Yesterday’s Matinee: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

16 08 2007

by mr. travis

invasion of the body snatchers

Film: Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Studio: Allied Artists
Director: Don Siegel
Screenwriter: Daniel Mainwaring
Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Winter, King Donovan
Release Date: 1956

The thought and fear of communism hung over 1950’s America like a dark shroud, invading just about every part of life from the sterile environment of the suburban schools to the supposed socialist agenda of the screenwriters in Hollywood. By 1956, the House of Un-American Activities had already done its damage in the film industry, blacklisting hundreds of writers and actors just for the supposed ties to communism from years before, creating an air of suspicion not just within the Hollywood scene, but in the public as well. It’s this foundation of paranoia and fright that sets the tone for Don Siegel’s 1956 science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an allegory for the furor caused by McCarthyism and the hunt for communists within the United States.

Science fiction as a tool for symbolism for issues in society was nothing new by this point in the literature of the time, with such stories as Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, and The Body Snatchers, the very novel that film is based on, written by Jack Finney. Director Siegel (who would later direct the classic Clint Eastwood film Dirty Harry), took the basic outline of the book, in which a town slowly is taken over by emotionless clones from space, and made it into an eerie and daring piece of film that is deserving of its classic status. For its time, it took nerve to make a movie like this, not only because of the threat of being branded as a communist sympathizer (though McCarthyism was dying down, to be branded as a communist would be career suicide), but also because of the way it treated science fiction with respect and intelligence. Instead of the laser shooting, U.F.O. flying aliens that had so populated the 1950’s sci-fi aesthetic that had been seen throughout the country in drive-in movie theaters, this film made the aliens not only look like us, but act like us giving an extra sense of dread as to who was actually human and who was not.

The story takes place in the fictional Santa Mira, California where Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is soon overrun by several patients claiming that their loved ones are imposters. Thus, a panic is set off as the doctor and his friend Jack Belicic (King Donovan) try to find the answer to the issue at the hand. What they discover is that somehow people have been replaced by aliens, who are incubated in pea pods, from space. Once the incubation period is complete, the aliens now look like those they have replaced, except they no longer have emotion. Yes, the plot sounds kind of silly, but Siegel takes what could have been a B-movie farce and turns it into something that oozes atmosphere while racketing up the tension as more and more people become replaced. Even the ending is somewhat open ended, unheard of in the 50’s era, where the Hayes Code still ruled what could be in a movie and what could not.

In many ways, this film was a harbinger to the type of tale that would be told in the late 60’s and especially the 70s; a lone man trying to survive the conforming interests of the society around him. Intelligent science fiction would return again in such films as 2001 and Solaris, before fading out with the emergence of Star Trek and Star Wars in the 60’s and 70’s, respectively. But even those films, with all their gadgets and action contained some sort of allegory; Star Wars with its battle against the “evil empire” and Star Trek with the Klingons who would slowly become stand-ins for the Soviet Union.

While Invasion of the Body Snatchers may seem tame by today’s standards, it stands up to the classics of its genre, building upon a sense of foreboding that never gives in to scare tactics or cheap thrills. Even the symbolic nature of the story can be interpreted in different manners. Is it pro-McCarthy? A story about the destruction of democracy and individuality? Regardless of the decision by the viewer it’s clear that Don Siegel created a classic in this film, where the themes of conformity can still be attributed to even the issues confronting society today.

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2 responses

11 06 2013
The Belicic Problem « Log24

[…] From The Cacophony Cafe: […]

12 06 2013
Pivot « Log24

[…] The extremely loose plot of Anthony Hopkins's pet project "Slipstream" was in part inspired by the events of 1956 in Santa Mira. […]

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