Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers ★★★½

I'm gonna say this holds up surprisingly well, and is one of the better films of 1956. Sure, some of the sets and so on are a bit cheap, the music a bit overdone, the acting at times over-performative... but most of that works pretty well for the kind of too-big-to-imagine '50s sci-fi story they're telling. I'd always been a fan of the '78 film, but this original one is well-worth a watch, too.

The story is almost a trope at this point, so I'm sure nobody needs much of a refresher, but there were a couple of elements that surprised me. Firstly, the framing story, which was apparently done in reshoots upon the insistence of the studio. The director thought it ruined his movie, and I'll admit that the original ending without the frame is powerful on its own and probably the better way to go.

However, I really liked the beginning, which jumps right in with an immediacy and a panic that puts a sense of tension into the following first third of the film. Without it, that beginning setup would probably be pretty slow and dreary by modern standards. This is aided by occasional voiceover, this at the insistence of the producer apparently. It supports the framing story, but I think the film works fine or better without it.

I also didn't realize how much of a romantic story this was, and it's honestly the central theme of the film. Leading lady Dana Wynter approaches Grace Kelly-levels of beauty and class here, though she's given a bit less agency. She has real chemistry with lead Kevin McCarthy, who was pretty great as a crazed lunatic but generally a rather mediocre leading man.

Their scenes together are rather hot and risque for the Hayes' Code era though! And this is actually really important, since the crux of the film is how passion and love is what makes life worth living. It's the reason to resist a society where life is made easier through uniformity. Especially given the time period this (and the book) came out in, it's easy to read this as a commentary on resisting the spread of Communism.

In fact, the book was regarded as somewhat unoriginal, as several other stories had covered similar ground earlier...most notably Robert A. Heinlein (of course) in his '51 book The Puppet Masters. In that, it's overtly about the spread of a kind of totalitarian-communist alien plot through them possessing the bodies of key political and military figures. (It was adapted into a really fun, underrated '90s movie, too!)

But by the time THIS movie was made, you could argue that people were realizing the McCarthy witch-hunt for "secret communists" was creating a society where people were afraid to be different in any way. The core story in this film can be viewed as a response to these novels, a passionate argument for people being allowed to be free and not worry about convention or the judgement of others. After all, Miles and Becky are both divorced, rather openly pursuing each other in a relatively small town...

Director Don Siegel may have been particularly sympathetic to this, as there were a disproportionate amount of Jewish victims of the Hollywood Blacklist. In fact, Michael Freedland’s ‘Witch Hunt in Hollywood’ argues that McCarthyism was as wrapped up in anti-Semitism as anti-communism or anything else. Siegel draws on his long experience as a film noir director (films like The Verdict, The Big Steal, Count the Hours, Private Hell 36, and the iconic Riot in Cell Block 11) to give much of the film a dark, gritty, wrongly-pursued feeling. McCarthy runs into closeups as he peaks around a corner, Wynter glimmers askance at the camera, and policemen skulk out of the shadows in pursuit. Much of the film feels like a smart couple simply fighting a system rigged against them. Until we get to the bookends...

While the framing story gives it a great sense of classic '50s sci-fi paranoia, it also arguably reverses any feel of greater symbolism. The ending in particular sort of redirects the film as if we gain a great victory by finding out any secret enemies hiding among us. If most of the film could be read as against the House Committee on "Un-American" Activities, this then seems to reaffirm their mission to ferret out secret communists and disruptive moral influences. Maybe the studio wanted it that way. The blacklist wasn't really broken until 1960, after all.

For his part though, Siegel denied picking a side or making a political statement at all (openly, at least). I looked for anything to support a view one way or another by him and found this: "I felt that this was a very important story... I think that the world is populated by "pod" (people)... so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow. The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach."

Without the political context, this could seem to simply be an encouragement to break out of the traditional roles of the '50s, to embrace life and not let society dictate how you have to be. A sort of pre-60s movie. Of course, whether Siegel realized it or not, that sort of thinking seems inextricable from the politics of the times he was in. And I'd argue it's in large part what makes the film hold up today.

OH, one SPOILER-iffic note I almost forgot....
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Just near the end seems to have a huge plot hole as near as I can tell? The point during the whole film is that the aliens have to take you over by placing a pod fairly close to where you sleep, and then the pod gradually becomes you and they (or the pod person itself) has to dispose of your original body. In the film, it seems like a pod in the same building is close enough, but not like, in the neighbor's house. However, in the end, Becky falls asleep just for a moment in the mine, where there is no pod and nobody knows she's there. When Miles comes back, her original body has suddenly BECOME a pod person! This is not at all how the film has spent a lot of time outlining the process, so I'm confused... it seems like we're missing a scene or two. How have I not seen this in any other reviews? It would be a movie-breaking plot hole if the film hadn't already built up so much goodwill with me beforehand....)

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