Saturday, September 18, 1971: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)


Note: My previous write-up of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is here.

Synopsis: Called home early from a medical conference, small-town physician Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) meets his nurse Sally Withers (Jean Willes) at the Santa Mira train station.  Sally tells him that there are an unusual number of patients waiting at his office.  All of them urgently insist on seeing Bennell personally, and none of them want to see the doctors who have agreed to take Miles’ patients in his absence.

As Miles and Sally drive into town they narrowly avoid hitting a local boy named Jimmy Grimaldi, who charges into the road, fleeing from his own mother.  Jimmy is distraught and takes off into the woods. His mother says the boy doesn’t want to go to school.  Miles notices that the Grimaldi family vegetable stand, usually thriving at this time of the year, is shuttered.

At the office, Miles discovers that all of the patients who had been so insistent on seeing him have cancelled their appointments.  But one person does come to visit him: Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) , a high school sweetheart who, like Miles, has been recently divorced.  Becky asks Miles to talk to her cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine), who seems to be suffering under the strange delusion that her uncle Ira is an imposter.

Later that afternoon, Jimmy Grimaldi’s grandmother brings the boy to Miles’ office.  Jimmy is suffering from a similar delusion; he believes that his own mother is not his mother, and he becomes hysterical whenever anyone suggests she be called.  Miles tells the grandmother to keep the boy at her house for a few days, and prescribes sedatives to keep him calm.

Bothered by the similarity between the two stories, Miles decides to go to Wilma’s house directly and talk to her.  Wilma seems perfectly rational — except for the fact that she is certain Ira isn’t her uncle.  Miles tries to reason with her, pointing out that if Ira were an imposter, there would be countless differences that friends and family could easily spot.  She concedes that the man seems like Ira in every way, and even knows things that only Ira could know.  Nevertheless, she says, this person is an imposter who possesses no emotions – -only, she says, the pretense of emotions.

Puzzled, Miles keeps a dinner date with Becky.  Arriving at the restaurant the two bump into Miles’ friend Danny Kaufman, a psychiatrist.  Miles mentions that he has two patients he’d like to refer, and Kaufman immediately guesses that they are people who believe close relatives are imposters.  Over the last two weeks, Kaufman says, there has been an epidemic of such cases in Santa Mira.

Minutes later Miles’ answering service tracks him down with an urgent call from Miles’ friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan), asking Miles to come over right away.  Miles and Becky arrive to find there is a body lying on the Belicec’s pool table; but it doesn’t appear to be a dead body.  Rather, it seems to be a body that was never alive.  The face is blank and featureless, and there are no fingerprints.  Miles speculates that if he were to perform an autopsy all the internal organs would be in perfect order, as if they had never been used.

Jack’s wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) asks Miles to estimate the body’s height and weight.  Miles says that the man on the table is perhaps 5 foot 9, and about 140 pounds.  Teddy replies fearfully that Jack too is 5 foot 9 and 140 pounds.

Miles tells the Belicecs to keep an eye on the body, with instructions to call the police if nothing happens by morning; if however the body changes in any way they should call him.  Miles takes Becky home, where she is surprised to find that her father has been working unusually late down in the cellar.  Meanwhile, at the Belicic house, Jack falls asleep while sitting at the bar — just as the body on the table opens its eyes….

Comments: Walter Wanger was a successful Hollywood producer who was dumped from RKO after overseeing an expensive flop (the Ingrid Bergman vanity project Joan of Arc). So dismal was the film’s reputation that he found himself frozen out of the major studios. His friendship with the Mirisch brothers got him an invitation to essentially start his career over again at Monogram.

This was undoubtedly a humiliation for Wanger (his contract was for a meager $12,000 per picture) but happily, Monogram was undergoing something of a metamorphosis at the time.  With television emerging as a genuine threat, Monogram realized that its cheap and threadbare productions offered nothing that people could not now get at home.  And so the studio invented a new brand called Allied Artists, focusing on medium-budget pictures that could hold their own against the new technology.

This was in 1951. Later that year Wanger came to believe that his wife was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang.  Wanger shot Lang twice but (fortunately for them both) didn’t kill him.  Wanger wound up doing a stretch in prison after pleading temporary insanity.

Hollywood always likes a good story, and it is still said today that Wanger’s time in stir opened his eyes to the brutality of America’s prison system, and inspired him to make Riot In Cell Block 11 (1954), a solid moneymaker for Allied Artists. But it’s not clear to what extent Wanger’s prison experience influenced the picture: he’d only spent a few months at the County Honor Farm in Castaic.  Not a pleasant place, to be sure – but it wasn’t Sing Sing either.

In any event, Wanger was fond of socially conscious themes, like those found in Riot In Cell Block 11  and  I Want To Live! (1958), an anti-capital punishment film.  His other big hit for Allied Artists was Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which dealt with the somewhat more esoteric theme of dehumanization.

Many have tried over the years to make the movie’s villains – the emotionless “pod people” who have replaced the good and decent people of Santa Mira – a metaphor for some particular element of society.  For many years liberal critics claimed that they represented the conformist wing of 1950s America. Others claimed the pods represented a feared communist infiltration of American society.  But director Don Siegel seemed to have a more general view.  He was justifiably proud of this picture, and throughout his life used the phrase “pod people” to describe those he saw as cogs in the machine — people who had given in to apathy and mediocrity, the ones who could make the world a better place but chose not to do so because it was just too much effort.

While the movie is seen in retrospect as being quite influential, its premise isn’t in fact all that original.  Jack Finney’s novel was serialized in 1954 in the mainstream publication Colliers, giving it a certain amount of middlebrow street cred; but by then a number of SF films and novels had already dealt with the idea of people being replaced by alien duplicates.  John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” was published in the August 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. In that story, a group of scientists in Antarctica are confronted by an alien that can not only absorb human bodies, but human memories and emotions as well, and can therefore create exact duplicates. Much of the story’s tension derives from the scientists attempting to guess who among them is still  human and who isn’t

When Campbell’s novella was adapted for the screen (as 1951’s The Thing From Another World)  the alien duplicate subplot was dropped. But it appeared in Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953)  although this time the aliens were plotting to gain unfettered access to the hardware stores of Sand Rock, Arizona.

While there were no alien doppelgangers in William Cameron Menzie’s Invaders From Mars (1953), there are humans who are dragooned into the service of an alien intelligence (a common trope in 50s SF films – it pops up in  It Conquered the World (1956), Invisible Invaders (1959), The Brain From Planet Arous (1957) , and many others). And Philip K. Dick had published his short story “The Father-Thing”  the same year that Finney’s serial was published; typical of Dick’s writing at the time the backdrop is domestic (the alien invasion happens in the suburbs) and deeply paranoid  (the protagonist is a boy who sees his own father’s body disposed of by an evil duplicate; but he must not let the pseudo-father know that he knows).

But with the exception of Campbell’s novella, these other works are largely forgotten.  It was Invasion of the Body Snatchers that jumped the genre fence and became a part of America’s collective postwar unconscious.  And little wonder – the town of Santa Mira is a beautifully-rendered slice of Americana, and its inhabitants are far more plausibly human than the chatty eggheads in Campbell’s story or the cardboard cutouts of Arnold’s desert town. Perhaps you have to start with something authentic if you want to convince audiences that they’ve been replaced with something phony.

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