Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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USA, 1956

Director: Don Siegel

Production: Allied Artists Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm, Superscope; running time: 80 minutes. Released 5 February1956. Filmed 1955.

Producer: Walter Wanger; screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring, and according to some sources uncredited scriptwriting by Sam Peckinpah, from the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney; photography: Ellsworth Fredericks; editor: Robert S. Eisen; sound engineer: Ralph Butler; sound editor: Del Harris; production designer: Joseph Kish; art director: Edward Haworth; music: Carmen Dragon; music editor: Jerry Irvin; special effects: Milt Rice.

Cast: Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles Bennel); Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll); Larry Gates (Dr. Dan Kauffmann); King Donovan (Jack); Carolyn Jones (Theodora); Jean Willes (Sally); Ralph Dumke (Nick Grivett); Virginia Christine (Wilma Lentz); Tom Fadden (Uncle Ira Lentz); Kenneth Patterson (M. Driscoll); Whit Bissell (Dr. Hill); Sam Peckinpah (Charlie Buckholtz, gas company employee); Guy Way (Sam Janzek); Eileen Stevens (Mrs. Grimaldi); Beatrice Maude (Grandmother Grimaldi); Bobby Clark (Jimmy Grimaldi); Jean Andren (Aunt Eleda Lentz); Everett Glass (Dr. Ed Percy); Richard Deacon (Dr. Harvey Bassett); Dabbs Greer (Mac); Marie Selland (Martha); Pat O'Malley (Man carrying baggage).



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* * *

There are no moments of great violence in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We see no one die on screen and, technically, no one dies in the film. There are no monsters and only a few special effects, which are confined totally to the construction of a few pods shown but briefly. The essence of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is its aura of normalcy. It is normalcy, the acceptance of the status quo, the desire to escape from the pain of the abnormal that creates the sense of horror in the film.

The thematic goals of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are beautifully expressed in content (the dialogue primarily) and style (the visual body). The fact that one cannot escape from the body-snatching pods is indicated by the director, Don Siegel, in the way the pods are hidden before they take over the minds of the humans. We see them in basements, automobile trunks, a greenhouse, and on a pool table. That the pods are virtually indestructible is shown by Dr. Miles Bennel's repeated attempts to destroy them. When Miles discovers the pods growing in the greenhouse, we are shown a ritual vampire killing. The camera is low in the point of view of the pod. We see Miles's anguished face as he drives the pitchfork down and leaves it like a stake through the heart. But it is not enough. Other pods appear in his trunk. He burns them in much the same way we have seen so many monsters burning in films, only to rise again in a sequel. The pods are not traditional terrors; they are indestructible modern terrors. There is no catharsis in the presentation of a monster being destroyed by love or religious ritual. Here it is the monsters who will prevail.

Siegel expects that his warning of a "pod invasion" will not be heeded. This is indicated in the film in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most striking is that of the small boy, Jimmy Grimaldi, whom we meet along with Miles at the beginning of the picture. As Jimmy runs down the road, he is stopped by Miles. Jimmy informs him that Mrs. Grimaldi (who has become a pod) is not his mother any more. Miles doesn't believe him. The world will not believe him and eventually the boy becomes a pod. Near the end of the film we also see Miles running down the road, searching for someone to tell that the people of Santa Mira (the very name of the town—"mira" in Spanish means "look"—calls attention to itself, and cries to be understood or heeded as a warning) have been consumed by pods. Like Jimmy, we know Miles will not be believed.

A sense of impending doom, or a sense of helplessness in combating the pods, is indicated by depicting Miles as constantly being driven into dark corners and forced to hide. His world is threatened by the pods, and he is reduced to constricted areas of existence. For example, he and Becky Driscoll have to hide in a closet in his office; the camera moves with them into the closet. Through a small hole in the door we see a human-turned-pod turn on a light outside. Later Miles and Becky are forced to hide in a hole in the floor of a cave which they cover with boards. We see the pod people rush over them from Miles's and Becky's point of view. In effect, the places to run have been repeatedly reduced and we suffer the confinement of choices with the protagonists.

One of the most striking and famous sequences in the film is where Miles, having finally escaped from Santa Mira, suddenly finds himself on a highway with hundreds of cars passing him, full of people who are unwilling to listen to him, and thus unwilling to save themselves. The setting is dark with Miles in a sea of machines; the people are hiding within these machines, perhaps the first step toward becoming pods. As he stands on the highway, a truck passes with the names of various cities on it. In the truck, Miles finds the pods, and he realizes they are being taken to the big cities listed on the side of the truck. We feel as hopeless in the face of the image as Miles.

Finally, an important contribution to the total power of the film lies in the performances. Kevin McCarthy (as Miles) conveys a growing frenzy combined with an unfaltering sense of determination. A less restrained actor might well have proved a disaster. The other actors have the burden of appearing normal while at the same time suggesting that they are not. It is in the performances that this ambiguity is carried. Siegel seldom relies on low key lighting, ominous shadows, radical camera angles or shock cutting to carry the terror of the situation. It is in the matter-of-fact quality of the presentation that the film holds its power; and it is Siegel's handling of actors which contributes considerably to the film which Leslie Halliwell calls "the most subtle film in the science-fiction cycle, with no visual horror whatever."

—Stuart M. Kaminsky