Saturday, July 19, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director: Don Siegel                                         Writer: Daniel Mainwaring
Film Score: Carmen Dragon                              Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Carolyn Jones and Whit Bissell

Don Siegel’s Cold War allegory is one of only two films to make both The A List and The B List, the other being Night of the Living Dead. Simply put, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the best science-fiction thriller to appear in the fifties, part film noir, part mystery, and suspenseful through and through. This makes sense, considering that screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring was responsible for one of the screen’s all time great noir films, Out of the Past. In this case his screenplay was based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, and the name was changed to avoid confusion with the Val Lewton film The Body Snatcher from the forties starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Finney’s novel had a much more optimistic ending, with the defiant Americans being too difficult for the space aliens to take over and ended with them flying away. In keeping with the times, the atomic age and the threat of Communism, Siegel’s film has a much darker ending. Poverty Row studio Monagram had recently made themselves over and were now calling the company Allied Artists, but their distribution was poor and it wasn’t until many years later that the film’s reputation began to grow.

The film begins with a prologue as the consummate fifties low-budget doctor, Whit Bissell, is being whisked to the hospital where the doctor there, Richard Deacon, asks him to take a look at Kevin McCarthy. A doctor himself, McCarthy is crazed with fear, but Bissell calms him down by asking him to tell what happened. The main story opens on the small California town of Santa Mira. McCarthy had come back early from a medical convention because his nurse, Jean Willes, said that so many people wanted to see him. But once in his office they had all apparently changed their minds. And while a few people in the town had been acting strangely, he didn’t put it together right away. Others were saying that people they knew were impostors somehow, which only made their behavior seem out of place. Virginia Christine is sure her uncle has changed, and young boy Bobby Clark says the same thing about his mother. McCarthy is dating the recently divorced Dana Wynter, and it’s not until the two of them visit Carolyn Jones and her husband, King Donovan, that they begin to make sense of what’s been happening. Donovan shows him an apparent corpse of a man who is in the process of transforming into Donovan himself. The incident nearly helps McCarthy figure out what’s really going on . . . but the aliens cover it up just in time.

It’s easy to see why the film has only continued to gain in its reputation over the years. First of all it’s well directed. Don Siegel would become much better known for his work with Clint Eastwood, but the skill set was already firmly in place. Even in a low-budget independent like this, his moving camera and shot selection are tremendous. The acting is also way above average. Many of the cast would go on to work in television, but they too possess skills that help make the tale believable. And that’s the best part of the film, that it’s an absolutely chilling story, and told in an incredibly effective way. There’s an economy to the plot that keeps things moving along briskly, pulling the viewer effortlessly into the paranoia of Kevin McCarthy. The prologue and epilogue that the studio forced producer Walter Wanger to use in the film is nothing new--producers forced Robert Wiene to do the same thing in 1919 in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari--but even with those additions the ending is still ambiguous and the tale frightening enough to overcome the manufactured optimism.

The A List entry by Robert Sklar is fairly innocuous. It gives a bit of background on the film and a brief synopsis. He does astutely address the film’s allegorical meanings, one of which is for the Communist scare that the government was promoting to keep the country in a war-like state. The film can also be seen as an allegory for the conformity that was sweeping the country in trying to keep dissent at a minimum. The one interesting interpretation he comes up with is that the emphasis on doctors and psychiatry relates to the increasingly drugged society that the country was becoming. Michael Sragow’s essay in The B List is much more entertaining, starting off with Don Siegel’s considerable ability to inject into what is essentially a programmer something that has transcended time and meager finances to become a classic of the genre. In fact, he calls the film “a textbook on turning infirmity into strength.” There is also a brief suggestion of the campiness of McCarthy and Wynter and their hip friends Jones and Donovan, which gives the film another interesting spin. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has what Sragow calls “the right stuff,” an impressive piece of film artistry that deserves the designation “classic.”

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