Friday, 14 February 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Don Siegel’s original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the most-discussed of all 1950s science fiction movies. There’s probably nothing that can be said about this movie that hasn’t already been said. But here goes.

I’m sure everyone knows the basic plot of this movie, but there have been several remakes so it’s easy to misremember things from the remakes as having been in the original. For example, the term pod people is not used at all in the original.

The movie opens with a framing story which Siegel reluctantly added when preview audiences found the movie too depressing. 

Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is about to be shipped off to the nut-house after being picked up on the freeway raving about some terrible danger that is about to destroy us. He finally manages to persuade the shrink to let him tell his story.

After being away at a medical conference Bennell returns to the small town of Santa Mira. Life here seems as serene as ever, but there’s some very subtle difference that at first he hardly even notices. Suddenly patients who had wanted urgent appointments with him have decided they don’t need a doctor after all. The few cases he does get are rather puzzling - a young boy who insists that his mother isn’t his mother any more, a woman who is convinced that dear old Uncle Ira isn’t Uncle Ira any more. Uncle Ira still looks the same as ever but she insists that something is wrong, that something is missing.

Miles isn’t too worried until his pal Jack makes a disturbing discovery. He has found a corpse, but there’s something strange about it. The face seems somehow unfinished, more like a wax model than a man’s face. And the corpse has no fingerprints at all. Most disturbingly, this corpse is just about the same height and build as Jack.

Then things get really disturbing. Miles finds another of these strange seemingly not-quite-finished corpses in the basement of the house in which his girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) lives. This one looks very much like an unfinished version of Becky. At this point the plot really starts to kick in and Miles realises that the people of Santa Mira are being replaced by exact replicas, perfect in every way except that they seem to be entirely lacking in emotion.

This is classic nightmare paranoia territory. How do you get help in dealing with a situation like this when every person to whom you turn for help could be one of these replica people? Or about to turn into one.

Siegel was a fine director of crime action movies with a hefty dose of film noir and he approaches this movie in exactly the same way. This is science fiction done in pure film noir style. And it works because nightmare paranoia territory is film noir territory. He doesn’t need to adjust his style in any way, and he doesn’t. This gives the movie a feel that  sharply distinguishes it from other 1950s science fiction movies. Siegel uses few special effects. He doesn’t rely on shocks, he relies on suspense and excitement and on driving the story along at the same breakneck pace as his crime movies. This is a science fiction horror movie, but it’s also a classic “couple on the run” movie and it’s also a classic film noir where a man finds that his orderly everyday existence has suddenly turned into film noir nightmare world.

There is not a dull moment in this movie. Even the early scenes, in which superficially everything is pretty normal, are tense because Siegel wastes no time at all in introducing the subtly unsettling elements that immediately tell an audience that the appearance of normality is an illusion, that something terrible is going to happen.

The temptation to give this movie a political interpretation has been impossible for most critics to resist. Attempts have been made to read the movie as an attack on “McCarthyism” but there is absolutely nothing in the movie to support such an interpretation. A far more convincing case can be made for the movie’s being a warning of the dangers of communism. That interpretation at least has the virtue that there’s nothing in the film to contradict it. Yet another interpretation is that the movie is a much broader warning against the dangers of conformity. The truth is that the movie’s great strength is that it carefully avoids any overt political commentary. Most importantly it avoids the dreary and hackneyed themes of calamity being brought about by wicked governments or evil corporations. The danger in the movie comes entirely from outside, it is entirely alien, and nobody is to blame. 

Fortunately there’s absolutely no need to find a political subtext. The movie functions perfectly as a terrifying and exciting science fiction thriller made with superlative style. Siegel was at the peak of his powers and he was never a director who needed a big budget. 

Kevin McCarthy’s casting as the hero was an inspiration. He’s a perfect everyman, a very ordinary man caught up in a desperate struggle for survival. Dana Wynter provides fine support.

Olive Films have as usual offered us an extremely good Blu-Ray transfer with zero extras. This is probably the best this movie is ever going to look and it looks very good indeed.

I've also reviewed the 1978 remake.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the two or three best science fiction movies of its decade (or any other decade for that matter). It’s also a very stylish unconventional film noir. Whichever way you take it it’s immensely entertaining. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

Kev D. said...

Wait... the one with Nicole Kidman and James Bond wasn't the original!?!??!


Great review for a great film.