One of cinema’s best and most thought-provoking science fiction films
A siren screeches. A police car rushes to an emergency room. “Dr. Hill” exits the vehicle and is taken to meet a frantic “Dr. Miles Bennell” who is restrained by two officers. “Miles” yells, “Doctor, will you tell these fools I’m not crazy! Make them listen to me before it’s too late!”. He explains to "Dr. Hill" that upon his arrival home from a medical conference, strange things began to happen in the town of Santa Mira. Everything looked the same, but wasn’t. “Something evil had taken possession of the town”. That is just the beginning of a heart-pounding eighty minutes, in one heck of a fun classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”! The American Film Institute named this riveting, influential classic the 9th Greatest Sci-Fi Film and the 47th Most Thrilling American Film of All-Time. It’s so beloved, it has been remade three times, though no remake quite measures up to the raw thrills this one gives.
The bulk of the film is a flashback of the past few days in "Miles'" life. Patients who urgently needed to see him are suddenly fine, and others claim loved ones aren’t their loved ones but imposters of some sort. He quickly learns that otherworldly creatures in the form of giant pods have invaded earth. They replicate humans – their looks, behavior, voice, and even their memories. However, what these pod-hatching aliens cannot manufacture are emotions, leaving their victims soulless and drained of humanity. They intend to replicate every human in sight, wiping out the human race. Since they look like neighbors, friends, and relatives, everyone is a potential threat, and “Miles” doesn’t know who to trust. I won’t say much more, since this film is about excitement and surprise. This popcorn eating nail-biter is not one to overthink, but to wholeheartedly enjoy.
Considered one of Hollywood’s best science fiction films and B-movies, it was made during a decade many call the “golden age of science fiction”. By the 1950s, the world was still recovering from the second World War. Fears about having entered the atomic age were high and science and space exploration were hot topics. In America, McCarthyism and the rise of the Cold War added to the existing anxiety and paranoia. All of this became fodder on which the sci-fi film reinvented itself. Science suddenly became a large part of the fiction in these mostly B-movies, which played off current fears. The bulk of these films contained mutations or monsters that were the result of science gone wrong (often radiation or Atom bombs) or aliens out to destroy or save a misguided earth. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” stands apart from the approximately 200 sci-fi films produced during the 1950s because the enemy in it is us. Many people saw this film as a metaphor for McCarthyism (which I explain in my “High Noon” post), a statement about communist brainwashing, fascism, small town paranoia, the pressure to conform, or the loss of individualism. The film’s concept hits such a nerve with humanity it always seems to remain frighteningly relevant. One can’t help but watch it today and read into it how people can easily join a mass movement, losing their own thoughts, reason, and emotions. The film’s producer, director, and screenwriters all insisted they made it with none of those intentions, wanting only to make a scary movie. All of that aside, when taken at face value alone, this is one sublime film.
Based on a three-part serial written by Jack Finney for Collier's magazine, veteran film producer Walter Wanger bought the film rights before the last installment was finished (the serial was later turned into the novel, “The Body Snatchers”). Don Siegel was hired to direct, and the film was made as a low-budget B-movie (with a budget of just over $380,000, as compared to the average $1.5 million per film at that time). B-movies were cheaply made features originally intended to accompany a more prestigious, A-list film as part of a double feature. Because of their low budget, there was no money for major stars, extravagant sets, costumes, special effects, or even multiple retakes, and these films were often not reviewed (even the New York Times passed on this one). Despite its limitations (or maybe because of them), Siegel expertly constructed this film with nonstop action and the relentless feeling of a world closing in. There’s a subplot of a rekindled romance between “Miles” and his high school sweetheart “Becky”, for which Siegel never slows the film’s quick pace but uses to further the suspense and tension. He keeps things visually interesting, often showing characters in tight spaces, confined by walls, ceilings, or darkness, and uses finely chosen camera angels to help generate a gnawing feeling of claustrophobia. One example is how he films “Miles” and “Becky”, showing them mostly in restrictive medium shots, reserving long shots for when they are fleeing, vulnerable to the world. Small budget or not, Siegel knew precisely how to create an unsettling emotional ride inside a truly fine film.
Don Siegel began his career at Warner Brothers Studio in 1933 as an assistant in their film library, working his way up the ladder to filming montage sequences (for such films as “Casablanca” and "Yankee Doodle Dandy”), then becoming a second unit director (filming footage for classics such as "Sergeant York", "To Have and Have Not", and "All the King's Men”), and finally becoming a director beginning with two Academy Award winning short films in 1945 (“Star in the Night” and “Hitler Lives?”). Warners finally gave him a chance to direct his first feature in 1946, "The Verdict". After directing one more feature, he left Warners to work as an independent. Making mostly B-movies, Siegel quickly established himself masterful at making the most out of a little, creating solid, tightly executed, realistically gritty action adventure films, including “The Big Steal”, and his first film with producer Wanger, "Riot in Cell Block 11". Siegel finally broke out of the B-movie market come the late 1960’s, becoming highly associated with Clint Eastwood, directing him in five films including the 1971 classic, “Dirty Harry”. Siegel also worked as a writer and director for television. His other films include "The Killers", "The Shootist", "Flaming Star", "Escape from Alcatraz", and his final film, 1982’s "Jinxed!", starring Bette Midler. He is perhaps best remembered for “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and his films with Eastwood. He was married three times, including his first marriage to actress Viveca Lindfors. Don Siegel died in 1991 at the age of 78. Clint Eastwood has often credited him as a major influence in his own career, and dedicated his 1992 Oscar winning film, “Unforgiven” to Siegel.
Siegel also did a first-rate job in casting “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, as everyone in the film perfectly disappears into their roles, in particular its star, Kevin McCarthy who plays “Dr. Miles Bennell”. His sympathetic, Average Joe type quality makes it easy to identify with him, and it is because his performance is so genuine that these mysterious pods taking over seem so real. In the opening scene described above, McCarthy’s angst, panic, and helplessness is so credible, he inadvertently sets up the film as believable. He is emotionally truthful throughout, especially when it counts the most such as displaying inner torment in the chilling greenhouse scene, and powerlessness in his iconic scene in traffic. Wanting a star but not having the budget, Siegel gave McCarthy the role. They had worked together the year before on “An Annapolis Story”. It was a lucky break for McCarthy, as this classic film earned him an immortal place in cinema history.
Having lost both parents to the 1918 flu pandemic, Kevin McCarthy and his three siblings were raised by abusive relatives, then separated and sent to live with other relatives. He found a love for acting while appearing in a college play, and soon made his way from the midwest to New York City, landing on Broadway in 1938. Taking a break from theater, he served in the US Air Force during World War II and appeared in several of their training films. Returning to acting after the war, he became a founding member of the famed Actors Studio. He had a part in Broadway’s “Winged Victory” in 1943, which he reprised (uncredited) in the 1944 film version, serving as his screen debut. In 1949, McCarthy played the role of "Biff Loman" in the London production of “Death of a Salesman”, and in 1951 reprised the role in an American film adaptation, winning a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe and earning a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination (his only). Primarily a television and theater actor, his film appearances were sporadic. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was his seventh film and his first and only starring role. For the most part, he appeared in lesser films with a few exceptions, including “The Misfits” (already on this blog). McCarthy appeared in just shy of two dozen Broadways shows and managed to accrue slightly over 200 television and film credits (mostly TV). His films include “The Prize”, "Twilight Zone: The Movie" (and the TV show), "The Howling", "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson", "Innerspace", and a fun cameo appearance in the 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. He also reprised the role of “Dr. Miles Bennell” in the 2003 film, “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”. McCarthy had recurring roles in several TV series such as "Flamingo Road", "The Colbys", and "The District". His final appearance was in the 2012 film, "The Ghastly Love of Johnny X". He was married twice, including his first marriage to actress Augusta Dabney. His sister was author Mary McCarthy, and he was a distant cousin of presidential candidate and U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy. Kevin McCarthy died in 2010 at the age of 96.
Dana Wynter co-stars as “Becky Driscoll”, “Miles’” high school sweetheart. We learn that she just returned from Reno, Nevada, which in a pre-1960’s Hollywood film means she just got a divorce (as Reno was known as the “divorce capital of the world”). “Miles” says he was recently there too, so they are now both free to rekindle their love. The elegantly beautiful Wynter does a great job showing us a strong woman caught up in the confusion and fright.
Born in Germany, growing up in England, then moving with her family to Southern Rhodesia, Dana Wynter began acting in college plays. In 1951 she began getting small parts in British films starting with "Night Without Stars”, in which she appeared (uncredited) under the name Dagmar Wynter (Dagmar Winter was her birth name). She also began appearing in American films shot abroad, and soon changed her name to Dana Wynter. She moved to New York in 1953, and began working in theater and television, including substantial roles in "Robert Montgomery Presents" and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour“. In 1955 Wynter moved to Hollywood, and was cast as a lead in "The View from Pompey's Head”, for which she won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer (sharing it with Anita Ekberg and Victoria Shaw). “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” came next, and it is her most memorable role. Starting in the early 1960s, Wynter almost exclusively worked on television, acquiring a total of 83 credits in her career, including a handful of films such as "The List of Adrian Messenger", "Airport", and "Lovers Like Us”. She was married once, for twenty-five years, ending in divorce. Dana Wynter died in 2011 at the age of 79.
Carolyn Jones plays “Theodora ‘Teddy’ Belicec”, the wife of "Jack", and friend and patient of “Miles’”. Even in a relatively small part Jones gets a chance to show her skilled acting chops, whether as caring wife and friend, or terrified potential victim. One might not immediately recognize Jones with her blondish curls, but about a decade later she would become famous as the iconic “Morticia Addams” in the classic 1960s TV series “The Addams Family”, for which she’s still recognized today.
At seventeen, Carolyn Jones was spotted at the Pasadena Playhouse by a talent scout and signed to a contract with Paramount Pictures. She made both her TV and film debuts in 1952, in episodes of the TV series "Chevron Theatre” and an uncredited part in the film, “The Turning Point”. By the time of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” she had been primarily working on television with small parts in some big films, beginning with her attention-grabbing part in the horror classic "House of Wax", and including appearances in "The Big Heat” and "The Seven Year Itch”. She would amass 98 film and TV credits (mostly TV), with films that include Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much", "Marjorie Morningstar", "Career", "The Opposite Sex", and 1957's “The Bachelor Party”, for which she earned a Best Supporting Academy Award nomination (her only). In addition to starring in “The Addams Family”, she guest starred in countless TV shows, with recurring roles in “Wonder Woman”, “Ironside”, and the 1960s cult series “Batman” in which she played villainess "Marsha, Queen of Diamonds”. Her final role (cut short due to illness) was a lead on the first eight episodes of the TV series “Capitol” in 1981. She was married four times, including marriages with TV producer Aaron Spelling and Broadway conductor and producer Herbert Greene. Carolyn Jones died of colon cancer in 1983 at the age of 53.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is filled with recognizable faces (mostly from television), and I could point out pretty much everyone. As such, I’ll briefly include three more, the first of whom is Larry Gates who plays “Dr. Dan Kauffman”, friend of "Miles" and Santa Mira’s only psychiatrist. Gates appeared in just over 100 films and TV shows starting with the 1952 film “Glory Alley” and ending with his Emmy Award winning performance as “H.B. Lewis” on the daytime soap opera, “Guiding Light” (on which he appeared from 1983 to 1996). His films include “Some Came Running”, “The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker”, ”The Sand Pebbles”, “Airport”, and “Funny Lady”. Gates also appears in two films already on this blog (as "Dr. Baugh” in 1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, and in one of the most iconic scenes in film history as "Eric Endicott" in the classic "In the Heat of the Night”, in which he gives and receives a historic slap from co-star Sidney Poitier). Gates often appeared on Broadway, and was nominated for a Tony Award for the 1964 play, “A Case of Libel”. It may not look like it, but Gates was seven months younger than McCarthy, and the two went to the University of Minnesota together. While there, Gates acted in school plays and urged McCarthy to appear in the school production of "Henry IV, Part 1”. It became McCarty's stage debut and made him want to become an actor. Gates was married twice. Larry Gates died in 1996 at the age of 81.
Classic TV watchers will definitely recognize Richard Deacon who appears as “Dr. Bassett” (in an uncredited role) at the beginning and end of the film. Deacon is most famous for his five-year stint playing "Mel Cooley" on "The Dick Van Dyke Show", and on "Leave It to Beaver" as "Fred Rutherford". During a film and TV career that began with an uncredited role in 1953’s “Invaders from Mars” and ended with the 1984 film "Bad Manners", this recognizably tall, bald, and deep voiced character actor accrued just over 180 credits. He guest starred on just about every famous TV show from the 1950s through the early 1970s, with recurring roles on "Mister Ed", "The Mothers-In-Law", "The Beverly Hillbillies", and "The Phyllis Diller Show”. He also appeared in many, many classic films (mostly in small sometimes uncredited roles), including "Them!", "Désirée", "Blackboard Jungle”, "Carousel", "The Last Hurrah", "Inherit the Wind", and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds". He was gay (closeted until the near end of his life), never married, and from the little I can gather, had a relationship with British actor Jack Rutherford. Richard Deacon died in 1984 at the age of 63.
The last person I’ll mention is Sam Peckinpah who makes a quick appearance as “Charlie”, the gas meter reader seen in “Miles’” basement. Even though he appeared briefly in eleven films, Peckinpah was not building an acting career, but was en route to becoming an important director and screenwriter. At the time of this film, he was working as Dialogue Director on Siegel’s films, including "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". Peckinpah started directing TV in 1958 and feature films in 1961, and is best remembered for writing and directing the gory, breakthrough western, "The Wild Bunch” in 1969. His wife at the time, Marie Selland, also appears briefly in "Invasiion of the Body Snatchers" as "Martha Lomax", the wife at the gas station. I’ll write more about Sam Peckinpah when I present one of the films he directed.
An excellent 1978 remake also titled “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is widely considered to be among the top film remakes in history, though this 1956 version is almost universally considered the best of the "Body Snatchers" films. Two additional remakes were made, “Body Snatchers” in 1993, and “The Invasion” in 2007, though neither were truly successful.
This week’s film has a fantastic premise, is superbly executed, and carries a scare that never goes out of style. Get out your popcorn and enjoy “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
In order to make pods with their likenesses, latex doubles were made of the four main actors (Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, and Carolyn Jones) from full length plaster casts. Each actor had to be covered in casting material, breathing only through straws (being claustrophobic, Carolyn Jones had a rough time of it). When “Miles” stabs his own pod, McCarthy had to get it right the first time. Due to the film's low budget, only one pod was made of each actor.
The film originally began with “Miles’” train arriving and ended with him yelling in traffic, "They're here already! You're next!”. However, once the studio saw the finished film, they had cold feet about having such a bleak ending. Against Siegel’s wishes, the opening and ending scenes at the hospital were added, as well as narration, which he reluctantly directed. Since the rest of the film was already finished (including the credits), the names of any new actors appearing in the opening and closing scenes (such as Richard Deacon and another famous character actor, Whit Bissell as “Dr. Hill”) do not appear in the film.