Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

*. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of those movies that I saw as a kid and that I’ve never grown out of. I still drop in for a re-watch pretty regularly and it always holds up. Not a perfect film, but perhaps a perfect B-film, and one with a real cultural resonance, as evidenced by the various directions taken by its remakes.
*. The main tack taken with regard to its significance is to read it politically. This has been so seductive precisely because its politics are so ambiguous. Danny Peary: “Much of the film’s cult following is a result of the picture’s ability to be interpreted in two quite contradictory ways: as being anti-McCarthy and an indictment of the red-scare American mentality; and as being an anticommunist allegory.”
*. And the reason why it is so ambiguous? I think because nobody involved in making it thought they were making a film with a political message. Instead, it was part of a sub-genre of alien body snatchers that was popular at the time. Peary points to the other SF movies of the time dealing with the same theme: Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). He might also have included The Brain Eaters (1958), which may have been derived from Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951). I’d note here that The Puppet Masters, chronologically first on this list and perhaps the first SF story of this type, had an explicit anti-communist message. So there’s no denying this was in the air. When the psychiatrist here explains the mass hysteria as “worry about what’s going on in the world, probably” there’s a tip of the hat to anxiety, but over what, exactly?

*. I don’t see it so much as a Red Scare movie today, but that may be because the Red Scare itself is such a distant memory. Do we still think of communism as “a malignant disease spreading through the whole country”? Instead the film’s message seems more like a general broadside against thoughtless, soulless conformity. Does that have a political side as well? Today accusations of being brainwashed or having become “sheeple” get thrown around pretty freely on the right and the left. I don’t see the pod people as commies, but then they’re not libertarians either. Instead they’re a bit like Nietzsche’s last men: Earth seems like a nice place to call home, so they’ll just move in and get comfortable.
*. The novel by Jack Finney doesn’t say much more. The aliens are just another embodiment of the universal life force. They’ll settle down on Earth and breed and . . . that’s about it. They don’t really have any goals or larger purpose. And I think this is the real critique of the aliens. Not that they are conformists, or have no emotions, but that they have no ambition beyond survival. They aren’t as evil as they are boring and one-dimensional.
*. I like Finney’s novel a lot, and while they drop some good parts from it I think the screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring here changes things in ways that work better on screen. It’s also made into a far bleaker story, even with the addition of the upbeat ending that was insisted on by the studio (“Operator, get me the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is an emergency!”). In the book Becky and the second couple are never transformed, and Miles manages to discourage the aliens from any takeover plans just by burning down their pod farm. They know they’re licked then and so just hop off planet so they can start wandering again and find a better place.
*. So yes, the ending here is terrible. On a par perhaps with the end of Psycho. Both Siegel and producer Walter Wanger disliked it. But in its defence I’d point out a couple of things. First, there was no way they were going to get away with Miles wildly ranting “You’re next! You’re next!” Second, the ending they wound up with is actually better than the ending of Finney’s book, which really feels tacked on and unconvincing.
*. Don Siegel. Yes, you could think of him as a hack. He worked very quickly shooting genre material, but he was good at it and not without a sense of style and an eye. In addition to keeping everything whipping along for a tight 80 minutes he does some interesting things with shooting at odd angles to disorient us. This is small-town America but on a kilter. Then look at the way that curved branch in the foreground mimics the snake of people climbing the hillside at the end. What a nice touch.

*. There are few special effects, but the bodies coming out of the pods look good and I think they’re quite effective. That there is no way to tell the aliens from the humans makes everything more sinister, and easier. I like the indeterminacy it gives rise to as well, as in the scene where poor little Jimmy is given his sedative. About the only moment I wish they’d cut is the peek behind the curtain to see Wilma and her uncle. We don’t need that. We know she’s been transformed.
*. When Miles goes snooping around Becky’s basement, is that a movie match he lights, or did they just make much better matches in the ’50s? By my reckoning it burns for 30 seconds before it gets down to his fingers, all in one take so there’s no trickery. I do think matches were probably better back in the day, but on the other hand, it looks suspiciously thick so it may have been a special prop.
*. “I want your children,” Becky says to Miles. Bold, but I guess things are looking desperate for them by that point. What she says also makes me think of something A. O. Scott had to say about the film: these are “old flames who clearly want nothing more than to jump into bed with each other, and it sometimes seems as though the whole alien conspiracy is designed to prevent exactly that from happening, because instead of doing what they so obviously want to do Miles and Becky have to run all over the little town of Santa Mira.” They can’t sleep and they can’t fuck. What a nightmare.
*. Remember that in the novel Becky isn’t transformed. Here she is, and Miles’ recognition of the change is the film’s dramatic highlight. Who can forget those two close-ups? But what’s the point? To say that she’s changed, she’s no longer the woman he loved, and then she betrays him! “A moment’s sleep and the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction!” More than one man has woken up to a similar experience. And even more women, probably.
*. Well, it’s a great movie. One of the few Bs from the period that transcends its budget and genre. It’s not a movie I see more in with every re-watch, but one that I enjoy just as much every time. The pod people have never gone away, and who doesn’t feel at some point, looking around him or herself, that they may be next?

8 thoughts on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I’m not having Don Siegel described as a hack. Nope. Coogan’s Bluff, Dirty Harry, Black Windmill (on my slate just now), The Shootist, not a hack by any means!

    Love this film, it’s what you expect as a kid, and as you very accurately point out, works both ways politically…although the 78 remake has more real scares, this works pretty well…

    1. Alex Good

      I do sometimes think of him as a hack, but I mean that in a good way. Like Mario Bava or (to a lesser extent) Takash Miike. These guys take commercial genre material and mainly stick to its formulas, shoot it very quickly, but still make art out of it.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        It would be fair to say he was a B movie king; let’s agree he had a no nonsense approach and lacked pretentions, which is a good thing in both of our books, I suspect. But he really was a top-notch action director in the 70’s for Eastwood, and other big, bankable names.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I agree with all that. He was very talented. It’s a sensibility that sits on the other end of the spectrum from someone like Kubrick. You can’t imagine these guys doing endless takes. Something Eastwood picked up from him. Roger Corman was in the same tradition, very good at turning out product that belied its budget but even more parsimonious and pretty much indifferent as to the results.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        Yeah, I think the problem is that you still have to be really good to make movies like this. You can’t just shoot from the hip. That’s where the talent comes in.

  2. Tom Moody

    I remember one incident from Finney’s book. He describes a black shoe shine man who always had a smile and friendly word for his customers. The protagonist overhears him one day talking about white people when the shoe-shiner thinks none are around. The shoe-shiner is mean, hard and cold in his assessments, completely at odds with his work persona. The protagonist remembers this incident when he accidentally hears pod people talking about humans; they trash-talk us with a callous lack of respect, when with their own kind.
    Possibly one reason the story remains relevant is this callousness between various human tribes, exacerbated by the modern world’s further herding of us all into niches or demographics. Yet now politeness is not even feigned: Hillary speaks openly of deplorables, Muslims are demonized on TV, etc.
    Also, the experience of glassy eyed pod people is still with us: as a non-smartphone user, whenever I see a group of random individuals staring down at their phones, I think of the scene in this movie where the townspeople are all working together silently to load pods onto trucks.

    1. Alex Good

      The part likening the pod people to the resentful shoe shine man is one of the highlights of the book. It’s a striking analogy to how much the podsters hate us. I also like the scene where the narrator confronts the possessed librarian and tells her that he knows what she is. She acts all discombobulated for a moment and then just passively replies “Do you really?” and walks away. That is so perfect.
      And you’re right about faking it. Once the pod people take over though they won’t have to adopt the pretense any more about what they really think about us.
      Yeah, zombies on phones I just never get tired of. Especially when they’re out on the street, totally oblivious to traffic. I don’t know how there aren’t more accidents. They literally have no idea what’s going on around them.


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