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Back in 1989 or so, one of the earliest widescreen laserdiscs offered by The Criterion Collection was Don Siegel's terrific Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the classic remembered by anyone over 50 as one of the most frightening and intense science fiction experiences of childhood. One of the earliest DVDs offered for sale was a Republic Home Video disc of the title, an unfortunately low-resolution and non- anamorphic enhanced transfer. The rights have been tied up with Republic and Viacom for over a decade, and only now have been unearthed thanks to Olive Films' energetic DVD and Blu-ray releases of titles licensed from Paramount. Seen in a dazzling new HD presentation, the grandaddy of all paranoid conspiracy fantasies now looks better than it has since 1956.
It's difficult to communicate the achievement of what began as a fairly humble production, overseen by Walter Mirisch of Allied Artists. A comparable AA release of the same year is the ambitious but only partly successful World Without End. Producer Walter Wanger and director Siegel reshape the alien invasion plot as a paranoid fantasy that has more in common with film noir than Buck Rogers. Author Jack Finney's chilling concept supposes that a covert invasion is underway, all around us. It cannot be halted because the human victims -- actually duplicated substitutes -- are nearly indistinguishable from normal people. The identity-theft idea from John W. Campbell Jr.'s short story Who Goes There? at last finds its full expression: Invasion of the Body Snatchers raises filmed science fiction to a new level of sophistication.
The story takes root in an atmosphere of convincing small town normality. Several patients of Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) report that their relatives are imposters, or 'not themselves'. In each case the delusion passes quickly, but the deeper suspicions of Miles and his friend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) are confirmed when writer Jack Belicec (King Donovan) discovers a 'blank' body slowly taking on Jack's physical characteristics. A fantastic biological conspiracy has seized the town: seedpods from outer space are replacing human beings with passive simulacra devoid of emotion. Farmers are growing more Pods to spread the menace to other communities. Realizing too late that the local authorities have been taken over, the couple has no choice but to flee for their lives.
A key tale of '50s paranoia, Invasion visualizes Cold War anxieties as a subtle menace, a plague of alienation. Nothing could be less subtle than the Sci-fi genre's usual technological catastrophes and giant monsters, but this show expresses post-nuclear disquiet in the visual terms of a film noir. Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly twisted the detective thriller with a lethal dose of atomic hysteria, announcing a new age of nuclear terror. On its surface Invasion merely makes a statement about the erosion of feelings and emotions. The somewhat resigned Dr. Bennell observes, "people are allowing their humanity to slip away." The movie's lovers begin as disillusioned divorceés, and recognize the desperation of their new love only when it is threatened by the Pods. At issue is the traumatic personal fear of losing one's identity, one's human essence. The 'traditional value' Miles fights to retain is his essential individuality. Trapped with a Pod that will copy him if he falls asleep, Miles must listen while a duplicate version of his psychiatrist friend Dr. Danny Kaufmann (Larry Gates) tells him that love is a painful illusion, and that mankind will be better off without emotions: "It's so easy without them."
Replacement by a Pod is the ultimate horror. Emotional bonds and family ties vanish. A Pod's only loyalty is to its own kind. Miles observes an unnaturally tranquil family placing a fresh Pod next to a baby's crib: after the duplication, there'll be 'no more tears'.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers fashions an allegory about infiltration and possession, yet leaves its exact interpretation to be decided by the individual. Overtly about feelings, humanity and individual identity, the show seems to call out for an additional political reading. The possible messages behind Invasion of the Body Snatchers' alien conspiracy are teasingly ambiguous. The easiest interpretation is that the Pods represent the threat of Communism. The film stays consistent with the notion that Communism is an ideological disease: when inculcated with sick Marxist ideas, a healthy citizen becomes a less-than-human Communist, another agent of an insidious alien ideology. The Pod contagion spreads through the sleepy town of Santa Mira until it can be disseminated openly, at a street rally. Duplicated lawmen forcibly arrest citizens in broad daylight so they can be replicated and replaced by the sinister Pods. The normal population is slowly displaced by unfeeling Pod people, new additions to a vast conspiracy intent on eradicating humanity.
On the other (left) hand, liberals concerned about blacklists and witch hunts persist in seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a statement about 'conformity'. Insomuch as the plague of conformity matches the general theme of the loss of individuality, this makes sense. But the film's spokesperson for Pod-ism is the psychiatrist Danny Kauffman (Larry Gates), who affects a slight air of elite intellectualism. He's the kind of person that conservatives distrust and accuse of disloyalty. The Pods sneak around, conspiring in the shadows to effect an invisible revolution. "Join us", they say, and throw away the stifling chains of humanity. That's a Communist appeal. The horror for Miles and Becky is that the odds are firmly against them. Miles even flinches before taking a pitchfork to his own Pod double. The lovers can struggle, but sooner or later they'll have to sleep. The most frequently quoted possible alternate title for the movie is the Shakesperian Sleep No More, which sounds altogether too artsy. The same goes for "No More Tears", which to me could be a good title for Joan Crawford. 1
A brilliant piece of sustained suspense, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the talented Don Siegel's best job of direction. Inspired by a screenplay that allows the Pod threat to grow organically (pardon) from within a setting of complete normalcy, Siegel emphasizes a creeping claustrophobia. Escape options fall away as the Pods close in, until our lovers must hide in a broom closet and pray they won't be detected. Many Siegel efforts of the 50s are rushed, or take on a generic 'docu' look. Excepting a couple of police montages, Invasion is so well directed that one would not want to change a single shot.
Key personnel have discounted the idea that dialogue director Sam Peckinpah rewrote the script by noir screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past), who had recently tackled another exercise in political paranoia, The Phenix City Story. Referencing the small-town ambience of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt as a model for Santa Mira, Mainwaring establishes many 'givens' associated with subsequent conspiracy fantasies. Terrible secrets hide behind a veneer of normality. As officials and law officers are the first to be duplicated, our trust in authority is undermined. It may already be too late to summon help from out of town. Even a telephone operator is now a Pod, blandly telling Miles that all of the phone lines are out of service. Trust and hope crumble as Miles and Becky find that their friends and loved ones are now enemy conspirators. 2
Ellsworth Frederick's photographic style alternates between ordinary daylight and hallucinatory night scenes, as with the unnerving deep focus view of the fresh Pod on Jack Belicec's pool table. King Donovan and a young Carolyn Jones provide excellent support as the Belicecs. The two couples discover the full horror of the Pod duplication process while enjoying an old-fashioned backyard barbecue. Just a few feet away, obscene lumps of vegetable tissue are rapidly taking on their likenesses. These disturbing Pods are the film's only "monsters", as the story wisely elides the actual transference of one's memory to a waiting Pod. Yet the rubber forms growing into human shape point the way to much later, more horrible transformations, in the remakes of The Thing and The Fly. 3
Don Siegel's first cut told the story straight, without flashback bookends. The rough cut ended with a close-up of Miles Bennell shouting, "You're next!", followed by an abrupt cut to black, which in 1956 was a radical editorial idea. Allied Artists insisted that the ending be lightened, which delayed Invasion for several months. Producer Walter Wanger engaged Orson Welles to appear in bookend 'storytelling' segments. When filming time arrived Welles was loose in Europe somewhere, and could not be contacted. To protect as much of his creation as possible, Don Siegel directed the added flashback bookends showing the frantic Miles Bennell being examined by doubting doctors. The new voiceovers actually enhance the mood of the film, but Siegel makes sure that the ending isn't too hopeful or reassuring. The Pods still seem well on their way to victory.
This movie and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho are perhaps the strongest classic films about a horrifying concept, the loss of psychological liberty. Everyone seems to remember how they discovered this show; for many of us it was an unexpectedly scary invitation to consider the horror of having one's brain washed, or possessed by some outside influence. No wonder I ran the other way when folk tried to interest me in various recreational substances, flaky religious cults or self-help re-education seminars. Get thee behind me, Werner Erhardt.
Olive Films' Blu-ray and DVD of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an unexpected delight -- Viacom/Paramount has been sitting on this one far too long. The 2:1 transfer replicates the proper SuperScope aspect ratio. The experts appear at this time to agree that the show was framed at 1:85 during filming, and only later was a SuperScope conversion implemented. This makes a few choker close-ups during one of the final confrontations seem a bit too tight top and bottom -- or even more properly claustrophobic. Viewers upset that the old flat TV version isn't represented here need to realize that the flat versions didn't open up the picture north and south, but instead cropped horizontally the already vertically cropped original image, truly ruining compositions by sampling an area of the original photography barely larger than 16mm.
Less established (until I'm properly corrected) is the probability that the original flat negative was discarded, leaving the 35mm enlarged/squeezed SuperScope dupe elements as the only surviving source. What all this means is that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is presented as originally shown in theaters, looking and sounding splendid. Even those soft police car montages look pretty darn good here.
The only drawback is that the licensing deal with Viacom/Paramount did not allow for extras. I've been made aware of a full documentary by Scott Devine that was filmed and edited for a cancelled DVD release in 2004. It had the involvement of both Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, as well as genre authority Bill Warren and director- Sci-fi enthusiast Joe Dante. I hope we get to see this show in one form or another sometime, somewhere. Collectors possessing the old Republic DVD might want to save it to retain its attractive extra, a 1985 television interview with actor Kevin McCarthy conducted by TV personality Tom Hatten.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed all over the Hollywood area; an addendum on the IMDB lists at least a dozen original locations by their street addresses. If you happen to be a Middle Eastern Emir willing to pay a fortune to be conducted to them, I'm volunteering for the job. I'll even rent the limousine. I also searched for, but could not find, a short offering of home movies from the Sierra Madre "Santa Mira" location of that was posted on YouTube several years ago. They showed Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter having a good time between takes, and included a great shot of a grip nonchalantly carrying a large green Pod prop across the street. Yes, it was green!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Invasion of the Body Snatchers Blu-ray rates:
1. By extension, the movie's only cure for the invasion is the slaughter of all the inhuman Pod people, even poor little Jimmy Grimaldi. The giant bug movie Them! advances the idea that Communists need to be ruthlessly destroyed like pernicious pests. This movie tells us that the Godless Pods are the equal of Communists. Should they be eradicated without mercy as well? Just what could the FBI do, even if they succeeded in putting Santa Mira under a quarantine? Begin a Pod massacre? The little Pod kid Jimmy Grimaldi now says he's happy. How can anybody be sure that he's really One Of Them? In the absence of a physical test, a scorched-earth political attitude would probably be the answer.
2. By now most fans know that Sam Peckinpah also promoted himself a nice bit part in the film, as the meter-reader that may be placing a Pod in Miles' basement. Peckinpah's actress wife Marie Selland also has a small role, as the wife of the gas station owner. She distracts Becky while a Pod is slipped into the trunk of their car.
3. I'm staying out of the debate of the exact takeover process, the old question of, "what happens to the old body?" Since we aren't left with two humans walking around, something has to happen to one of them. Also considered a flaw by literal types is the fact that a key duplication takes place when the victim appears to be nowhere near a Pod. The process takes hours, which is why the preferred method of takeover occurs while a person sleeps.
I believe that Miles theorizes that the Pods duplicate the nearest life form. What if the Pod in Miles' cellar duplicated not him, but the pet goldfish in his living room? An accident like this appears to occur in the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake.
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T'was Ever Thus.