Sunday, February 08, 2009

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Editor's note: Despite being firmly rooted in the fantastic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers - like Cat People last week - has an overwhelming feeling of paranoia, dread and fear. With those familiar traits - including it's shadowy visual style- an argument could be made that it's also a film noir. Regardless how you classify it, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a great film.

Written by HJ

The 1950s were a great time to grow up for (at the time) a kid like me, and one of the best parts was the sci-fi Movie! I loved the B.E.M.'s (Bug-Eyed Monsters) just like every other kid, but occasionally a really different movie would come along.

Back then, I had no idea that the term film noir even existed, much less having any idea of the definition of the term, but a particularly creepy movie dealing with persons losing their individuality impressed the heck out of me. It was Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

It starts with a seemingly demented man trying to obtain a ride on a crowded highway, with cars braking and honking their horns to avoid him. He is apparently picked up by police and taken to a hospital where his seeming psychosis can be observed by a pair of doctors. And so begins the story, in a voice-over fashion...

The little 1950s town of Santa Mira, CA has a handsome young doctor by the name of Miles Bennell, who has just returned from a convention. While Doc has been away, very strange things have begun happening in his little town. Seems that the townspeople have begun to become strangers even among their own families. The "new" family members are technically correct in appearance, and even in knowing all sorts of "secrets" and happenings from years in the past, but there's a hollowness and lack of passion and affection in them.



Thank goodness there's still spontaneous passion and affection between childhood sweethearts Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and his old girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), both recently divorced.

Now all of a sudden large pods containing sort of "generic people" have begun appearing in town, and these pods are sort of unfinished copies of actual people living in Santa Mira. Doc and Becky observe several of these "people-in-development" and become very alarmed.

Dr. Bennell attempts to communicate his suspicions with various law enforcement organizations including the Los Angeles office of the FBI, but his calls seem not to be going through.

Doc gradually comes to understand that these pod-bodies complete their "detailing" and take over the personalities of those whom they resemble when the person to be replicated sleeps. So constant wakefulness becomes the first order of survival.

Fortunately Doc knows what "bennies" are and has a good supply of them. He and Becky become aware that almost the entire town has been "replaced" in the last few days, and that they will not be allowed to escape to another town.

I should mention here that Kevin McCarthy does a very convincing expression of disbelief mixed with horror when he sees these developing "pod people." Also a generous dash of voice-over is provided by McCarthy, giving this sci-fi flick a bit of noir legitimacy.

Perhaps one of the most alarming scenes is the (shall we say) "farmer's market" scene in the town square where exportation of undeveloped pods is in progress to other California cities near Santa Mira.

There's a desperation and paranoia which grows throughout the movie that moves it into the noir canon. Loss of individuality and becoming conformists were the hobgoblins of the 1950s, and this movie plays into that fear in a big way.

I've already told too much of this, but will withhold some of the details so any "first-timers" (if there are any out there!) can still enjoy the movie.

Although he looks kind of thirtyish in this movie, Kevin McCarthy was actually 42 when it was filmed, and still very much the leading man type. Dana Wynter, who plays Becky Driscoll, was a very lovely 25-year-old actress when this movie was filmed. Virginia Christine (Mrs. Olson in the Folgers Coffee commercials) is in this one, as is Carolyn Jones, who would become Morticia Addams in the mid-1960s. Whit Bissell and Richard Deacon appear at the beginning and at the end of the movie as medical personnel who meet up with the "crazed" Doc Bennell at the end of the story. The final scene is a superb little coda to the story, in my opinion.

Carmen Dragon provided an excellent musical score for this movie, with Daniel Mainwaring doing the screenplay based on Jack Finney's Collier's Magazine serial.


There have been several other versions of this movie, with the 1978 version being probably the best-known. (Somehow the visual of Donald Sutherland opening his mouth to emit strange sounds strikes me as rather repulsive!) In my opinion, none of them have anywhere near the impact and tight, compact editing of this original. And you can enjoy the mid-1950s flavor and scenery of this movie. Doc Bennell's 1955 Ford Fairlane sedan would look just fine in my driveway.

This movie has been reissued on DVD and can be had at a very reasonable price, so give it a try!


6 comments:

  1. When I was a kid there was an afternoon movie on each day after school - and it was always an old black and white, lots of WWII films and melodramas but I vividly recall, no matter how many times they re-ran Body Snatchers I always watched and every time I got the willies from it.

    Terrific film and it has proven to be a great example of 50s paranoia.

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  2. The 1956 Invasion is playing at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, CA February 26 and 27. http://stanfordtheatre.org/stf/calendars/Winter%202009.html

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  3. Lest we forget, much of the noir-ness is due to the great Don Siegel's direction, as well as the lighting and camera angles (the chase in the alley at night). And who can forget King Donovan, especially on the pool table!

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  4. I am doing a paper on this movie for my Film class and I am so in love with it...I love analysing it...nothing does it better than the 1950s.

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  5. Please anyone. Do you know the name of the song or music that is played in the middle of the picture that lulls the characters to sleep. I remember it to be so relaxing.

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  6. PEDRO MARTINS C. XEXEO5:41 PM, July 20, 2011

    INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956 ) , directed by Don Siegel is one of the greatest films from the 1950s.I saw it when 12 or 13 years old ( in 1956 or 1957 ).It's a scary movie ( I was scaried to death when I saw it ).For me ,seeing this film was an unforgettable experience. Since then I saw this film more than 10 times.And ,today , more than 50 years later , I still love Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS . The original novel ,"The Body Snatchers" (1955) by Jack Finney is marvelous too.

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