Saturday, October 7, 2017

Stubs - Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Willes. Directed by Don Siegel. Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring. Based on the serial story The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney in Collier's (26 Nov-24 Dec 1954). Produced by Walter Wanger. Runtime: 80. USA Black and White. Science Fiction. Horror

People tend to read a lot into the movies from the 1950s, some of which may be true and some of which is simply looking for a deeper meaning than was intended by the filmmakers. For the most part, creative people want to make art and sometimes it’s politically motivated and other times it’s just to tell a good story. Case in point, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). This is one of those films that is sometimes read as being Anti-McCarthy since those who don’t conform are persecuted. It can also be read as Anti-Communist since individuality is not appreciated. It can probably also be seen in today’s commentary as Anti-Illegal Immigration since no doubt these invaders were only looking for a better life for themselves.

In his autobiography, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, Walter Mirisch, the head of production at Allied Artists, where the film was made, addressed that: "People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an example of that. I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple."

The story comes from the pages of Collier’s magazine, a long-defunct publication, which popularized the short story. Jack Finney was a frequent contributor and serialized what would become the novel, The Body Snatchers in its pages from November 26 to December 24, 1954. His story was set in Mill Valley, California which was invaded by seeds that drifted to Earth from space.

Enter Walter Wanger, a Hollywood producer with credits going back to The Sheik (1921) and The Cocoanuts (1929), Stagecoach (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940). His production company Walter Wanger Pictures, Inc., would produce the film for Allied Artists Pictures, a unit of Monogram Pictures that specialized in films with bigger budgets, run by Mirisch. The unit’s first production It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), cost more than $1,200,000 at a time when the average Monogram picture cost about $90,000. The budget for this film was set somewhere in between at $455,000, though the studio would ask the producer to cut it significantly. The title would be changed to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so as not to be confused with RKO's 1945 production of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher, a film I had never heard of until researching this article.

Casting would go through many choices before the leads were settled. Wanger considered Gig Young, Dick Powell, Joseph Cotton amongst others, before casting Richard Kiley, who had starred in a previous Allied Artist film The Phoenix City Story (1955). But Kiley turned the role down. Kevin McCarthy, who had previously worked with Siegel before, was offered the role.

Likewise, the search for McCarthy’s co-star/love-interest went through many possibilities before casting was settled. Anne Bancroft, Donna Reed, Kim Hunter and Vera Miles were all considered before Dana Wynter was cast as Becky.

The film went into production on March 23, 1955, and principal photography would wrap about a month later on April 27. The original intention was to shoot the film on location, but that proved to be too expensive, so they settled on several locations in the Hollywood Hills and Bronson Canyon among them, the corner of Beachwood Canyon Drive and Belden. Other shooting sites included Glendale, Hollywood, Los Feliz, the San Fernando Country Club, Chatsworth railway station and Mulholland Drive at the Hollywood Freeway. In all, 38 locations were used with only four days devoted to interior shots.

The film was released on February 5, 1956, with some theaters displaying papier-mâché pods as a promotion. The film would gross about $3 million worldwide in its initial release.

Dr. Bassett (Richard Deacon) (l) and Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) (r)
consult about Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) (c)

Invasion opens in California. Psychologist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) has been brought in, at the request of Dr. Harvey Bassett (Richard Deacon), to consult on a recently admitted mental patient, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy). Dr. Miles seems highly agitated, but the doctors agree to listen to his story.

The train station at Santa Mira where Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) lives.

He takes them back to a few days prior, when his nurse, Sally (Jean Willes), had requested he come home from a medical conference he had been attending. She tells him that since he’d been gone, his waiting room had been filled with patients waiting to see him. She hints that even though nothing seems to have changed in Santa Mira, something was afoot.

Sally (Jean Willes), Miles' nurse, has requested that he come early from a medical conference.

Perhaps as an example of this, Miles narrowly avoids running over young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark), who has darted out into the street running away from his grandmother (Beatrice Maude). Grandmother explains to Miles that Jimmy is really afraid to go to school. Miles notices that her husband’s once successful fruit and vegetable stand is closed. She explains that her husband has simply lost interest.

A young boy, Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark), running away from his grandmother (Beatrice Maude).

When they get to his office, there are a few patients, which Miles treats. He is about to sneak out for lunch when Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), his former girlfriend, shows up in the waiting room. She has returned recently from England and wants to ask him about her cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine). Wilma insists that someone is impersonating her Uncle Ira.

Miles and Becky talk. They are both recently divorced, she had just been to Reno. As he walks her outside, Miles stops a policeman whom Sally said had been in to see him, but he now says he’s fine.

Near the end of the day, Grandma brings in Jimmy, who claims that someone is pretending to be his mother. After speaking with him, Miles is intrigued by the similarities between his story and Wilma’s. He then goes to see Wilma and after examining Ira is convinced there is nothing wrong with him. But Wilma insists that while the man has the memories of Ira, he lacks any emotion. Miles refers Wilma to see Dr. Danny Kauffman (Larry Gates), a psychologist.

Miles treats Jimmy with nurse Sally's help.

That evening, Miles and Becky go out together and encounter Kauffman, who is with another doctor. Both of these doctors believe that mass hysteria has stricken the people of Santa Mira.

Miles and Becky go to a once-popular restaurant and find it is empty of customers and according to the proprietor it has been for the last two weeks.

An emergency call from Jack (King Donovan) and Theodora "Teddy" Belicec (Carolyn Jones) prompts Miles and Becky to visit them. In their home is a mysterious, half-formed body without facial lines or fingerprints, which they found lying on their billiard table. Teddy points out that the body is about the right height and build as Jack; he’s startled and drops a glass, cutting his hand.

Becky (Dana Wynter) and Miles go to Jack (King Donovan)
and Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because of an emergency, a replica of Jack.

Miles suggests the couple watch the body until morning and then takes Becky home. They find her father (Kenneth Patterson) is working late in the basement, which seems odd. During the night, as Jack dozes, Teddy notices that his cut hand appears on the body in the same place as Jack’s. Screaming, Teddy wakes up Jack and the two flee to Miles’ house. Miles calls Kauffman and then, on premonition, drives over to Becky’s house.

Miles rushes over to Becky's house in an attempt to save her.

When he breaks into the basement, he finds a double for her forming. He rushes upstairs and rescues the real Becky and takes her back to his house.

Later, Jack, Miles, and Kauffman go to the Belicecs and discover that the body is gone.

Returning to Becky’s, they find her double missing as well. Becky’s father has in the meantime called the police and Police Chief Nick Grivett (Ralph Dumke) responds. When Miles tells him about the mysterious body at Jack's house, Nick informs him that it belonged to a murder victim later found burning on a haystack.

Dr. Danny Kauffman (Larry Gates), a psychologist, is called
over, but by the time he gets there Jack's replica is gone.

The next morning, Miles hears noises in his basement, but it turns out to only be Charlie (Sam Peckinpah), who is a meter reader. Wilma approaches Miles when she sees him and tells him that after a good night’s sleep, she feels better and withdraws her allegations about Ira. When Miles leaves, Wilma goes back into her business, Becky’s father is waiting for her inside. She tells him that Becky is at Miles'. At Miles’ office, Grandma and Jimmy come inform him that the boy is back to normal, prompting Miles to wonder why the strange ailments have mysteriously disappeared.

 Wilma (Virginia Christine) tries to convince Miles there are no longer any problems.

Later, at Miles’ house, Miles, Becky, and the Belicecs are cooking steaks when they discover four more pods growing in his greenhouse. They watch horrified as one body pops out of a pod foaming.

There appear to be pods in Miles' greenhouse.

Miles surmises that the pods create a double for a person and replace them when they fall asleep. He tries to call the FBI in Los Angeles, but an emotionless telephone operator claims the lines are busy. (This is back in the days when long distance calls were a big thing.) Miles, who is getting more anxious, asks her to try the Sacramento office, but once again she tells him the lines are down.

A replica of Miles pops out of the pod in his greenhouse.

While they wait, the four friends try to figure out where these pods originated and how they take over their victim’s mind and memories. As they talk, one of the pods starts to resemble Teddy. Miles, sensing the immediate danger they’re in, urges Jack to take the women to safety, but Becky insists on staying with him. Miles tries to keep the operator busy for as long as possible before he kills the pods and escapes with Becky.

They stop at a gas station before leaving town. While Miles goes to try Sally’s number, the attendant borrows the keys to unlock the gas cap but also slips two pods into the trunk. But Miles is suspicious and pulls over not far away and discovers them. He pulls out the pods and sets them on fire.

Miles torches the pods that have been placed in his trunk.

He still insists on trying to rescue Sally and they drive over to her house. However, when Miles looks in the window he learns that she too has been changed. When he tries to leave, he is confronted by Nick, who, too has been changed, but Miles manages to escape.

Miles looks in through Sally's window and sees plans being discussed.

Knowing there is an all-points bulletin out for them, they ditch the car and hide out in Miles’ office, thinking that is where Jack will come back with help.

The next morning, they watch out the window as farmers distribute pods that are destined for other towns.

Pods being shipped out.

When Jack and Kauffman do appear, both transformed, and place pods in the office for Miles and Becky, Kauffman very calmly explains that the pods are the solution to humanity’s problems. The pods, he promises, reproduce an exact likeness of any form and painlessly absorbs its mind. When the being awakens, it is into an “untroubled world.” When Becky and Miles argue that they prefer to have love, Kauffman points out that life is much simpler without it. The two are then left alone so that the process can take place.

Jack and Dr. Kauffman wait in Miles' office for Miles and Becky to transform.

But instead, they trick Jack and Kauffman, and Miles injects them with sedatives. When Nick rushes in to subdue Miles, Becky injects him.

Miles injects Kauffman and Jack with a sedative.

With the men subdued, the two flee. Even though Miles tells Becky to hide their emotions, pretending to have been changed, Becky shrieks when a truck almost hits a dog, giving them away.

Miles and Becky about to step outside trying to act normal.

The two make a run for it up a hill and into an old mining tunnel, all the while being pursued by a mob of townspeople. Miles finds a place for them to hide and they outfox the mob. Exhausted, they fight sleep and wait until nightfall.

Exhausted, Miles carries Becky into a cave to hide.

They are pleased to hear the sound of beautiful music coming from outside the cave. The music gives them hope that others have survived. Miles leaves Becky to investigate and learns the music is coming from a radio in a truck that is being loaded with more pods.

Miles runs into traffic to try and warn the world.

Returning to Becky, he realizes that she has been changed, having fallen asleep in his brief absence.
Panicking, Miles runs toward the highway, but the townspeople, alerted by Becky, let Miles escape, presuming that no one will believe his story. Down on the highway, the traffic is slow and Miles runs about screaming warnings, but no one takes him seriously, assuming he’s either drunk or crazy. He jumps on the back of a transport truck and sees that it is filled with seed pods. Miles yells, “They’re here already! You’re next!”

Both doctors are skeptical of Miles' story.

Back at the hospital, Miles ends his tale, but neither of the doctors believe him, at least not at first. Then, an ambulance driver (Robert Osterloh) delivers casualties to the hospital from a highway accident. He tells the doctors that victims were buried under large pods that fell from a truck. Hearing that the truck originated in Santa Mira, the doctors call the FBI and tell the police to stop any trucks from leaving Santa Mira. Miles looks relieved that he is now believed and action is being taken.

When an ambulance driver confirms Miles' story, Drs. Bassett
and Hill finally take action and Miles can relax. 

The framing story was an add-on, shot on September 16, 1955, at the insistence of Allied which thought the original ending was too pessimistic. Neither Wanger or Siegel wanted to make the change, but both relented. Still, Siegel is quoted as saying, “the film was nearly ruined by those in charge at Allied Artists who added a preface and ending that I don't like."

This is one of those films that has risen in status as time has gone on. The film has been remade three times, one that I have seen, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) directed by Philip Kaufman starring Donald Sutherland, and two I haven’t seen, Body Snatchers (1993) directed by Abel Ferrara, and The Invasion (2007) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Nicole Kidman. There is also Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers (1992), a Looney Tunes parody directed by Greg Ford starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and Porky Pig. If the 1978 version is any indication, remakes are sort of like impersonations, the sincerest form of flattery without being quite as good.

A lot of horror films in the 1950s deal with the fear of the different and the unknown. Every day in America was another step into the unknown, as a former ally, now bitter rival, the USSR, had the atomic bomb and people feared that the end could come at any minute. Why else practice Duck and Cover drills in schools? America might be in a post-war heyday, but the fear that some outside force could make it go away in an instant was probably palpable to many.

You can read in all of the politics you want to, but the film works as it was intended, to scare audiences. This is an example of the horror genre before gore was the standard. This is what they call psychological horror. Knowing that everything looks the same but is at the same time radically different. Humans devoid of emotions are not capable of creating; this new world might be more stable, but it would definitely be dull as dishwater. If you think there’s nothing to watch on TV now, just imagine if Pod people were in control. And wouldn’t that be scary?

Jokes aside, the film works as Miles’ world literally closes in around him. He is the last normal person left and if he doesn’t survive and warn the rest of the world it’s over for the planet as nothing seems to stop these pods. Miles’ motivations are somewhat heroic, as it would be all too easy just to give up. While Kevin McCarthy sort of has B-movie actor written all over him, he really rises to the occasion here. It is hard to imagine someone else in this role.

Dana Wynter is cute as Becky, but she doesn’t necessarily bring more to the role than anyone else might have. Women in these films from this time are more hangers-on than partners or heroes, which says more about Hollywood and American tastes than anything else.

The film is filled with a lot of character actors at the top of their games, including: Richard Deacon, better known for his role as Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show; Carolyn Jones, Morticia Addams on The Addams Family; Virginia Christine, best remembers as Mrs. Olson in a long-running series of Folger Coffee ads; Whit Bissell, General Heywood Kirk in TV’s Time Tunnel and Station Manager Lurry in the famous and over-rated “Trouble with Tribbles” episode of the original Star Trek TV series; and King Donovan, an actor turned director for one picture Promises! Promises! (1963), the first sound film to feature a mainstream star, Jayne Mansfield, in the nude. Larry Gates, who played Dr. Kaufman, is another recognizable face who appeared in numerous roles throughout his career.

One face that might not be as recognizable as his name is Sam Peckinpah, who plays Charlie in the film. He would go on to direct such films as The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). He was a dialogue coach on the film and had worked on the screenplay without receiving credit.

Future director Sam Peckinpah makes a brief appearance as Charlie the meter reader.

While the film did not start out to be a classic, it certainly ended up as one. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not over the top horrifying, but it works and continues to scare to this day. Not great but good cinema. If you’re a fan of 1950’s science fiction then you should definitely see this film, as it is one of the better examples of the genre from that time.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.

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