Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)

The longest continuous stretch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about fifteen minutes (the film runs eighty). Small California city doctor Kevin McCarthy and his long-lost lady friend Dana Wynter have just spent the night holed up in his office, hiding from their neighbors, who have all been replaced by “pod people.” The pods are giant seedpods. They birth human facsimiles, down to scars, memories, and current injuries. They just don’t have any emotion. The evening before is another lengthy sequence, but not continuous like this fifteen minute one, which comes at the end of the second act. It doesn’t exactly end the second act because the third act is really wonky (Body Snatchers had just about as much studio post-production interference as a film can have, down to the studio literally cropping director Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s framing by ten percent).

After a big hint McCarthy and Wynter consummated their reuniting—it’s a shame McCarthy doesn’t get to talk about it, from his third scene in the film he’s constantly chatting up the ladies—the bad guys arrive and give McCarthy, Wynter, and the audience an information dump. It’s all about where the pods come from—outer space—and how McCarthy and Wynter are just going to love being passionless. Despite being a tell-all moment, the dump doesn’t feel like one. Daniel Mainwaring’s script is great—especially when characters get to monologue (save when Wynter gets lovey-dovey in an even more panicked moment)—and the actors’ not quite emotive enough delivery is perfect. Siegel does a great job directing his actors; at least the actors who matter. The occasional gas station attendant gets a pass.

As McCarthy and Wynter are faced with their loveless (sexless?) future, they start to break down before thinking their way out of the situation only to end up betrayed by their humanity and on the run into the mountains surrounding the town and, presumably, the third act.

But that third act is the wonky thing I mentioned before. See, Body Snatchers has a framing device—McCarthy telling disbelieving doctors and state troopers about what’s going on in his hometown. The pods have taken over, they’ve got to believe him, it’s almost too late to save everyone from being the same! Okay, he probably doesn’t say the thing about being the same at the beginning because part of the wonkiness is how much Body Snatchers just gives up on internal consistency. There’s three layers to the narrative. McCarthy on screen in the framing, McCarthy on screen in the flashback, McCarthy narrating the flashback (from the frame). The third, the narration, proves the most problematic in the third act. There are plot holes to jump over or at least to address and the narration plows over them instead. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially since it takes the film away from omnipresent protagonist McCarthy at the end.

Though it doesn’t help the frame already forces a protracted distance from McCarthy, which the narration and the actual story help to correct. Right up until the third act smacks it even further away than before.

The entire thing hinges on McCarthy. Body Snatchers isn’t about the fear of being replaced, it’s about the panic of being in danger. When the film starts and McCarthy is hearing about all the slightly weird stuff going on in town, people desperate to get an appointment then cancelling, kids not thinking their parents are their parents anymore, the opening has the audience primed for how it’s all going to play out. It plays out gradually, with recent divorcee McCarthy pursuing even recenter divorcee Wynter as fast as he can. He literally can’t keep his hands off of her. There’s the lovey dovey in the script and there’s some chemistry thanks to the direction, but you know McCarthy’s crazy about Wynter because McCarthy appears to be uncontrollably crazy about Wynter. And their romance subplot introduces some more information about the goings on before the first pod person shows up.

McCarthy’s pal, King Donovan, ruins their date because he’s found what appears to be a body and wants McCarthy to take a look at it. For a while, Donovan and Carolyn Jones (as his wife) are the main supporting leads. Because they’re panicked and they’re active so they end up around McCarthy. When it seems like Wynter isn’t going to be part of this core, McCarthy brings her into it. Very smart script, plotting-wise. Once McCarthy and Donovan start investigating, they’re going to discover missing bodies, strange gatherings in suburbia, and what’s better than dry martinis for putting on the steaks.

Because even though they’re in danger of being replaced by the pod people, they’re not going to miss out on steaks and martinis. It’s the fifties and they are Americans, after all. Panic can only drive you so far. If you skip martinis, the pod people win. And, somehow, magnificently, it all works. When Body Snatchers is being quiet about the culture it’s portraying, it excels. When it tries to explain what that portrayal means… the opposite. Are the “pod people”—who are without love, desire, ambition, faith—stand-ins for communists? Stand-ins for McCarthyists (no relation)? McCarthy (actor Kevin) apparently thought it was a comment on “Madison Avenue”-types. But it seems like something, only it’s really unfocused and the narration plays directly against what’s described and portrayed in the action. By the end, McCarthy is just ranting nonsensically, not because he’s panicked, not because he’s exhausted, but because the script doesn’t have the answer.

Excellent acting from McCarthy throughout, with really strong support from Donovan and Larry Gates. Jones is good. Wynter is… often good, sometimes thin. She’s got too much of an English accent, which the film explains by her living in England for five years but… really?

Jean Willes and Virginia Christine are good in the other two biggest roles. Most of the townsfolk, pod or not, are background.

Great direction from Siegel. You wish you could see the other ten percent of his framing. There are a lot of night exteriors and Fredericks’s photography on them is glorious. Fredericks’s photography is superb throughout, but those night shots are exceptional.

Good enough score from Carmen Dragon, good enough editing from Robert S. Eisen.

Great production design from Ted Haworth.

Even with the three times clunky finish—even without the framing device, it’s impossible to imagine what the film would play like without the added narration and since that narration screws up the third act, there’s not a lot going right outside the spectacular technical filmmaking-Invasion of the Body Snatchers is exquisite. It’s a step higher than almost great (so pretty great?). It just should and could be better. And—rather frustratingly—would have been better, had the studio just kept their hands off it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on a story by Jack Finney; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Robert S. Eisen; music by Carmen Dragon; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr. Danny Kauffman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Teddy Belicec), Jean Willes (Sally Withers), Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Virginia Christine (Wilma Lentz), and Tom Fadden (Uncle Ira Lentz).


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