15 December 2005

100 films: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, and King Donovan
written by: Daniel Mainwaring, from the story by Jack Finney
directed by: Don Siegel
NR, 80 min, 1956, USA

When Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy[1]) returns to his small town from a conference, his secretary informs him of an odd tendency of the townspeople showing up at his office for treatment of a malady they refuse to talk about and won't seek help from anyone else for. They seem to be fine, though, with no indications of any problems. One of his first patients is Jimmy Grimaldi, a little boy who claims his mother is not really his mother, even though it is clear to everyone that she is exactly the person she always was. Later, as he's out to diner with old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), he gets a call from Jack Belicec (King Donovan), who's found what seems to be a corpse with no fingerprints and a vaguely blank expression. Upon further investigation, they learn that the corpse is destined to somehow take over the body of Jack while he sleeps. These creatures have managed to take over most of the town. Can the good doctor escape before they take him?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is best classified as cinema of the paranoia. Released during the height of the Communist Red Scare, many have theorized that the film is an allegory about communism[2]. The good doctor, who is relaying most of the story through a voiceover, is pretty much convinced the entire town is out to get him and that he cannot, under any circumstances, sleep else the pod people snatch his soul. And from what we can tell, he's absolutely right. Then again, how much can you trust a guy who hasn't slept in a couple of days? Well, thanks to some studio interference, we learn that the doctor isn't insane after they find a truck containing a load of weird pods, thereby verifying his story. But this wasn't intended to be part of the film. The studio, in a way that only a Hollywood studio can, felt the original ending of the doctor in the middle of the road ranting "You're next, you're next" was too much of a downer for 1950's audiences, so they insisted on a new ending where he manages to convince the FBI to intercede.

So let's assume for a minute that the film is a Red Scare allegory. What then is the film, complete with the studio-mandated ending, trying to tell us? Throughout the film, there's a perception that if the doctor can just get the attention of the FBI, all will be saved, because naturally the FBI will know how to deal with aliens who are stealing people's identities. Nevermind that the FBI would be pretty much lost as how to solve this crisis. It was important, at least in the studio's mind, for 1950's Americans to think the FBI could save them from whatever menace might rear its ugly head, which is perhaps why we see the FBI in this era as an all-encompassing messiah. Contrast that to current cinema where the government agencies are very often the villains wielding their power in ways our founding fathers never conceived. Why this change in attitude? Because if the commies ever did attack, we all needed to be able to align blindly with a figurehead who could battle them properly. And that was quite often the FBI.

Even if that's the reason the studio added the ending[3], it doesn't detract from the fact that the ending is a major blow to the film as a whole. Director Don Siegel goes to great trouble to craft a great deal of mystery, paranoia, and dread in this tale and, in the process, gives us a fine 80-minute diversion. It may not be great cinema, but as the alien invasion genre goes, it's about as good as you can expect. Minus the happy ending, it leaves enough questions to keep you thinking, but with it we have too many answers, and in a film like this, answers are not in the story's best interests. Because sometimes a loose end is a good thing. A little mystery can go a long way.

[1] If you watch this, you'll spend a lot of time early on trying to figure out who McCarthy looks like. I'll save you the time. He looks almost exactly like he belongs in the Sutherland clan, either as the patriarch or maybe Donald's uncle, but he doesn't appear to be related. Donald, however, did star in the remake, so apparently someone else thought they looked alike.

[2] No one involved will admit this, of course.

[3] Nothing more than speculation on my part.


A note that has nothing to do with the film: If you're one of the hearty souls who reads these reviews on a regular basis, you'll notice the addition of the Amazon.com link. Basically, if you follow that link and buy something from Amazon.com (like the DVD of the film in question) they give me money for sending people in that direction. This is always nice for poor people like myself. I did my best to make the link as subtle as possible. Some of them, while perhaps more effective, look horribly commercial and tacky.