Synopsis: Called home early from a medical conference, small-town doctor 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 even 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: Don Siegel’s paranoid thriller, which hews closely to Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, has gained so much cultural currency over the years that it’s been remade three separate times; yet none of the remakes have come close to matching it in terms of quality and immediacy. The movie introduces Santa Mira, California as the ideal mid-century small town, sunny and bucolic. If Santa Mira is the kind of place where nothing really important happens that’s okay, because nothing really bad happens there either. If there is a better metaphor for the complacency of postwar America, I don’t know what it is.
It is the drowsiness of Santa Mira, the trust and the decency that underpin it, that make the town vulnerable to what’s to come. It’s easy to see why critics in the ensuing decades have debated what, exactly, the “pod people” are supposed to represent – the threat of communism, or conformity, or something else entirely. Perhaps it’s critiquing a very human foible: that no society we can construct will make us happy. Once we vanquish hunger and want and fear, as the seemingly idyllic Santa Mira has done, we grow dull and unwary, easy prey for the subtle sorts of threats that creep in from outside, hardening the hearts of our neighbors even as they sleep.
Unusual for its time is the romantic subplot, in which Miles and Becky find themselves drawn to one another after their respective divorces. Divorce still carried a stigma of failure in the 1950s. Very few movies featured divorced characters at all, let alone divorced protagonists*. In fact while the novel uses the word “divorce” openly, the movie shies away from it. Instead, Becky tells Miles that she knows he’s “been to Reno” and reveals that she has spent the last couple of months in Reno as well. Reno, of course, was famous at the time for its liberal divorce laws (and the quickie divorce industry that grew up around it). Residency could be established in a lightning-fast six weeks, and once established, a divorce could be secured easily there.
Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay wisely retains the divorce subplot from the novel. A lesser screenwriter would have excised it, sticking to the common (though hardly believable) movie conceit that the neither of the romantic leads have ever been married, despite being well into their thirties. But Miles and Becky’s respective divorces are important to the thematic superstructure of the story.
After all, when pod-person Danny Kaufman argues with Miles and Becky about the value of human emotion, he zeroes in on their previous failed marriages as proof of love’s futility. When Miles and Becky insist that love is a noble and true emotion, he reminds them of their unpleasant histories. “You were both in love before,” he tells them. “It didn’t last. It never does”.
This line seems cruel because it’s true; a second marriage is, as the old joke goes, “the triumph of hope over experience”. Humans engage in all kinds of futile endeavors, romantic love being only one. But it’s one thing to be dimly aware of the fact, quite another to have an alien being grow out of a giant seed pod and say it to your face.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is usually classified as science fiction, and I suppose the presence of alien invaders places it in that category. But it works much better when considered as a horror film, a perfectly-rendered cinematic nightmare that skillfully ratchets up the anxiety and paranoia right to the last scene. It’s a masterful film that holds up well to repeated viewings.
*So strong was the Hollywood taboo against divorce that even into the 1970s, a blended TV family — such as the one found in The Brady Bunch — could not be made possible by a “failed marriage”. Instead, the pilot episode hurriedly explains that Mike and Carol Brady’s first spouses suffered convenient deaths, and the two unfortunates are never referred to again.