October Film Series Quarantine: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)
My pick for this month is: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Where is it available? This is quite a popular title, so public libraries should have it (Orem is confirmed), the BYU library has a copy for those who have privileges, and for streaming rental or purchase on YouTube, on GooglePlay (least expensive), and Amazon.
Dr. Miles Bennell shares his terrifying account of “pod people” taking over his town in fictional Santa Mira, California. Unraveling as a flashback, you can feel the world closing in as people all around Miles start acting a little bit unhuman . . .
Allied Artists Pictures Corporation, formerly Monogram Pictures, which was known for their low-budget adventure films, released this film in early February of 1956. That was only one month before the release of my pick from last month, Forbidden Planet. (This is a coincidence, I promise!) But it was from the same cultural ecosystem as Planet that Invasion will spawn. But both are excellent examples of developing cinematic atmosphere. Shot in a simple matted widescreen format and in black and white, it had no ambitions of distraction, but aimed for a slowly building panic-induced viewer engagement that left you sitting forward in your seat. For further comparison between the two, if Planet felt like a precursor to Star Trek, then Invasion would be an embryonic Twilight Zone episode.
Favorite bits to watch for
I love the film noir elements of this film. Certainly most-associated with the crime and detective films of the era, the adaptation of tools such voice-over-flashback, dimly-lit settings, and a femme fatale to the science fiction drama works surprisingly well. A doctor is our detective searching for clues to decipher what is going on, and despite the framing story we the audience unravel the mystery only as our characters do. Maybe my love for detective noir AND science fiction lead me to love the mix in this one.
This film is all about the experience. It needs to be viewed in an undistracted 90 minute window in a dark room. So please, leave the rest of this article for after the movie (if you are going to watch it) so that none of it is painted by the things I will tell you from here on out. Enjoy!
For after the show
Boy, does this film move fast in its pacing, the mystery absolutely driving from scene to scene. It is incredibly lean and economical, quickly telling us the what, where, why, when, and how with very little elaboration beyond just what we need to know. This works perfectly for the development of the suspense as there is no drawn out explanations of our lead-couple’s past or the details of alien invasion. We know just enough to root for the romantic couple, just enough to make us feel for the loss of humanity in the town, and just enough to feel the shock down our spine with that last kiss!
This economy probably stems somewhat from the skills and experience of the films director, Don Siegel. Mr. Siegel began his career in the montage dept. at Warner Bros. There he was tasked to cut together sequences that would convey as much as possible in very short montage sequences, condensing images and lines. He is credited for the opening montage in Casablanca, and he won two Academy Awards in 1945 for two different short films. Truly his craft was in making the most of condensed time in the world of the film.
This film is also a great testament to the level of talent and craft in Hollywood in the 1950s. The excellent lighting, camera work, special effects, and acting belie the shoestring budget with which this was produced. The scenes are long and let the actors act when we need to be drawn into the moment, yet the pace of mounting suspense is maintained throughout. It is a prime example of great technical filmmaking!
It’s aims are modest, yet it achieves them so resoundingly that it works very well.
Adapted from a 1955 serialized story by Jack Finney, this film version tapped into the cold war zeitgeist of paranoia centered on ideological philosophies rendering our friends, family, and neighbors unrecognizable. Whether that change was to conspiracy-crazed anti-communism, or in the exact opposite direction of embracing soulless Marxism, the lens of others becoming “unfeeling pod people” could be adapted to either interpretation. Treatises supporting each interpretation have been penned, so it is truly a Rorschach test – where what you see in the ink blots is what you bring with you inside. We could certainly link the current mistrust and paranoia of the current pandemic that is moving unseen through human carriers today in 2020 as well!
As with Planet from last month, the studios’ big budgets are going to feel-good spectacles and musicals, yet there is a disturbed undercurrent in the low-budget offerings of more pessimistic fare. In some markets, Invasion was coupled on a double bill with the lesser sci-fi thriller Timeslip or Atomic Man from Britain. Truly it was trolling for a different audience than the A-pictures. But this was a modest hit, making back ten times its production cost.
Initially, producer Walter Wanger was hoping to cast recognizable talent for the roles. His list for Miles Bennell consisted of Dick Powell and Joseph Cotten. For Becky, he envisioned Anne Bancroft, Donna Reed, or Kim Hunter, among others. But with a constricted budget, he had to search lower salaries and found Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Kevin McCarthy followed director Don Siegel from their recent collaboration An Annapolis Story (1955) the previous year. Although it would have been great to have such actors, I also feel that the casting of unrecognizable faces works really powerfully in this film as they come off as people that could truly be your neighbors.
The film’s title changed a few times during production. Initially, it was to have the same title as the source material by Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers. But in 1945 there was a Robert Wise/Val Lewton production of that name in the singular, so they didn’t want it to be confused as a re-release. The film continued to rotate through They Come from Another World, Better Off Dead, Sleep No More, Evil in the Night, and World in Danger before finally coming around just about full circle to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Which has become its own pop culture root for all sorts of Invasion of… titles for films, books, TV episodes, and so forth.
My favorite fun-fact
One of the promotions at theaters in the U.S. was displays of giant paper mache pods in lobbies and other entrances.
Ben Harry, Curator
BYU Motion Picture Archive