Monday, August 9, 2010


No single movie more effectively captured the paranoia and depicted the conformity that afflicted America in the 1950s than director Don Siegel's low-budget, black & white, science fiction chiller "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (**** out of ****) with Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Siegel remembered it as his favorite film and its potency lies in Siegel's subtle handling of the outlandish subject matter. Every Siegel film has examined the theme of the individual versus society. Never has any Siegel protagonist ever blended in with the swarm. Iconoclastic to the hilt, Siegel's protagonists clash with the status quo. Siegel's respect for these outcasts prompted him to make "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." "I think that the world is populated by pods," he observed, "and I wanted to show them." Despite its melodramatic title and ghoulish adversaries, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" shares little similarity with sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s. Surprisingly, this minor Allied Artists release quickly acquired a reputation. Film critics and scholars alike have read considerably more into its standard narrative about aliens taking over the earth than Siegel intended. Kevin McCarthy said years later he saw "no political significance" in the plot. One of Don Siegel's contemporaries and a renowned film producer in his own right, Walter Mirish, wrote about the film's significance in his autobiography. "People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is an example of that. I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple." Nevertheless, the best works of art are always prone to interpretations beyond those of its creators, and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" became a lightning rod for commentary.
Three schools of thought emerged about "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." The first construed it as a polemic against the hysteria-inducing tactics of discredited Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy who alleged Communists had infiltrated American government. McCarthy never substantiated his charges, but he forged an atmosphere of hatred and mistrust that ostracized iconoclasts. The second saw it as a metaphor for the perennial threat Communism posed to Americans. During the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee launched a witch hunt and blacklisted many Hollywood filmmakers because of their involvement with the Communist Party between the 1930s and 1950s. As a casualty of the blacklist, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" scenarist Daniel Mainwaring spent his remaining years writing under a pseudonym. A third school saw it as an indictment of the Levittown suburban mentality where everybody acted and dressed in identical fashion.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" opens with a prologue as the police transport Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell of "He Walks By Night") from the State Mental Hospital to observe a delusional inmate who claims that he isn't insane. Dr. Hill sits down with our disheveled hero and listens to his story. Until the epilogue, when Siegel returns to the asylum, everything from here until then occurs in flashback as the story is told. Things begin innocently enough as a local physician, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy of "Annapolis Story"), has encountered patients in the small town of Santa Mira, California, who complain about their loved ones behaving like impostors. Town psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kaufman (Larry Gates of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) dismisses everything as "hysteria." Soon, Bennell and his old friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan of “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones of "The Addams Family") along with Bennell's former sweetheart Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), discover a replica of Jack in his house lying on his pool table. "It's like the first impression stamped on a coin," Jack observes to Bennell. Bennell takes the body's fingerprints, but it has no fingerprints at this point. The thing awakens no long afterward, and Jack and Teddy flee in terror to Bennell's house with news that the body looks exactly like Jack. Indeed, Teddy points out that it resembles Jack right down to his slashed hand palm where he cut himself dropping a bottle of bourbon. Later, they learn seed pods are appearing everywhere. When people fall asleep, the pods hatch facsimiles. After Jack and Teddy show up at Bennell’s house, the doctor’s imagination runs wild and he leaps into his car in his pajamas and house robe and careens over the Becky’s house. Bennell breaks into Becky's house. He enters the house by smashing a window in the basement. Bennell finds a pod in her cellar, but rescues Becky before she can turn into a pod person. Our hero theorizes that so many things have been discovered in the world since the advent of the atomic bomb that radiation may have affected plant or animal life or some weird alien organism. Dr. Kaufman comes over to Bennell’s house and they explain to him the outlandish events that have happened. Predictably, Dr. Kaufman refuses to believe anything that they say. Bennell and Jack accompany Dr. Kaufman over to Jack’s house to show him the facsimile on the billiards table. When they reach the billiards table, they find the body has vanished. Dr. Kaufman points out a blood stain on the table, but the body is nowhere to be found. They drive over to Becky’s house and check the basement for Becky’s facsimile, but they find nothing. Dr. Kaufman launches into a lecture to the incredulous Miles Bennell. “Why did you come here tonight? You’d seen a dead man at Jack’s, an average sized man. The face in death was smooth and unlined, bland in expression, which often happens, You had become aware of a curious, unexplainable epidemic mass hysteria. Men, women, and children suddenly convinced themselves that their relatives weren’t their relatives at all so your mind starting playing tricks.”

No sooner has Dr. Kaufman finished than Becky’s father, Stanley Driscoll (Kenneth Patterson of “Baby Face Nelson”), appears with a shotgun in his fists. He wants to know what they are doing in his basement. Not long afterward, Santa Mira Police Chief Nick Grivett (Ralph Dumke of “Violent Saturday”) pokes his head in the broken window that Bennell and company have entered the basement. When they try to explain about the body over at Jack’s house, the chief interrupts and gives them a complete description of the man. The chief saw the body on the slab. He informs Bennell, Jack, and Dr. Kaufman that the body was found in a burning haystack on Mike Gessner’s south pasture. Afterward, several people who had complained about their relatives no longer show anxiety. The little boy that Bennell nearly ran over earlier, Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark of “Kentucky Jubilee”), is neither afraid of his mother nor of attending school. Similarly, Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine of “Billy the Kid versus Dracula ) is no longer worried about her Uncle Ira being an impostor.

Approximately, forty minutes into the action, Siegel shows the first pod as it is replicating a human; the kind of shot that Siegel uses is designated a ‘Dutch’ tilt shot. The camera is set-up as if it were on its side so that image looks definitely out of place. Siegel is deliberately calling attention to the seed pods. Bennell notices the seed pods when one gurgles, and Jack, Teddy, and Becky join him. Becky confesses that her father hasn’t been the same since Bennell and she came home yesterday and found him leaving the basement. “They have to be destroyed,” cries Teddy, “all of them.” Bennell assures her that they will. The doctor and the others haven’t caught on yet about the brutal truth. “We’re going to have to search every building, every house in town. Men, women, and children have to be examined. We’ve got some phoning to do.” Bennell tries to call the FBI in Los Angeles. The switchboard operator informs him that all Los Angeles circuits are dead. When he asks for the governor in Sacramento, Bennell learns that all Sacramento circuits are busy. Bennell sends Jack and Teddy out of town to alert the authorities. He tried to make Becky go with them, but she refuses and stays behind with him. Bennell takes the pitchfork and checks the seed poles. One of them has disgorged a replica of Becky, but Bennell cannot spear it. Instead, he finds his own replica and plunges the spear into it repeatedly. Eventually, the impostors take over and corner Bennell and Becky. They explain that the seed pods entered the Earth, landed at a farm and took root. Life has driven too many people over the edge and the pods will free mankind of its worries. Nobody will ever be troubled by anything again. "There is no need for love or emotion. Love, desire, ambition, faith—without them—life is so simple." Originally, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" concluded with the frantic Bennell screaming his warning about these space aliens who robbed humans of their emotions and turned them into thoughtless automatons. Allied Artists sought to soften the hysteria. Siegel agreed against his wishes to add a prologue and an epilogue on the advice of Wanger for fear that the studio would re-edit the film.

The legacy of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is considerable. Hollywood has remade this original three times along with the unacknowledged remakes, such as the 2007 "Invasion of the Pod People" Philip Kaufman helmed an urban version of the Siegel film in 1978 with Donald Sutherland, but situated it in the urban sprawl of San Francisco. McCarthy reprised his role, and Siegel had a cameo. Later, independent director Abel Ferrara took it back to its rural roots in 1994 with "Body Snatchers" and located the action on a military base in Alabama. In 2007, another remake simply called "Invasion" appeared with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Originally, Jack Finney wrote the novel that "Collier's Magazine" serialized in 1954.

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