Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Don Siegel

This review is part of the 50′s Monster Mash Blogathon hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. The blogathon runs from July 28th through August 2nd.

An allegory on the infiltration of communism in America? A metaphor for people turning a blind eye to the McCarthyism hysteria that was sweeping the country in the early 1950′s? An attack on the potential dangers of conformity and the stamping out of individuality? Don Siegel’s 1956 gem of a film, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” has been said to really be about any and all of these themes since its debut now more than fifty years ago. Siegel, who should know, never mentions any of this kind of subtext in his autobiography, “A Siegel Film,” so one can assume, all the reading into this classic SF film that has been done is just that, critics and filmgoers reading their own thoughts and ideas into a work of pop art…and there is nothing wrong with that! After all, isn’t personal interpretation one of the elements and joys of good art? Admirer, analyze, come up with theories, themes beyond what even the artist conceived.

The film is based on a serialized novel, written by Jack Finny, published in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine called, “The Body Snatchers.” It was produced by Walter Wanger (notoriously known for shooting  talent agent, later a producer, Jennings Lang. Wanger believed Lang was having an affair with his then wife, actress Joan Bennett) and directed by low budget action director Don Siegel. Siegel already had ten feature films under his belt including “The Big Steal,” “Duel at Silver Creek,” “Private Hell 36″ and “Riot in Cell Block 11.” Allied Artist agreed to back the film and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring was on board to adapt Finney’s superb novel.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is an expertly made low budget thriller that slowly builds in tension and never lets up. Filled with perfectly executed cinematography, a pulsating music score (by Carmen Dragon) and top notch acting performances from Kevin McCarthy and the lovely Dana Wynters in a gallant battle to save the human race from dehumanizing pods. Despite the fact that we see no monsters or strange looking aliens, Siegel and company make us believe they are out there, ready to take us down. Not through any violence or massive destruction but simply by sleeping, sweet gentle sleep. They know we as humans, no matter how much we fight it, will eventually have to fall asleep, and then they will take us over.

Visually the film is a frightful delight. In his autobiography, Siegel explains how his head grip devised a dolly with wheels that would ride up a steep cement stairway. In the completed film the shot is superbly executed as we see McCarthy and Wynters struggling up the steep stairway attempting to escape from the now pod infested town folks who are chasing after them. Add to this, a brilliantly shot scene where McCarthy and Wynters are in a cave, hiding in an excavated underground hole covered with floor boards. In this shot, the camera is underneath the floor boards, with McCarthy and Wynters, shooting up thru the cracks between the boards watching the now vigilante like crowds rushing over the boards searching for the couple in vain.

Later that evening the couple, still hiding in the cave, hears music. McCarthy tells Wynters, the pods wouldn’t be playing music; he kisses Wynters and exits the cave in the direction the music is coming from. He quickly finds out his theory was wrong, the music is coming from speakers near a truck where pod-people are loading freshly delivered pods on to the truck. He quickly heads back to Wynters, still in the cave, who has fallen asleep. He wakes her up and kisses her. The camera focuses in on an extreme close-up of Wynters blank face. A quick cut to McCarthy, whose shocked expression reveals the horror. She is now a pod!

The studio, fearful of a simple minded public not being able to deal with a downbeat ending forced Siegel to add on a prologue with a more upbeat ending. The film originally was suppose to end with McCarthy frantically running on to a highway yelling at passing cars hysterically about an alien invasion, finally turning directly toward the camera in close up and screaming out, “They’re already here, You’re next!”  Instead we are subject to an added on ending where McCarthy is picked up by the police, taken to a doctor’s office where no one believes him until they hear about an accident and a truck with pod like objects in the back. At this point, they call the FBI in as the film ends. Imagine for a moment how much more powerful the ending would be if the film had ended with McCarthy screaming into your face, “YOU”RE NEXT!”

Along with McCarthy and Wynters, the cast also includes King Donavan, Carolyn Jones (as a blonde), Larry Gates, Whit Bissell, Jean Willes and a young Sam Peckinpah who it is said to have contributed to the screenplay however, it is McCarthy, in a career defining performance, and the beautiful Dana Wynters, whose performances you won’t forget.

In 1978, the first of three remakes came out. Directed by Phillip Kaufman, with cameos by Kevin McCarthy, still running around hysterically on the highway screaming, “They’re here!” (instead of “You’re next!”) and original director Don Siegel as a cab driver. While not the classic the original is, Kaufman’s film is a fine worthy effort. Next was Abel Ferrara’s 1993 film, with a title very close to the original Jack Finney title, “Body Snatchers.” Again there are pod like creatures taking the place of real humans only this time on a U.S. Military base.  The last version, so far, was made in 2007 and is called “The Invasion.” Again it is similar, yet different. An alien virus turns humans into cold pod like beings after they fall asleep. Kevin McCarthy’s general practitioner Dr. Bennell has evolved into Dr. Carol Bennell, a Government psychiatrist. I found this last version the worst of the four.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” cautions’ us on the problem of being complacent with our lives; falling asleep is a danger, we are vulnerable, one loses touch with the world, and pods can quickly take us over. This fear is as relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago when the film was made, more so as pod like idealogues and followers swarm into the political mainstream. While the tacked on ending of the film gives a bit of encouragement that all will be alright, the real ending Siegel wanted, with McCarthy on the highway staring straight into the screen, gives us no such assurance.

The film opened in New York City as part of a dooms day “horror” twin bill in late April of 1956. The second feature was “World without End.”

*****

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42 comments on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Don Siegel

  1. scott wannberg says:

    an excellent sam peckinpah walk on

  2. Ooh, just reading your review gave me the chills that come every time I watch “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. That is some movie, that can create that sensation on repeat viewings.

    Author Finney has also said that he had no thoughts of “McCarthyism” when he wrote his story, he simply wanted to frighten readers.

    • John Greco says:

      HI Patricia,

      The McCarthyism seems to be something critics and filmgoers have read into the film. Like Finney, Siegel seemed to just want to tell a good story.

      • On the supplementary material on the Criterion Collection laserdisc, Don Siegel explicitly rejects the theory that the film is an allegory for the Communist takeover of the United States. I believe Siegel’s statement comes in an interview with Stuart Kaminsky, which might be findable on the internet.

        Also, fans of this film should seek out an anthology of articles and interviews about the film edited by Ed Gorman that was published as a trade paperback several years ago.

      • John Greco says:

        Thanks Peter for this additional information. Despite the artists’ intentions good art extends itself to be read at many levels as it the case here. Siegel just wanted to frighten people and he succeeded in more ways than one. Appreciate you stopping by.

  3. The cinephile I am is very ashamed to say that he never watched this version, only seen Ferrara’s version which didn’t really impressed me much. I love Siegel’s films and I deeply enjoyed your review! I must watch Invasion of the Boday Snatchers soon!

    • John Greco says:

      This absolutely the best version of Albert Finney’s novel. I highy recommend it and hope you get to see it. BTW, I agree about Ferrara’s version not being impressive. Thanks!!!

  4. Dave Crosby says:

    John, at last, a more generous interpretation of the central metaphor of this film. Domination by political ideologues or the kind of philosophical inattention that can lead to a draining off of our humanity, these notions are very effectively conveyed in the film, as you point out. You correctly note that in America there is a desire to nail down into specific interpretation any metaphorical or symbolic work of art. I recall that Hitchcock’s “The Birds” very nearly caused indignation among audiences because the attacks were never explained. The final image of the characters escaping in a car as birds crowded the frame watching and waiting in particular disappointed many viewers precisely because it emphasized the inexplicable nature of the bird violence.

    But your take on the Siegel film opens it up to a far more frightening dimension. The loss of our humanity is so dramatically achieved when Dana Wynter stares blankly into Kevin McCarthy’s eyes because we have experienced such a long effort to flee from the pod people. It is precisely the subjectivity involving us emotionally that intensifies the drama, as you point out. And for an inexpensive movie, this sort of writing and direction is rare.

    A bit of confusion, John— when I saw the film at our local second-run theatre just outside Buffalo, NY, the ending was McCarthy looking out at us and crying, “You’re next.” I’m sure of this because I saw the picture several times, alone and with friends. ? Once again, thanks for an excellent review and for bringing it to our attention at a time when its relevance is even more remarkable.

    • John Greco says:

      Dave,

      You hit on a important point, something I always complained about most with the general filmgoing audience, THEY DO NOT WANT TO THINK! They want everthing explained to them and wrapped up at the end of the film. Sometimes there are no answers, real life is like that, things just happen. As for the version of the film you saw with the “you’re next” ending, that’s very possible that it has been re-edited to give viewer’s Siegel’s more powerful ending. The DVD I watched and the orginal film released had the studio ending which as usual was less effective.

    • In the 70s, some film buffs took it upon themselves to try to restore the film to Siegel’s original cut by excising the framing prologue and epilogue. Unfortunately, the narration could not be removed, thereby confusing audiences. I saw one of these prints at UCLA in the mid-70s.

  5. Rick29 says:

    John, excellent review of a truly great sci fi film. Siegel and Finney may deny any intent to comment on McCarthyism, but–given the era–I’m not sure I buy that. INVADERS FROM MARS and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, both made around the same time, explore the same theme. Coincidence? Perhaps. But the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter. The film works on many levels. For me, I admire it for Siegel’s ability to generate dread out of a simple situation. My favorite example is the scene you described in which McCarthy learns that Wynters’ character has fallen asleep. That’s all…she just fell asleep. But we KNEW she would when they separated and so I dreaded seeing her again, knowing the outcome would be bad news. I actually all three remakes, each of which takes a slightly different angle to the story. Thanks for a great pick and a fine review.

    • John Greco says:

      Rick, thanks very much. The subtext may or may not have been intentional when the film was made and your point about the two others films is interesting. In the end, it is good discussion and more importantly a great film. It is one of those films I can watch repeatly. Thanks again!!!

  6. Dave Crosby says:

    One further comment, John. The first poster for ‘Body Snatchers’with Dana Wynter in a red dress and at first glance appearing to be tap dancing as chorus boys behind her cavort in individual spotlights is far more suitable for a movie musical. The second poster with its exciting yellow and red and the sense of people gazing up at McCarthy and Wynter is really terrific. But I don’t recall Kevin McCarthy being so pudgy around the waist.

    • John Greco says:

      A musical SF film? Hmmm, that would be different! As for the second film maybe the artist needed glasses (LOL). McCarthy was pudgy. Thanks again Dave!

  7. Sam Juliano says:

    Brilliant piece John, that pushes all the right buttons. This is one of my all-time favorites! In a number of interviews Siegel insisted that the film was intended to be an entertainment, and that it’s message was relatively tepid, intimating that people were becoming ‘pod-like.’ But as Professor Yacowar exhaustively argued in his Criterion laserdisc commentary, the film has long been the topic of critical debate for its underlying political implications. The Joseph McCarthy witch hunt is at the center of the allegorical context, but the cold war certainly gave flight to the film being fervently anti-communist, with it’s ‘communal’ suppression of all sensibilities and beliefs that might advance the concept of individuality. Hence, the ‘pod people’ represent a completely regimented society. The idea of these pods growing by first planting seeds is one that is associated with revolution. There is actually a scene late in the film when the pod people are assembled in the town square, where a loudspeaker reads off the day’s orders–it is a powerful symbol of 50′s socialism. The simile that without freedom of thought people are essentially “vegetables” is suggested again by the growth of the pods.

    In the film, after the pods begin to take over the bodies of a number of people in the town of Santa Mira, including a number of children, the fear displayed is real, and not paranoia. I remember myself being
    raised in a school that was staunchly anti-communist. We were taught that communists had no feelings about life or death, and that they didn’t grieve when people died, a most frightening “revelation” at that impressionable time. The entire concept of communist ‘satellites’ which were established after aggressive military interventions, is chillingly conveyed in the scenes where trucks are lined up to bring the malignant pods to bordering towns and cities in southern California, with world domination envisioned by its budding population.

    Of course, the position that the film is an allegory on McCarthyism is giving conviction in the warning that “if we’re not careful, oppressive forces in our society will force us into submission and conformity.” There are obvious overlaps in either interpretation, and it surely wouldn’t be all that unreasonable to believe that the film’s themes may have embraced both positions.

    A sub-genre in fifties science-fiction is the “alien takeover” category, of which Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1956, is the best. In Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953) I Married A Monster from Outer Space (1958) and The Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) the takeovers didn’t have the kind of worldwide ramifications as Body Snatchers either because their fantasy was too far-fetched to believe (who for example would truly fear tentacled creatures with glass bubbles in underground spaceships camouflaged with quick sand or the preposterous idea that a crustacean monster absorbs the minds of its victims, and uses their voices and mental powers to lure other victims?) or their premise was bordering on the ludicrous. Of all the science-fiction titles with this similar central idea, perhaps Invaders from Mars is the most similar one, as, like Body Snatchers,

    it contains the ‘realization’ that your own parents have been replaced. But the film’s extravagant set design mitigated the realism of Body Snatchers, which was reliant on the seemingly ordinary domestic events of life in a small town.

    • John Greco says:

      Sam,

      This is an extraordinary “review’ you have written here! I too remember growing up in the fear of communism takeover. The Cuban missle crisis was the peak of it all but the attempt by right wing extremist was to make you think there were Commies everywhere, under your bed, in your breadbox and deep in your closet. Bob Dylan’s “Talkin John Birch Society Blues” is a great attack on this mindset.

      As with you this is one of my favorite films that I can watch over and over. Thanks for this outstanding posting!

  8. DorianTB says:

    John, I was truly blown away by your richly-detailed, thought-provoking INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS blog post. I’ve only seen the original film and the 1978 version (where I first discovered Jeff Goldblum and because a big fan of his). I think just about any audience in every era can relate to the themes of both those films, not to mention Jack Finney’s book, Who among us isn’t afraid of losing their identity and humanity in our increasingly complex world? Heck, if we were even more paranoid than we already are, we could make a case for communicating over the Internet sapping our humanity to some extent — but what fun is that? :-) But seriously, John, great job!

    By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you: judging from the vintage movie ads you’ve often used in your blog posts, you’re clearly a native New Yorker, as am I. If you don’t mind my asking (and if you do, forget I asked), what part of New York did you grow up in?

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Dorian,

      thanks for the kind words on the review. I do agree that losing ones identity in our modern world can be easily done. You are making me think of the Buffalo Springfield song FOR WHAT ITS WORTH and the line “paranoia runs deep, into your life it will creep.” Today that it easily done.

      Yes, I am a native New Yorker, grew up mostly in Brooklyn but spent some early years in Manhattan and then in the 80′s when I got married moved back to Manhattan.

  9. This just affirms my belief that B-movies were a magnificent vehicle for social and political commentary. Here, it’s McCarthyism. In other films with giant monsters, it’s fear of nuclear war and fallout. Great stuff.

    I actually have never seen this film…but after reading this terrific article it looks like I’ll need to amend that ASAP!

  10. Oh…and by the way…I wish the comments on my blog were HALF as good as yours!

    (Not to say that the comments I’ve already received were bad, mind you. ;) )

  11. What can I say, John — your review hits all the right notes, especially since Invasion of the Body Snatchers may very well be my favorite science-fiction/horror film of all time. I know the film contains a lot of political subtext that has sparked endless debate among its audiences but I’ve always tended to downplay that because to me it’s just a first-rate commentary on paranoia and the universal fear that something is working on us which defies explanation to our close friends and families.

    Don Siegel is one of my favorite B-movie directors, and I love how he was able to play mentor to the young Sam Peckinpah on Invasion; he also worked with Siegel on Riot in Cell Block 11 and was able to swing it so Don could shoot inside Folsom Prison because Sam’s dad (a judge in northern California) called in a few favors.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Ivan! I read a bio on Peckinpah and knew his father was judge but I did not know about his helping Siegel with connections to film inside Folsom. Probably was in the book but did not stick in my head!.

      INVASION is certainly one of my favorite films and I love Siegel’s work also. Two films I have not seen in many, many years are RIOT IN CELLBLOCK 11 and BABY FACE NELSON. Tough films to find.

  12. Rachel says:

    I always think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of those “irresistible premise” movies. It doesn’t matter if a bad adaptation or two gets made because the premise is just so durable, it will keep on surviving.

    The first time I encountered this movie’s premise was actually in the Aladdin Animated Series when I was a kid. One episode blatantly took the whole “girlfriend falls asleep and gets possessed by evil” scene. That’s success for you, when you’ve infiltrated even Disney cartoons.

    This was a great review of an endlessly interesting film. You did it justice.

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Rachel!

      It is a great premise and has been done over and over again, not just as remakes of this story but in other SF films like I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE mad a couple of years later. Not as good as this film but a lot of fun.

  13. Great post. I think I would have liked the down ending better. About the subtext, I’ve always wondered if a filmmaker could include a deeper meaning in a film and not be aware of it.

    • John Greco says:

      Well, I am really not sure if I have an answer for that. There is certainly subtext in some movies that is intentional, but viewers can possibly interpret films in ways that the artist may have never intended. Thanks WC!

  14. The Lady Eve says:

    I’m not big on “alien” or “monster” movies, but I love the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Love it! Great cast, great look, completely intense and tension-packed. And wide open to interpretation! This is one of the great classics of its genre, but also great on its own, genre aside. My own take on it generally has to do with conformity…when the ’78 version was released, a friend of mine and I went to see it and afterward discussed those we knew had been “snatched” (as in selling out in the music industry, which both of us worked in at the time).

    Excellent selection and write-up on a true classic film, John…

    • John Greco says:

      Eve,

      Comformity is definitely a big part of what this film has to say. And like you and your friend, I think I have run into a few pods myself over the years. thanks for the kind words!!!

  15. Nice opening paragraph, sir. It’s often hard to really determine whether any film from this era was written with McCarthyism in mind as a deliberate metaphor. Mostly we’ll never know for sure.

    Certainly some were, not least High Noon, but most writers didn’t want to get into trouble by being too obvious. It could easily land them in front of the committee and that could be it for their careers. No wonder most kept quiet about such subtexts, even decades later. If I recall correctly, one man got blacklisted for simply sharing the same name as someone under suspicion. It didn’t take much! Playing it safe was the name of the game, unless you already were blacklisted and you were working under a pseudonym. Then you probably didn’t care as much.

    Just as certainly though, many weren’t. McCarthyism was paranoia, after all, and almost everyone has that to at least some degree. Many scripts were probably just products of their time, without any real intent to make political comment but with inherent grounding in the mood of their era. When you spend your time looking at every man in a grey suit, wondering if he’s watching you, you can’t help but add paranoia into your scripts. And yes, it’s still paranoia, even if they really are out to get you.

    • John Greco says:

      Hal,

      Thanks for some interesting thoughts. Like you, I am sure the HIGH NOON metaphor was intentional. One of the great things about great art whether it is film, paintings or liturature is the ability to “read” something into the work that the author may not have intended. A work of art can work on many levels or just on one. It always sure to create much discussion as this one has. Thanks very much for your input.

  16. Really enjoyed your thoughtful, well-written review on an acknowledged classic. I like your point on how the movie doesn’t ever show any monsters, but they’re all around. The monsters really seem to come from the inside. One of the most unnerving moments in the film is when McCarthy comes upon the pod that is beginning to form itself so as to look like–him! As if viewing his own fate! This is one of a handful of horror/sci-fi films, like Dracula, King Kong, Day The Earth Stood Still, or Frankenstein, that have seeped into our collective unconscious. Even for those who haven’t seen it, they always understand what the story is about.

    • John Greco says:

      GOM,

      It is kind of like “Rosemary’s Baby,” except for the dream sequence. The devil is just a child, human looking and sweet. How could she not want to mother it. Everyone is BODY SNATCHERS looks just like they use too. How could anything go wrong? You can’t tell who is the enemy which makes it that much more frightening. Thanks again!!!

  17. kevynknox says:

    Great review on a great movie. Surely one of the most poignant look at paranoia and such in 50′s America. I just watched this again the other day (in preparation for a piece I did on 50′s sci-fi films over at Anomalous Material – plug plug) and realized that it never loses the powerful wallop it delivers (that is if you ignore the tacked on ending you spoke of).

    Again, great piece. Keep up the stellar work you do here at Twenty Four Frames.

    • John Greco says:

      Kevyn,

      Thanks for stopping by and glad you are in agreement with this great film,

      And I will stop by and read your review!

      Thanks again!

  18. ClassicBecky says:

    Forgive my tardiness, John. Life got in the way! What an excellent assessment of this movie. I think it is one of the most significant and entertaining of the 50′s sci-fi’s. You already discussed the symbolisms and cultural picture that this movie evokes. Besides all that, it is just eerie and frightening. Is there anything more frightening than seeing a friend become a stranger to you? Or a family member?!!

    Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter just shined in their parts. When I first saw Dana in that beautiful summer dress with the ruffles at the top, I wanted to look just like that when I grew up (I was probably 10 when first saw it on TV.) And Kevin was like the perfect man! Carolyn Jones and King Donovan were very good as their friends.

    I must say, as frightening and eerie the movie was, the part that scared me the most was Dana Wynter. After she had gone to sleep and McCarthy kissed her and got that look of horror, they switched to a closeup of her eyes — those empty, soulless eyes. You knew she was gone, and it scared me to death.

    I did like the version with Donald Sutherland, particularly really because of the ending. When his little friend saw him in the park and came up to him smiling and trusting, and he opened his mouth and made that awful screech, I had the same feeling as with Dana. I know that is the ending the original filmmaker’s wanted, and it was powerful!

    • John Greco says:

      Hey Becky,

      There are so many powerful scenes in this film and the scene you mention when McCarthy kisses Wynter and the close up look on his face is priceless.This is probably one of my favorite movies of all time. One I can watch repeatedly and never tire of. Thanks!!!

  19. Great write-up of what to my mind is one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all-time. Siegel is also one of my favourite filmmakers and I’m currently doing a retrospective look of some of his most important movies on my own blog. Will certainly lookout for updates on your own work.

  20. […] Corpi estranei che t’invadono lo spazio, come nei più catastrofici film di fantascienza – ricordo con sgomento una proiezione al festival di Cannes, nel Palais du Cinéma di un remake di Abel Ferrara del film di Don Siegel Invasion of the Body Snatchers. […]

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