Monday, March 26, 2012

Saturday, July 3, 1971: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Note: Because of a 12:30 start, only one movie is featured on tonight's Horror Incorporated.

Synopsis: Called home early from a medical conference, small-town physician Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) meets his nurse Sally Withers (Jean Willes) at the Santa Mira train station.  Sally tells him that there are an unusual number of patients waiting at his office.  All of them urgently insist on seeing Bennell personally, and none of them want to see the doctors who have agreed to take Miles' patients in his absence.

As Miles and Sally drive into town they narrowly avoid hitting a local boy named Jimmy Grimaldi, who charges into the road, fleeing from his own mother.  Jimmy is distraught and takes off into the woods. His mother says the boy doesn't want to go to school.  Miles notices that the Grimaldi family vegetable stand, usually thriving at this time of the year, is shuttered.

At the office, Miles discovers that all of the patients who had been so insistent on seeing him have cancelled their appointments.  But one person does come to visit him: Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) , a high school sweetheart who, like Miles, has been recently divorced.  Becky asks Miles to talk to her cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine), who seems to be suffering under the strange delusion that her uncle Ira is an imposter.

Later that afternoon, Jimmy Grimaldi's grandmother brings the boy to Miles' office.  Jimmy is suffering from a similar delusion; he believes that his own mother is not his mother, and he becomes hysterical whenever anyone suggests she be called.  Miles tells the grandmother to keep the boy at her house for a few days, and prescribes sedatives to keep him calm.

Bothered by the similarity between the two stories, Miles decides to go to Wilma's house directly and talk to her.  Wilma seems perfectly rational -- except for the fact that she is certain Ira isn't her uncle.  Miles tries to reason with her, pointing out that if Ira were an imposter, there would be countless differences that friends and family could easily spot.  She concedes that the man seems like Ira in every way, and even knows things that only Ira could know.  Nevertheless, she says, this person is an imposter who possesses no emotions - -only, she says, the pretense of emotions.


Puzzled, Miles keeps a dinner date with Becky.  Arriving at the restaurant the two bump into Miles' friend Danny Kaufman, a psychiatrist.  Miles mentions that he has two patients he'd like to refer, and Kaufman immediately guesses that they are people who believe close relatives are imposters.  Over the last two weeks, Kaufman says, there has been an epidemic of such cases in Santa Mira.

Minutes later Miles' answering service tracks him down with an urgent call from Miles' friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan), asking Miles to come over right away.  Miles and Becky arrive to find there is a body lying on the Belicec's pool table; but it doesn't appear to be a dead body.  Rather, it seems to be a body that was never alive.  The face is blank and featureless, and there are no fingerprints.  Miles speculates that if he were to perform an autopsy all the internal organs would be in perfect order, as if they had never been used. 

Jack's wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) asks Miles to estimate the body's height and weight.  Miles says that the man on the table is perhaps 5 foot 9, and about 140 pounds.  Teddy replies fearfully that Jack too is 5 foot 9 and 140 pounds.

Miles tells the Belicecs to keep an eye on the body, with instructions to call the police if nothing happens by morning; if however the body changes in any way they should call him.  Miles takes Becky home, where she is surprised to find that her father has been working unusually late down in the cellar.  Meanwhile, at the Belicic house, Jack falls asleep while sitting at the bar -- just as the body on the table opens its eyes....

Comments: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is Horror Incorporated's first film from outside the Shock! television package, as well as its first film from the 1950s.

And no matter how you slice it, it's one hell of a movie -- in every way a superbly-crafted thriller, building suspense steadily throughout.  Director Don Siegel sells the unlikely premise by introducing us to a perfectly ordinary American town and adding strange events so gradually that at first we hardly notice them.

That town, the fictional Santa Mira, is vividly presented to us as an ideal slice of America, an oasis from the cares of the world.  Its inhabitants are uniformly warm and decent people.   In this we see the hand of Jack Finney, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based.  While the screenplay stripped down and reworked Finney's narrative, the heart and humanity is still here.

Humanity, and the imminent threat of its extinction, is of course what makes the movie go; but the whole thing would have collapsed if we were given protagonists we didn't care for.  Fortunately Miles Bennell is carefully rendered: as portrayed by Kevin McCarthy he is friendly, good-natured and eminently likable.  We get the impression that Miles became a doctor not out of sense of overweening ambition but because helping others is something that comes naturally to him. In an unusual touch for a movie of this era, his sense of humor is on display from the beginning of the film, but it's gentle, never coming at the expense of others.  "Maybe I clown around too much," he says to Becky Driscoll at one point, but it's clear that she doesn't think so.  There is something touching about watching these two reconnecting in their own small town, unaware that the orderly world they inhabit is about to be turned upside down.

Becky is less clearly drawn (as is often the case with women characters, even today) but her innate gentleness and decency is vividly shown.  Dana Wynter does well with the relatively few scenes she is featured in, though her British accent is distracting.

The decision to set the story in Santa Mira was an important one, because in a small town anonymity is impossible to maintain, and trust is the most important currency.  Suddenly Miles and Becky can't walk openly in the streets because they are known by everyone and can trust no one.  The invaders have turned all the advantages of small-town life against them, and this ratchets up the feeling of isolation and dread that the protagonists feel.

The fact that Miles and Becky are both divorced is an unusual detail for a movie of this era, and it seems to have been added for reasons other than simple verisimilitude.  Rather, it greatly heightens the emotional argument that the film is making: that pain and failure are parts of even the best-lived lives.  What the invaders seek to impose is a new and perhaps more sensible order, one in which the futile triumphs and follies of human existence are smoothed over.

When Miles protests that the love he feels for Becky would cease to exist, he's confronted with a hard truth.  "You've been in love before," the pseudo-Jack says to Miles.  "It didn't last.  It never does."  While this argument doesn't win us over, it gives us an uncomfortable sense of how the invaders see us: as a feckless and volatile species, endlessly engaged in a chase for things that can't be attained.

By all accounts Don Siegel was quite pleased with this film, and rightfully so.  It's the director's best work, better even than Dirty Harry (1971), a very different movie with a similar emotional hook.  Harry, after all, was surrounded by "pod people" -- those so emotionally dead inside that they refused to even acknowledge -- let alone do anything about -- the disintegrating world around them.


kochillt said...

Dirty Harry actually had a line in MAGNUM FORCE that could have come from this film, when he states that he hates the law: "but I'll stick with it until something better comes along." No doubt there are days when one wonders if being a 'pod person' would be any different from what you are now. That's the most frightening aspect conjured up by this movie: the invasion has already taken place, and humanity is lost. The 1978 remake with Donald Sutherland is quite different, along with the ending, and almost as good IMO.

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