Saturday, October 19, 1974 (Noon): Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) / The Mole People (1956)

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.

The Mole People

Synopsis: On an expedition to ancient Mesopotamia, a team led by archeologist Dr. Roger Bentley (John Agar) discovers a tablet describing a lost society. Later they come across an ancient bowl depicting a massive flood and resulting diaspora of the Sumerian people. Bentley theorizes that the flood referenced might be the same referred to in the Book of Genesis; after all, he says, many cultures seem to allude to this same event.

The bowl had been found at an unusually high elevation. Dr. Jud Bellamin (Hugh Marlowe) hypothesizes that the bowl had originally been on an even higher elevation but was carried down over the centuries by shifting snows.

Bentley, Bellamin, Prof. Etienne Lafarge (Nestor Paiva) and Dr. Paul Stewart (Phil Chambers) make their way up the mountain to try to find where the bowl came from. Near the summit they are surprised to discover the ruins of an ancient Sumerian village.

In investigating the ruins, Dr. Stewart falls down what appears to be a bottomless pit. The others begin climbing down to rescue him. They find his body more than a hundred feet below, but quickly realize that they are in a system of artificially-created tunnels.

A rock slide prevents them from climbing back the way they came and they must press on through the tunnels. Before they find themselves in a huge cavern dimly illuminated with phosphorescent material. Below them, in a sort of underground valley, is what appears to be Mesopotamian village.

Exhausted, they make camp and fall asleep, but are soon captured by hideous mutants with large hands and animal-like faces who burrow up out of the sand. They are dragged underground by the mutants and are brought to the albino leaders of the lost city. King Sharu (Arthur Gilmour) is not entirely hostile to the newcomers, but the real power behind the throne, the sinister minister Elinu (Alan Napier) convinces him that no good can come from these newcomers.

The elites attempt to capture the surface-dwellers, but are thwarted when it turns out that light from their flashlights blinds the albinos.

The surface-dwellers view a sacrifice in which a number of Sumerian women are sacrificed in the “Eye of Ishtar”, a chamber in which they are exposed to direct sunlight coming down from the surface; the women are promptly burned to a crisp.

It turns out that this Sumerian society has three distinct classes: the cultured albinos form the upper class; the Mole People who are used as slave laborers; and a third, much smaller group called “marked ones”, non-albino throwbacks to the days when their people lived on the surface. King Sharu, convinced by the flashlight that the men are protected by the god Ishtar, gives Bentley his “marked one” slave Adad (Cynthia Patrick). This angers Elinu, who decides the weak king must be pushed aside and the surface-dwellers exposed as the threat they are….

Comments: An uneasy hybrid of Lost Horizon and The Time Machine, this distinctly minor bit of juvenalia (it played on the bottom of a double bill with the dreary Curucu, Beast of the Amazon) must have seemed fairly ambitious on paper: we have the ruins of a Mesopotamian city, archeologists spelunking to dangerous depths, the discovery of a lost world, sword fights, palace intrigue, class warfare between effete albinos and mutant humanoids, and a beautiful, innocent woman only too willing to be rescued by the heroes and brought up to live on the Earth’s surface, a place that she has always believed was only a myth.

But The Mole People doesn’t live up to its swashbuckling premise. It has a script that is too fearful to take chances, and is also hobbled by an inadequate budget. The movie’s sets, costume design and cinematography suggest a film that was made very quickly. Hammer Studios probably could have done a better job with the concept, skilled as they were at making their movies look more lavish than the money would allow; and one can imagine that with better sets, costumes and matte paintings (as well as a bit of Technicolor sheen) the movie would be better remembered today.

The main selling point of the film is, of course, the ghoulish mutants (they’re featured quite prominently in the the posters) who are this movie’s version of the Morlocks, with the albino upper class standing in as the Eloi. Like the Morlocks, it’s hinted that the mole people consume the dead bodies of the elites, though like everyone else they eat a lot of mushrooms. But unlike the predatory Morlocks, the mole men are a slave caste who eventually turn against their masters. Having the monsters we fear in the beginning of the film turn out to be the good guys is a nice touch, but like most other aspects of the film it isn’t handled too well.

The Mole People isn’t helped either by the lackluster casting. John Agar, never more than an adequate leading man, clearly struggles playing Roger Bentley, who as written is little more than a cipher. Bentley is a humorless know-it-all who never seems surprised by anything, even when he and his colleagues stumble onto a lost underground civilization and are beset by mole men. This was John Agar’s third outing for Universal; he’s previously appeared in Tarantula (1955) and Revenge of the Creature (1955).

Alan Napier was a busy Universal contract player in the 1940s, appearing in lots of movies that turned up on our show, including House of Horrors, The Invisible Man Returns and Three Strangers. His performance here isn’t more than competent — not a surprise since Napier was never more than a competent actor — but even Laurence Olivier would have found it difficult to inject life into such a stock character.

Similarly, the talented Nestor Paiva doesn’t have much to work with here; he is the appointed worrier of the group, but doesn’t have much more to do than complain before getting eaten by the mole men.

Universal contract player Cynthia Patrick plays the typical love interest for this sort of film, and while she’s attractive, she has no discernable talent as an actress. Patrick had an extremely brief career, appearing in just a few feature films before moving over to doing TV guest shots; even so her career fizzled out pretty quickly.

There’s one performer in the movie who doesn’t venture into the subterranean world, and modern viewers might well ask: why does The Mole People begin with an odd, halting introduction from some doughy professor of English at USC? You’d be forgiven for thinking that Frank C. Baxter was a friend of the producer, or was maybe added at the insistence of some studio bigwig. But in the context of 1956, his presence would have made sense, and it’s likely that at least some of the kids buying tickets to see The Mole People would have recognized Dr. Baxter right away.

Baxter was a popularizer of science in the early days of television, appearing in a number of productions explaining difficult concepts to the layman with a warm, avuncular style. He won a Peabody award for the series Shakespeare on TV in 1955, and largely on the strength of this was chosen to portray the character of “Dr. Research” in Frank Capra’s series of Technicolor films for TV, the Bell System Science Series which ran from 1956 to 1962. The first two films in the series paired Baxter with Eddie Albert; in three more he appeared with It Came From Outer Space star Richard Carlson.

(By the way, this episode of The Bell System Science Series from 1958 might seem a bit clunky to your 21st century eyes, but you should still watch it, sad sack: it contains a nice explainer about the Coriolis effect, and at about 50 minutes in, you will see a very early warning about climate change caused by a rise in CO2 levels. Why didn’t you listen to Baxter and Carlson, America?)

Baxter certainly wasn’t polished in these productions, but by modern standards few people were. While the camera clearly didn’t love the guy, he evidently came across as avuncular and reassuring to viewers, and that was enough.

So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that Baxter turns up in the intro to The Mole People. Universal had used the gimmick of a scientific intro to a sci-fi movie before, most notably in Creature from the Black Lagoon, and it would do so again in The Monolith Monsters with its tedious explainer about meteors.

Baxter’s intro doesn’t really add anything here, and would have been better left on the cutting-room floor (and in fact it was excised from the TV prints). But it seems to have been kept in place to extend the running time of the theatrical version of the movie, which is just shy of 80 minutes.

*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.

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