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PosterInvasion of the Body Snatchers

(United States, 1956, 80 minutes, b&w, 35mm)

Directed by Don Siegel

Kevin McCarthy . . . . . . . . . . Dr. Miles J. Bennell
Dana Wynter . . . . . . . . . . Becky Driscoll
Larry Gates . . . . . . . . . .Dr. Dan 'Danny' Kauffman
King Donovan . . . . . . . . . . Jack Belicec

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

An unprepossessing little horror film, made with a minuscule budget on a three-week shooting schedule -- and yet it produced one of the most trenchant social commentaries of the 1950's.

The film industry in 1956 was mired in what screenwriter Dalton Trumbo called "the Time of the Toad." Since 1947, the Hollywood blacklist had shaped every production decision. Producers demanded the "clearing" of most prospective screenwriters and many actors of any charges that they were Communist sympathizers, no matter how outlandish, before they could be hired. And any project that seemed vaguely "political" was usually scratched by studio heads nervous over threatened boycotts by the American Legion. Aside from the pro-forma anti-Communist films such as RKO's I Married a Communist which studios made as a sop to public opinion, the 1950's saw little of the engagement with current affairs which had made the American screen in the early 1930's so articulate.

But around the fringes of the industry, at minor studios, on the sets of B films, and in genre staples like Westerns and crime films and science fiction films, filmmakers found a political refuge. Through allegory, they could voice concerns about the fears suffusing postwar American life that long since outlawed from the sound stages of the major studios. Directors like Samuel Fuller, Phil Karlson, Jack Arnold, and Don Siegel, working unnoticed by the critical establishment, cloaked their social analysis in the raiment of the Western, the film noir, and science-fiction, and left us with some of the most genuinely political films of the 1950's.

Director Don Siegel spent the 1950's making concise, elegant little B films like Crime in the Streets, Private Hell 36, and Baby Face Nelson. Siegel's capacity for filmmaking invention was matched only by his talent for chicanery; he snuck onto the majors' backlots to steal shots, worked through the night to save money, and found nearby locations that always seemed to look as if no one had ever photographed there before. He found hungry young actors to play his leads, and worked with them diligently to extract the best performances. To prop them up, he filled his scenes with strong character actors, many of whom were personal friends. (That's director Sam Peckinpah, playing a sinister gas meter reader in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) No one could stretch a B budget into A quality like Siegel.

Producer Walter Wanger was a man whose roots were deep in the Hollywood studio system, but he'd been a maverick since serving a jail sentence for shooting his wife's agent. Wanger had a jailhouse conversion to outspoken liberalism, and had decided to make "social problem" films. His ideas would have been perfect for the 1930's, but in the anxious `50's, Wanger's projects scared off the major studios, and, in extremism, he found himself at lowly Allied Artists. There, with Siegel as his director, he made Riot in Cell Block 11, a plea for prison reform in an era almost as intolerant of that concept as our own. The film was a surprise hit, and Wanger came back to Siegel with an idea about a film that would use science fiction and horror film conventions to criticize conformity in American life. They assigned the screenplay to Daniel Mainwaring, also an alumnus of Riot in Cell Block 11, and a writer whose best films (among them Out of the Past, 1946, and The Lawless, 1950) had argued heartily against hypocrisy and for individualism.

What resulted from the collaboration of Siegel, Wanger, and Mainwaring was a film that is artfully beyond any particular issue, but instead offers a low-key critique of mindless conformity. Along with William Whyte's The Organization Man and David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, both bestselling works of social analysis published during the 1950's, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is among the decade's most sweeping indictments of conformity offered by popular culture during a decade which was obsessed with "fitting In,' and with fitting in's doppleganger, the fear of losing individuality.

The film's critique was so subtle that Wanger and Allied Artists fretted that audiences wouldn't grasp vision of conformity. It was the studio which insisted on an exploitation style title when Siegel had offered Sleep No More, borrowed from Shakespeare. Wanger sought to have Orson Welles appear in a filmed foreword, comparing Invasion of the Body Snatchers to his 1939 radio science-fiction masterpiece, The War of the Worlds. (Wanger also toyed with the idea of having legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow "interview" the film's protagonist, Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy.) Wanger finally settled on the idea of wrapping the film in a framing story. Siegel and Mainwaring objected strongly, but cooperated in order to make this flashback structure as integral to the rest of the film as possible, but many (including Siegel) felt that it diminishes the power of the film through phony reassurance.

For all its social awareness, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is also a genuinely creepy film. Siegel wisely kept the film away from Allied Artists' special effects team, who wanted to make the film "a monster picture," and instead utilized models sparingly and effectively. The gooey birth of the pod people and the blank humanoids lying around on pool tables are profoundly disturbing images. The film's long concluding chase, against the ostinato honking of a air-raid horn, is one of the most inventive and suspenseful pursuits ever filmed. Director Siegel imbues even the most casual moments, such as the assembly of the pod people in the Santa Mira square to receive their "shipments", with eerie grace.

Made in 23 days, on a budget of $380,000, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, like the quiet horror films made by Val Lewton in the 1940's, continues to influence filmmakers and novelists with its combination of plausibility and surrealism. Literate, passionate, and compelling, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the very embodiment -- you may prefer another word -- of the possibilities of the horror cinema. Siegel's film surfaces the fear of loss of identity and then locates the threat to that identity, not in some stock Martian menace, but in our own souls. It asks nothing less than that we confront the pointless orthodoxy in our social selves, and kill it with a pitchfork.

During the course of shooting, Siegel broke into Dana Wynter's house (she plays Becky Driscoll in the film), and slipped one of the prop pods under her bed. "The next morning, when Dana found the pod, she was in a state of near hysteria," he remembered in 1993, with evident satisfaction. For nearly 50 years, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has kept audiences fearing the pod under the bed.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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