Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) * * *

Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is a local doctor in the fictional town of Santa Mira, California. Upon returning home from a trip, he finds the townspeople to be acting a bit unusual. He discovers that many of his patients are suffering from the paranoid delusion that their friends and relatives are impostors. One patient is a former sweetheart of his, recent divorcée Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), who tells him that her cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine) has this same strange fear about Uncle Ira Lentz (Tom Fadden). At first Dr. Bennell is unconcerned when the townsfolk accuse their loved ones of acting like emotionless imposters, but soon the evidence is overwhelming.

Stanley Driscoll: Is the baby asleep yet, Sally?
Nurse Withers: No, but she will be soon. And the'll be no more tears.
Stanley Driscoll: Shall I put this in her room?
(referring to the alien seed pod he is carrying)
Nurse Withers: Yes, in her playpen.

Assured by the town psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kaufman (Larry Gates) that the cases are nothing but "epidemic mass hysteria", Bennell soon learns, with the help of his friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan), that the townspeople are being replaced by simulations grown from plantlike pods, perfect duplicates who kill and dispose of their human victims. Huge seeds are "planted" in basements and garages that evolve into duplicates of people. Victims who fall asleep are "transformed". The tension grows as time passes and the characters need to sleep. His friends Jack and Theodora "Teddy" Belicec (Carolyn Jones) show him a partly formed body they have uncovered in their home, and he realizes that there may be some truth to the wild stories he has been hearing.

Dr. Kauffman: Sure you have. A real one! Whose body was it, and where is it now? A completely normal mystery. Whatever it is, it's well within the bounds of human experience, and I don't think you ought to make any more of it.
Dr. Bennell: Look, I wouldn't if I hadn't looked in Becky's cellar! How do you explain away the body I saw there?
Dr. Kauffman: I don't think you saw one there.
Dr. Bennell: You don't think I saw one here, either?
Dr. Kauffman: I know you did because three others saw it too.
Dr. Bennell: But I dreamed up the second one?
Dr. Kauffman: Doctors can have hallucinations too.

The Pod People transform themselves into the citizens of Santa Mira, and are indistinguishable from normal people, except for their utter lack of emotion. They work together to secretly spread more pods--which grew from "seeds drifting through space for years"--in order to replace the entire human race. Bennell and Driscoll hide in his office, then look outside onto the main square and see a congregation of Pod People walking in a trance like zombies.

Becky: I can't do it, I can't, can't, can't go on.
Dr. Bennell: Yes you can.
Becky: I don't want to live in a world without love or grief or beauty, I'd rather die.

Bennell and Driscoll drive, and then literally run for their lives through the California hills. If they can make it to the highway and then to the neighboring town, perhaps they and the world can be saved. The film climaxes with Driscoll falling asleep and turned into a Pod Person. With the Pod People close behind, a crazed Bennell runs onto the highway frantically screaming of the alien invasion which has overrun Santa Mira to the passing motorists. The actor breaks the 4th wall, looks into the camera and yells, "They're here already! You're next!"

The movie was originally intended to end with Dr. Bennell screaming hysterically as truckloads of pods pass him by. Allied Artists studio, wary of such a pessimistic conclusion, insisted on adding a prologue and epilogue to the movie that suggested a more optimistic outcome to the story which is told mainly in flashback. In this version the movie begins with Bennell in a hospital emergency room where he might be sent to an insane asylum. Held by the police as a raving lunatic, Dr. Bennell recounts to psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) the events that have turned his life upside down. He returned to his small town the previous Thursday, having been called back from a medical conference by his nurse Sally Withers (Jean Willes) who was being flooded with patients. In the closing scene, pods are discovered at a highway accident, thus confirming his warning. The FBI is notified, though it is left ambiguous whether they intervene in time to save the Earth.

Ambulance Driver: We had to dig him out from under the most peculiar things I ever saw.
Dr. Hill: What things?
Ambulance Driver: Well, I don't know what they are. I never saw them before. They looked like great big seed pods.
Dr. Hill: Where was the truck coming from?
Ambulance Driver: Santa Mira.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is a science fiction film based on the novel "The Body Snatchers" by Jack Finney, originally serialized in Colliers Magazine in 1954. The film has been interpretted as both an allegory for the loss of personal autonomy in the Soviet Union and as an indictment of McCarthyist paranoia about Communism during the early stages of the Cold War. In recent years, critics have hailed the film as a "genuine SF classic", one of the "most resonant", and "one of the simplest" of the genre. The BBC wrote, "The sense of post-war, anti-communist paranoia is acute, as is the temptation to view the film as a metaphor for the tyranny of the McCarthy era." However, lead actor Kevin McCarthy said in an interview included on the 1998 DVD release that he felt no political allegory was intended. The interviewer stated that he had spoken with the author of the original novel, Jack Finney, who also said he had intended no specific political allegory in the work.

In his autobiography, "I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History", the film's producer Walter Mirisch wrote: "People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. 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."

The film was shot in 23 days between March 23, 1955 and April 18, 1955 in Sierra Madre. Then the prologue and epilogue were shot on September 16, 1955 at Allied Artists. Cast and crew worked a six-day week with only Sundays off. Production went over schedule by three days because of night-for-night shooting that Siegel wanted. The final budget was $382,190. When released in 1956, the movie made over one million dollars in its first month. In 1956 alone, the movie made over two and a half million dollars in the USA. When the British issue took place in late 1956, the film made over a half million dollars in ticket sales.

Considered one of the best science fiction films of the 1950s and '60s, this classic paranoid thriller remains a milestone movie in its genre. Everything about this film is fine. The direction is first rate, the script is sharp and intriguing, and the film has an ordinary look to it that is gradually subverted by increasing darkness and unexpected camera angles. And the cast is very good. Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, and Carolyn Jones all give great performances in the leads, and the overall ensemble is every bit their equal. The movie has been made in 3 versions, but while the Donald Sutherland (1978) and the Meg Tilley (1993) versions are quite good in their own ways, the original remains the most powerful.

The cast also includes: Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Kenneth Patterson (Stanley Driscoll), Guy Way (Officer Sam Janzek), Eileen Stevens (Anne Grimaldi), Beatrice Maude (Grandma Driscoll), Jean Andren (Eleda Lentz), Bobby Clark (Jimmy Grimaldi), Everett Glass (Dr. Ed Pursey), Dabbs Greer (Mac Lomax), Pat O'Malley (Baggage man), Guy Rennie (Restaurant owner), Marie Selland (Martha Lomax), Sam Peckinpah (Charlie), Harry J. Vejar (Pod carrier in Miles' office), Richard Deacon (Dr. Harvey Bassett), Frank Hagney (Bit part), and Robert Osterloh (Ambulance driver). Carmen Dragon composed the original music. Daniel Mainwaring wrote the screenplay with help from Richard Collins based on Jack Finney's novel. Don Siegel directed.

The DVD offers the choice of widescreen and standard ratio. Apparently it was filmed in standard ratio but later converted to widescreen when that format became the norm. It works well in either version. Extras are slight, including a brief interview with McCarthy that is quite interesting. The transfer to DVD is quite good. In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten top Ten" after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was acknowledged as the ninth best film in the science fiction genre. In 1993, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

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