream of owning your own spread in the “country,” complete with backyard patio and swimming pool and away from urban blight, seemed achievable. Who better than the bland, cherubic, avuncular Eisenhower (“I Like Ike”) to preside over this earthly paradise?

But were the fifties an era of sweetness and light for all Americans? Not if you were a leftist, what with Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare, blacklists, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not if you were an African-American living in the South, where Jim Crow laws were still enforced and black teenagers like Emmett Till were killed brutally for supposedly whistling at white women. But perhaps most widespread of all sources of fear in the decade was The Bomb. It was a time of fallout shelters and schoolchildren taking refuge under their desks during what were probably futile drills. The fear of nuclear holocaust was certainly prominent in the minds of many Americans.

Perhaps not surprisingly, big-budgeted Hollywood movies with big-name stars generally avoided dealing with the issues mentioned in the above paragraph. It was left to certain low-budget, B-level films to tackle them, however tangentially. Among these films were a handful of 1950’s science-fiction classics: The Thing from Another World (1951) with its completely hostile alien (who turns out to be a vegetable) and exhortation to “Keep Watching the Skies;” Invaders From Mars (1953) whose youthful hero is caught in a seemingly endlessly repeating nightmare in which his loving parents are turned into menacing zombies by Martian invaders; The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) with its friendly (sort-of) extraterrestrial and his potentially lethal robot who together threaten the earth with annihilation if its inhabitants don’t stop fighting and developing weapons of mass destruction.

Arguably the best of all these films is Invasion Of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which small-town Dr. Miles Bennell, played by the granite-jawed Kevin (no relation to Joe) McCarthy, returns home from a trip to find that something strange is happening in the community. Certain people are reported by their friends and relatives to be “different”: Uncle Ira isn’t Uncle Ira. Oddly, after a day or two these same friends and relatives admit to having been wrong; Uncle Ira really is Uncle Ira. The doctor ascribes the initial paranoia to some form of mass hysteria and goes about his normal business. Then he and his girlfriend Becky Driscoll (the deletable Dana Wynter) are summoned to the home of his friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones). The Belicec’s have discovered a curiously "unfinished" human body lying on a table in their house; it is lifeless but bears a resemblance to Jack. Further exploration leads the four friends to the greenhouse behind the Belicec residence, wherein they come across several human-sized pods containing more of the humanoid forms. Miles tries to notify the FBI and state police of an extraterrestrial invasion, only to discover that the phone lines have been taken over by the aliens. From this point the film spirals into an orgy of paranoia in which Miles and Becky are the only humans left in the town and are relentlessly pursued by ever increasing numbers of the “pod people”. They know that they must stay awake or be taken over. At last, Becky falls asleep and is replaced by her alien doppelganger. Miles, now alone, runs to a nearby highway and desperately tries to stop the speeding cars, only to be ignored by the oblivious motorists. In the last shot of this sequence Miles looks directly at the camera and shouts “You’re next!”

The above paragraph summarizes the film as conceived by producer Walter Wanger, director Don Siegel, and writer Daniel Mainwaring. Studio executives at Allied Artists, feeling that this ending was too downbeat, demanded a more hopeful one. Wanger, Siegel, and Mainwaring reluctantly agreed to shoot a wraparound to mollify the bigwigs, resulting in the main story becoming a flashback. The revised version begins with the distraught and disheveled Miles from the original ending being brought into a hospital. He begins telling his story to a skeptical psychiatrist, played by B-movie icon Whit Bissell. Now comes the main story summarized above. The revised ending has the still doubtful psychiatrist about to institutionalize the seemingly crazy Miles when another character announces that there has been a terrible accident on a nearby highway. A truck has crashed. The vehicle was found to be carrying a cargo of man-sized pods. The psychiatrist, realizing that Miles’s story is true, picks up the nearest telephone and asks to be connected to the FBI. The final shot is a closeup of Miles slumped against the wall, still upset but obviously relieved to have his story believed. The world may yet be saved!

Even with the somewhat compromised ending, Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains a classic of 1950s paranoia. Director Siegel, known more for police procedurals such as The Line Up (1958) and Dirty Harry (1971) than for science fiction, keeps the pace brisk. The crisp back-and-white photography by Ellsworth Fredericks and the taut musical score by Carmen Dragon add immeasurably to the proceedings. Use of a relatively unknown actor in the lead part assists in the suspension of disbelief needed to make the film work. If a star, say Gregory Peck or Glenn Ford, had been cast as Miles the audience might have had more difficulty in accepting the movie’s premise. The supporting cast, which included such familiar character actors as Larry Gates, Ralph Dumke. Virginia Christine, Richard Deacon, and Robert Osterloh, is excellent. Look for future superstar director Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969)) in a bit part as a meter reader who may be doing more in the basement than just reading the meter!

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Invasion Of the Body Snatchers is the fact that both liberals and conservatives saw it as a political allegory that supported their views. Conservatives saw the zombie-like pod people as representing brain-washed victims of the Communist Conspiracy. Liberals, on the other hand, saw them as automatons, frightened into mindless conformity by right-wing witch hunters like Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. How many movies have appealed to both ends of the political spectrum?