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Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

By Robert Bright • October 16th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Allied Artists Pictures Corporation

Original release: February 5th, 1956
Running time: 80 minutes

Director: Don Siegel
Writers: Daniel Mainwaring, Jack Finney

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

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

There have been a remarkable four film versions of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers since the first of them in the 1950s, a number that speaks for the resonance and durability of Jack Finney’s 1954 science-fiction novel. Watch them in sequence and they make for a curious litmus test on the changing nature of paranoia and conspiracy fear in postwar America, as well as how filmmakers have sought to express it. For the purposes of this two-part article, though, I’d like to concentrate on the first and second versions, from 1956 and 1978, both wonderful films, both incredibly revealing of the milieu from which they come.

The first version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is from1956, and there were plenty of reasons to be feeling paranoid round about then. The Cold War was getting into its stride, the US and the Soviet Union amassing enough firepower in their nuclear arsenals for one twitchy trigger-finger to effectively carbonize the planet, while Senator McCarthy was rallying the troops with his fire and brimstone tirades against anyone who so much as sneezed in a pinko fashion. For filmmakers in the 1950s, the fear was real and justified, many of the politically suspect either forced out of Hollywood altogether – abroad to London like Jules Dassin, for example – or else into obscure, covert roles within the industry, hiding out in editing suites and prop rooms under false names like members of a resistance.

The white-picket fence nostalgia that seems to cling to the era is actually a product of its own media – TVs were shipped en masse into American homes for the first time, and on the screens of these strange alien pods the American Dream was being sold in tandem with washing powder and toothpaste, everything bright and shiny and bountiful, not to mention rigidly conformist.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

The action of the 1956 film takes place in just such a whiter-than-white slice of small-town America called Santa Mira. It’s a kind of Capra-esque Bedford Falls, except this time the angel Clarence fails to show up. Respectable GP, Miles Bennell, returns home after a two-week doctor’s conference to find a place that ‘at first glance looked the same as it always did. But it wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.’ Into Bennell’s surgery come people apparently suffering from paranoid delusions, claiming that close family members are in fact imposters. They might look and sound the same, but they’re not. “There’s no emotion, none. Just the pretence of it,” says one woman, who returns the following day to retract her statement with a vacant, have-a-nice-day smile, a sure sign that she too has since been assimilated into the pod cabal.

Bennell is friends with a psychiatrist going by the name of Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates). Kauffman thinks the paranoid behaviour in Santa Mira is some form of mass hysteria. ‘Your mind starts playing tricks,’ he says, ‘and reality becomes unreality.’ Psychiatry was becoming a significant cultural force in 1950s America, and through the paranoid lens of the 1956 movie it starts to take on the shape of a military-industrial priesthood, there to help everyone acclimatize to the complex presumably. It’s the beginning of a therapy culture that’s in full swing by the time we reach the 1978 version and Leonard Nimoy’s brilliantly icy performance in the same role.

Despite Kauffman’s constant protestations to Bennell that he too is succumbing to paranoid delusions, the evidence of pod invaders continues to mount. In greenhouses and cellars, cabbage-like alien pods seethe and froth, gradually taking on the shape of the human they are there to Invasion Of The Body Snatchersassimilate and replace, finishing the process when that human falls asleep, downloading their minds and memories. When they wake up they are reborn into ‘an untroubled world where everyone’s the same.’

The dichotomy of the sleeping / waking symbolism is explicit. The pod people are sleepwalkers, drones, the homogenized herd devoid of critical thought and individual volition. This aspect of paranoia and paranoid cinema would resonate in particular with 1960s radicals, fuelled by high-profile assassinations and evidence of CIA infiltration in the countercultural movement itself, not to mention vast quantities of psychoactive drugs being consumed at the time. In the 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, it’s the assimilation of the counterculture itself that becomes the backdrop, making for an even darker, more bewildered and paranoid atmosphere.

As for the idea of controlling the population through clandestine means, this has been the paranoid dimension to mass culture for as long as there’s been mass culture, and not without good reason when you’re faced with footage of a Nuremburg Rally or a parade for Chairman Mao or, for that matter, the pseudo-religious reaction to the launch of a new iPhone. Jack Finney’s book gave this phenomenon a mythological structure that makes it readily adaptable to different historical periods.

As for the America of the 1956 version, the paranoia can be regarded in one sense as ‘safe’. The Cold War drew a Manichean line through the politics of the age, establishing clear ideological oppositions, and this is reflected in Siegel’s film. Its targets are clear; on the one hand there is the unthinking conformity demanded by a totalitarian regime like Soviet Russia, but also evident in the pogrom-style McCarthy hearings. On the other there’s a warning against the conformity of the burgeoning consumer culture, where the constant promotion of ‘choice’ as a correlative to freedom means nothing if it simply amounts to choosing between brands of cereal.

There’s a telling moment in the film when Bennell and his girlfriend Becky are on the run. He pulls his car into a sales lot and parks it up next to identical cars, taking the price off the Invasion Of The Body Snatcherswindscreen of another and putting it on his own car to confuse their pursuers. So long as he conforms, he’s safe. This works for walking among the aliens too, fitting in requiring a kind of robotized, commuter shuffle, determinedly avoiding eye contact at all times.

At the films’ conclusion, having escaped Santa Mira, Bennell runs onto the highway, to warn people about the aliens. ‘They’re here already!’ he howls like a latter-day Zarathustra, while the traffic flows about him, every car the same, everyone going the same way. It’s at this moment we get one of the most iconic images in American postwar cinema, Bennell turning to the camera and screaming ‘You’re next! You’re next!’

This was supposed to be where the film ended, but as an ironic illustration of precisely the mentality critiqued in the film, the studio insisted on adding a prologue and epilogue to make things a little sunnier, a little more ‘have-a-nice-day’, much to Siegel’s chagrin. As we’ll see in Part II, by the time we reach Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake, there’s no longer any need for sugarcoating it. The aliens are indeed here already, and clearly they must have got through the roadblocks set up around Santa Mira, because they’re no longer taking over small-town America – now they’ve got San Francisco in their sights.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

Robert Bright

Robert Bright

Robert Bright has been working as a journalist since the early 1990s, and such is his vintage, he remembers seeing Goodfellas at the cinema, a film that remains one of his favourites, and its director Martin Scorsese one of his heroes.

He is interested in film noir – particularly such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Out Of The Past – and American science-fiction B-movies of the 1950s, like Howard Hawks’s The Thing. Other favourites, taken at random, include Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You can follow him on Twitter at @MKUltraBright.

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