At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.
There’s something powerfully compelling about stories of creeping paranoia, where reason is not merely sidelined but is trampled underfoot by the unthinkable. Those 1950s tales, born out of global fear and uncertainty, urging vigilance both towards the enemy within, and, especially in the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the enemy wearing one’s own face once felt like a curious relic of the recent past. Nowadays, with opportunists everywhere never passing up an opportunity to encourage suspicion and division, you’d be forgiven for thinking it way well represent a timeless observation on human frailty.
I find the 1950s an endlessly fascinating decade from a filmmaking point of view. There is an irrepressible post-war optimism on view, a sense of hope and positivity for the future; the big shiny automobiles, those spotless, picture postcard small towns, the neat homes resplendent with the latest technology, and most of all the outwardly content people all seem to reflect this satisfaction. Yet satisfaction can all too easily spill over into smugness and conceit, trapping the unwary and leading them into peril. Perhaps it’s our collective sense of doubt, something indelibly stamped on our consciousness by centuries of nasty surprises, that makes us wonder if there’s not danger lurking in the shadows cast by the glow of our apparent success. It’s this juxtaposition of ideas – the comfortable gloss sharing space with the uncertainty – that makes the best 50s movies such a draw for me.
Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is one of those archetypal post-war figures, young, successful (albeit with a broken marriage behind him) and well-regarded in his community. And Santa Mira is one of those idealized communities I referred to above, comfortable and orderly and the last place one would think of as a threat. Nevertheless, that’s precisely what it represents, for the story rapidly makes it clear that the residents of this small settlement are behaving strangely. There are growing numbers of reports that members of their own families may be imposters, perfect physical and psychological replicas, yet lacking those tell-tale traces of humanity that only those most intimate with us would spot. Surely this is impossible though; it defies all rational explanation and even if it were true, how could one do anything about it before succumbing oneself, and who could be trusted in the interim? Here we have the dilemma faced by the increasingly isolated doctor.
That’s about as much detail as I plan to go into regarding the plot. Those who are already familiar with the film will know everything necessary anyway, and those who are not are entitled to go into it without having the developments spoiled for them by me. In any case, it’s the theme and the thinking behind the movie that interests me most here. The story comes from Jack Finney’s book (called simply The Body Snatchers) which originally appeared in serial form. There are of course some differences but the overall shape of the narrative is retained in Daniel Mainwaring’s screen adaptation. Even the frequently criticized prologue and epilogue which frame the movie, and were apparently demanded by the studio to counter the perceived bleakness, are close in spirit if not actual detail to the original ending of the novel.
It’s what comes in between though that makes this one of the great Sci-Fi classics. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the film was conceived and executed as an entry into what we now think of as the Red Scare sub-genre, those films which tapped into Atomic Era anxieties and played (or maybe preyed) on fears of infiltration by those bent on damaging society. What lends this story its power is its use of the notion that the “enemy” is indistinguishable, so much so in fact that even those nearest to us may not be all they appear. And then a further twist of the psychological knife is achieved by having us doubt even ourselves – should our guard drop for the briefest of instants, our souls may be stolen. It’s not a huge step then to regard the danger as something already a part of us, a sort of variation on the old original sin concept and the ultimate in horror, that the face of evil is not just familiar, but one’s own mirror image.
I guess Kevin McCarthy will be forever remembered for his role as the doctor whose calm confidence is not so much eroded over the course of a couple of days as brutally shattered by a series of relentless and terrifyingly swift developments. It’s a credit to McCarthy that the transition from cool professional to gibbering maniac is both seamless and entirely convincing. Dana Wynter gets a great part too as the returning romantic interest. There are nice supporting roles for King Donovan and the underused Carolyn Jones and Jean Willes. And it would be remiss of me not to mention a brief appearance by future director Sam Peckinpah.
Mainwaring’s script, and Finney’s novel naturally, form the core of the movie, but the direction of Don Siegel and the cinematography of Ellsworth Fredericks are vital too. The latter bathes the movie in the kind of deep shadow which we normally associate with film noir and the effect (not to mention the parallel) is wholly appropriate given the subject matter. Siegel’s punchy, spare direction is a great asset, keeping the pace up and using a whole range of interesting angles and perspectives – squeezing the characters through tiny windows, moving them along cramped corridors, confining them in cupboards and even under boardwalks – to ratchet up the sense of claustrophobia, the limited room for maneuver and the ceaseless tension.
I see that Invasion of the Body Snatchers has recently had a deluxe Blu-ray release in the US, and it’s a film that’s certainly deserving of such treatment. I’ve not had an opportunity to sample that version but I do hope a European special edition turns up at some point in the future. In the meantime, I’d unreservedly recommend that anyone who hasn’t had a chance to see this movie should make an effort to do so as soon as possible. We’ve had some fine discussion here before on the difficulty in defining exactly what characterizes a great movie. I imagine it’s safe to say few will upbraid me if I assert that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is unquestionably one of the true greats.