Friday, March 28, 2008

Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

It was a turbulent, post-war world that saw the release of director Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956. Nazism had long been defeated in Europe, but the Red Menace (communism) represented by the Soviet Union and Red China was growing. In January of 1955, the United States Congress authorized President Eisenhower to defend Formosa from China. On May 14 of the the same year, the Soviet Union and seven other communist nations joined forces under the Warsaw Pact. But these were only the most recent developments. At home, on the domestic front, there was a virtual red hysteria roiling.

Going back a few years to 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his campaign to unearth Communists in the American government. McCarthy, later known to be an alcoholic, imagined reds everywhere, from inside the upper echelons of the Truman Administration, to the U.S. Army to the State Department. Another, earlier (and arguably easier...) target of the Communist witch hunt was the liberal entertainment industry itself. Specifically, the House of Representatives' investigative arm, called HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) sought to root out communists inside the film industry. The committee was aided and abetted by opportunists like a young up-and-coming politician named Ronald Reagan. Reagan (who flip-flopped and was a Democrat before he was a Republican) insisted that communism was indeed festering in Hollywood ("the threat is real" he asserted) and needed to be rooted out. He was all too happy to oblige.

Ironically, membership in the American Communist Party was not (and is not) a crime in the United States. Membership in various political parties is part and parcel of our democratic liberty, and yet here - with no sanction from the Constitution and no evidence of any actual crime committed, the American government began to oppress citizens who, at worst, found themselves involved in what today we would consider progressive or humanitarian causes. Actors, actresses, writers, producers and directors were regularly summoned to testify in Washington D.C. and name "names" in the hunt for commies and communist associations. Those who didn't submit to the will of HUAC were blacklisted and named in a pamphlet called "Red Channels."

Among those blacklisted was a left-leaning writer and novelist named Daniel Mainwaring. He was the man who adapted Jack Finney's science-fiction novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to the screen. Given this background, one can begin to detect how an anti-McCarthyite message or sub-text runs through the science fiction film. Consider, for example, that those who join the alien pod "herd" develop a kind of mob mentality. Their first course of action, as we see in the film with the example of Becky (transformed in the last moments of the film), is to "out" or testify against those who are still human. This pointing of the finger is the equivalent of naming names to the Committee. Pointing out someone who is "different" and alerting the boiling mob to their presence. The mob then seeks to stamp out those individuals who think differently.

Furthermore, the specific characters in the film are ones who may carry untrustworthy (communist?) backgrounds according to inquisitors like Joseph McCarthy. For example, Becky has just returned to the United States after five years in Europe (an invention of the screenplay, not the novel), and therefore her loyalties are suspect -- who knows how she's been influenced by the socialists of Old Europe?. Becky and Miles have both rejected the patriotic bedrock of marriage: they are divorcees, so they are outside social norms in 1950s America as well. And the other "targeted" character in the film is Jack Belicec, a writer. It is his occupation that's of paramount importance here: he is a representative, in a sense, of the under-siege entertainment industry. One of those damned, dreamy-eyed writers who might fall under the spell of socialists and communists, and begin spreading his godless ideas to innocent Americans who don't know better.

And really, that was the essence of McCarthy's argument: that Communism was Godless and should not be spread in the Christian States of America. Consider, it was on June 14th, 1956 that the words "under God" were officially added to the Pledge of Allegiance by law. It was on July 30th of 1956 that "In God We Trust" became the National Motto by law. Politicians - fearful of being labeled communists by Red Hunters, bent over backwards to prove they were patriotic, Christian Americans. So they made patriotic but ultimately meaningless laws like these. (A modern corollary: renaming French Fries "freedom fries" after 9/11; good to show off patriotism, not so good for actually battling terrorists...). The message here, spawned by the red baiting inquisitors: conform! conform! conform!

Given Daniel Mainwaring's background and history, as well as proclamations from the cast (including Dana Wynter) it is easy to see how Invasion of the Body Snatchers might be interpreted as an anti-McCarthy film. One railing against the right-wing machine urging conformity of religion and ideology.

However, there is another side to this story too, one that is the polar opposite of what I've just described above. It is entirely possible to read Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a contrary way. That the film is - in fact - not about McCarthyism at all, but about the deadly dangers of the encroaching Red Menace. Let's gaze at Don Siegel for a moment, the director of the film. He was widely-known to be an ardent right-winger in terms of his politics, and his career began under the bailiwick of pro-government propaganda films like 1946's Hitler Lives! His films, including 1971's Dirty Harry, have often been interpreted as being not just right wing, but actually fascist, misogynist, racist and so forth. Considering this background, and the fact that film in general is not - alas - primarily a writer's venue - one can make the argument with some confidence that Invasion of the Body Snatchers '56 is an aggressively anti-communist diatribe.

Notice, for example, how late in the film, Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is on the run and seeks help from his nurse and secretary, Sally. He goes to her house, peers in the window, and finds that she is hosting a gathering of the pod people. It is a secret meeting, a secret meeting not unlike the kind McCarthy imagined: communists and communist sympathizers working under closed door against the common good of patriotic Americans. Secondly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this incarnation, though extremely faithful in dialogue to Finney's novel adds a new word to Miles' diatribe against the aliens' emotionless gestalt. In the book, Miles complains that without emotions there is no ambition and no love. In the film, he tellingly adds "faith" to that list. Again, the fear of "godless" communism is apparent in the film, and the addition of the word "faith" to those qualities lost under pod-ism ties back directly to those acts of Congress I mentioned above, the ones re-establishing a Christian God as America's sponsor.

Also, the idea of being re-born into an "untroubled world" where "everyone is the same" seems to smack of an attack against Communism, not McCarthyism, no? A little more digging, and you can discern how this Invasion of the Body Snatcher views "collectivism," the group think of the emotionless pods. It can't be a coincidence that the Grimaldi vegetable stand - once a very successful and thriving enterprise (under human ownership) - goes under when managed by the pod people. In a world of collectivism, the film seems to be saying, capitalism dies. As author/producer Joseph Maddrey wrote in the comments section of this blog here a few days ago, there seems to be a pro-capitalism bent to both Finney's novel as well as this incarnation of the film.

So the question for us, as intrepid and questioning interpreters of this cinematic art, is, simply: what is this Invasion of the Body Snatchers attempting to say to us, or rather to the intended audience of mid-1950s middle America? Is it vehemently anti-McCarthy or willfully anti-Communist? I submit that the film is likely railing against both "evils"; that it is actually a movie about resisting group think or the mob mentality under any guise. After all, what is inherently the difference between rabid communists and rabid anti-communists? Both factions are extreme, and seek to impose their will, ideology and philosophy on the unaligned. Extremism, in any form, is oppressive and undesirable. I don't know if it's worse to live under a fascist dictatorship or a communist one, and in the end I don't think it matters. Whether you a far leftist or a far rightist, your ultimate goal is to push your dogmatic set of beliefs on those in small town America who just want to be free: free to work; free to love; free to be free from such rancorous divisions.

Miles' warning at the end of the film fits both interpretations of the material. It is delivered directly to the camera, in extreme close-up, and thus directly to us, the audience. "They're after all of us! You're next!" I submit that's a warning that skews in both directions. If allowed, unabated, the HUAC hearings would continue the witch hunt into small towns and middle America. Contrarily, it could be a warning that the Soviet Union was not about to let freedom reign in America, and that subversive communists were already here, corrupting our country.

It is undeniable that this Invasion of the Body Snatchers is extremely faithful to the novel by Finney and so in seeking answers about the intent of this art, we must return to the source material. Entire passages of dialogue and narration have been lifted from the book for the film, and so the concept of personal alienation is also critically important to the film. That idea of personal alienation finds its greatest expression in a beautifully-staged moment that is absolutely and totally inconsistent with everything the film has told us. However, it is so important, I believe, that the filmmakers let it go.

Let me explain. Throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the filmmakers carefully explain the life-cycle of the alien invaders to us. A pod, in close proximity to a human, expels a human-sized "blank" (an impression, the film calls it...). That blank then absorbs the mind and appearance of the nearby human while he or she sleeps. The original human body itself is then destroyed, reduced to "grey filth" and the pod body takes over without missing a step. The distinction I am trying to make is that the pods don't take over the human body. They inhabit duplicate bodies. The original body is...disposed of.

And yet, at the climax of this film, Miles returns to Becky after leaving her briefly to investigate the sound of music nearby (where the hills are alive, he hopes). In his absence, she has fallen asleep - the kiss of death, the period of duplication. Yet, in the same body, her eyes open, showing coldness and iciness. She says "I fell asleep and it happened, Miles," or some such thing, and that is absolutely inconsistent with the duplication process the film describes. She fell asleep, and the pods took over HER body. What should have happened, had the film been true to its own internal logic, is that her body should have dissolved away into dust, and another Becky should have sprung up nearby (wherever the pod was...). This is precisely what happens in the remake of the 1970s. Someone saw the inconsistency there and fixed it.

Yet, going out on a limb here, I would suggest that Siegel, Mainwaring and the producers were smart enough to know this, but that they wanted to get across the message of romantic alienation, the fear of "my wife isn't my wife anymore." How can I claim such a thing. Well, consider how, visually, this scene plays out as dramatized. Miles returns to Becky and she falls asleep right there on him. They fall over together, and he lands on top of her. They end up in an embrace in the mud.

Essentially, looking at them - this man and this woman are ensconced in the missionary position. Miles kisses Becky desperately and passionately, trying to wake her up, trying to rouse or stimulate her. This is the 1950s equivalent of making love on screen (you couldn't show much else.) Then, the film cuts to a first-person perspective, Miles' point of view, looking down Becky, his love. He expects her to return his affection, but this is not to be. It is from that first-person angle that we see Becky slowly open her eyes...and we know just from Wynter's performance that she is no longer Becky. This choice of angles, of mise-en-scene determinedly reveals to us the fear of romantic alienation. That the woman we make love to might open her eyes afterwards, or the next morning and...suddenly not be that woman anymore. That romantic love can...slip away like a thief in the night, and we are left with something...cold, frigid.

Critically, this message of alienation could not have carried across in this fashion if the filmmakers had stuck strictly to the "rules" of the pod people. We could not have been afforded - literally - an eye-to-eye look at romantic alienation. So yes, there is a huge inconsistency here, but this is one of those occasions, I submit, when breaking the rules is acceptable because there is an artistic purpose underlining it. If the message of the film is alienation, then you need this shot.

Much has been made over the years over the "framing" story of this Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If you've seen the film, you know it begins and ends with a raving, lunatic Miles in a hospital, trying to make a psychiatrist and a doctor believe his crazy tale of an alien invasion in Santa Mira (not the Mill Valley of the book). For years and years, I have read amongst genre reviewers how this framing device and the subsequent optimistic ending (the fight is joined!) sullies the message and intent of the film. It's received wisdom however, and I'm all for questioning received wisdom.

For one thing, the book-end framing of Invasion of the Body Snatchers allows us to hear Miles' recount the adventure in his own words and expressions, in voice-over. This is the filmic equivalent of the book's first person voice. Hence, it is true to the spirit of the book. Secondly, had the film ended merely with Miles screaming in traffic "they're here! they're coming after you!" it would have been a deliberately downbeat climax directly in contradiction to the upbeat ending of the book (which saw the pods head off into space). The book-ends, with the doctors believing Miles after the discovery of the pods - is actually closer in spirit to the novel than the more downbeat ending that many critics have argued for over the years. Maybe they didn't read the book. My point is that the story frame doesn't diminish the film; but actually brings the film in closer alignment to the source material.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, beyond the search for cultural subtext and meaning, is the visualization of the material, the careful staging. For instance, Siegel arranges numerous shots with an eye towards visually expressing entrapment. There are shots through staircase posts (bars of a sort), shots through grills in doors (another jail-like visual), even through wooden floorboards in an abandoned mine. The upshot is that we often view our on-the-run protagonists (Miles and Becky) through some kind of visual barrier...something preventing their escape. I believe that this approach helps to enhance the mood of hysteria and paranoia the film is so famous for generating. I hadn't watched the film in a good long while, perhaps eight or nine years, so I wasn't prepared either for the fact that Invasion of the Body Snatchers boasts two jump-out-of-your seat jolts in the first five minutes. This film was made over fifty years ago and those stingers still work. That's a testament to the technical skill of the filmmaking, I think.

There seems to be a great deal to discuss about this film, its message and its implications, but I hope to leave some of that to you, my intelligent and curious readers. I was thinking about writing about how, in some sense, this film is about the age of small towns in America (an age that has passed in history; I submit we're now in the Wal-Mart Age). And that in some fashion, this Invasion is about how foreign ideas can poison or an infect a small town. But I think I've explored enough ideas for one post and one movie, and now I want to know what you think.

Is Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 an anti-communist film? Or is it Anti-McCarthy? Or do you agree with me: is it simply a warning against extremism on either pole? Can't wait to read your thoughts...

Next up: I'm Okay, You're a Pod: Invasion 1978.


  1. Your conclusion is supported by at least one of the actors. Dana Wynter (who played Becky) on the 1956 film: “We realized – Walter [Wanger, producer] and Kevin [McCarthy] and people who can think about things – that we were making an anti-‘ism’ picture. Anti-‘ism’ – fascism, communism, all that kind of thing. We took it for granted that’s what we were making.”

  2. Anonymous1:18 PM

    “Is it simply a warning against extremism on either pole?”

    I guess we have fascism on one side of the pole and communism on the other side. This dichotomy helps our dominant ideology to distort a multifaceted social structure into a linear model with only 2 possible extremes, allowing America’s ecocidal consumerism to maneuver itself neatly into the guise of a moderate alternative. It gives me comfort to hear Wynter’s take as an “anti-ism” film, which I suppose could be retooled today as a criticism of the herds that participate in conspicuous consumption.


  3. Rick:

    I understand what you're saying, but it's difficult to see this Invasion of the Body Snatchers as "pro" status quo, which is what I think you may be indicating.

    Again, context is crucial here: think of the McCarthy hearings happening everyday; and think about Russia getting to space first with Sputnik, forming the Warsaw Pact, etc.

    People must have felt torn, divided. A movie like Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the very least says: don't join the mob. Any mob. Be your own man (or your own woman...).

    But that's hard to do, whether in the shadow of the Cold War, the current Red State/Blue State Divide, or even in the face of a 24/7 commercial media telling folks to buy, buy, buy.

    I agree with you: I think a potent Invasion of the Body Snatchers could be made about consumerism. In a sense, that film has already been made as Larry Cohen's 1980s flick, The Stuff, about a new dessert brand that everybody just HAS to eat (but which turns people into "pods" of a different sort).

    But a current Body Snatchers incarnation could certainly go that route. I'd like to see one go the route of examining blind patriotism. You know: put on your yellow bumper stickers, wear your American flag lapel and keep saying "Support the Troops!" (but don't actually DO anything for them, like giving them good healthcare, providing for their families, or sending them better body armor their in Iraq.) But by all means, shout those supportive slogans! Given what we've gone through in the last few years, I think a pod variation on patriotism would be a welcome one...

    I'm looking forward to your comments on the book and the first film...

  4. Anonymous2:43 AM

    On the DVD I have, there's a 1985 interview with Kevin McCarthy in which says point-blank that he didn't think the movie had any political message at all. He says that the political element is something that critics came up with after the fact. The interviewer adds that Jack Finney also had no political message in mind for the book.

    Political analysis is always fun, and sometimes useful. But the horse's mouth works for me. If a critic says, "It means so-and-so," and actual key participants say, "No it doesn't," I'll believe the latter every time.

    And I was gratified by that, because I feel the movie works best in the 21st Century as a straight-ahead thriller. If I were to introduce this movie to a teenager, I wouldn't try to sell him/her on a maybe/maybe-not political message from a political climate that no longer exists. I'd try to sell him/her on it being pretty bad-ass and suspenseful for a low-budget movie made 60 years ago. Because it is!

    In fact, I think it's a fair criticism of this review that the author doesn't say hardly anything at all about the movie's value as entertainment (which, of course, if the primary function of all commercially-released movies). This movie succeeds as a straight-ahead thriller, creating a potent unsettling mood despite having no violence or blood (or even any DEATH, depending on how you look at it!). That's a pretty remarkable feat for a cheapie 50s flick to pull off!

    I'm not going to say "Why can't you just enjoy the movie?" because I know that political analysis IS a form of enjoying the movie. But I will say "You're missin' the best part!"