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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Saturday, January 1, 1972: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) / The Island Monster (1954)



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 even 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: This was the first of four screen adaptations of Jack Finney's 1954 novel The Body Snatchers.  It is by far the best, largely because of its willingness to follow Finney's original novel, or at least the first two-thirds of it.  Most effective is the edgy paranoia that results from having all the advantages of small-town life turned against you. The comforting network of people who know you and look out for you unexpectedly becomes a sinister army of strangers who know all about you and where to find you. Everything that Miles finds secure is suddenly cut out from under him, and it's a disorienting change for us as well as for him. On that level the movie works just as well today as it did the day it was first released.

All three later versions pulled the story out of its small-town backdrop. Philip Kaufman's 1978 version set the story in San Francisco, which was appropriate to the more topical themes of the film -- personal alienation from society and cultural paranoia surrounding institutions (the police, the medical profession, the government, corporate America, etc)  that had seemed, until recently, to be solid and reassuring.The film's bleak ending was appropriate for its era as well.

Abel Ferrara's 1993 version was set on an Army base, and the spread of the pod-like duplicates mirrored that of an infectious disease. The protagonist was a young girl who couldn't convince anyone that what she suspected was true.  The 2006 version took place in Washington D.C., again because a small-town setting was apparently just too -- well, small.   That film tried to build a more conventional narrative, with the wily humans finding a way to fight back against the invaders.  But the film as a whole seemed oddly labored, lacking the narrative momentum that seemed so effortless in the Siegel production.

The ending of Finney's novel was happy enough but quite contrived, and none of the film versions have attempted to use it. A happy ending of sorts was grafted onto the Siegel version by use of a framing device.  The frame starts with psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) visiting Bennell in the psych ward, where he has been hospitalized.  Through the framing narrative Bennell is able to tell his story of the last few days in Santa Mira.  At the end of the story Hill reluctantly concludes that Bennell must be delusional, but then he happens to hear a report about a truck accident that spilled "great big seed pods" on the roadway.  Dr Hill, realizing that Bennell's story is true, quickly alerts the Army and the state government of the danger.  The institutions that had suddenly seemed unreliable are now restored to their proper place.

While this tinkering with the original structure of the movie has been criticized over the years, I think the framing device actually works quite well.  Siegel's original ending was clever, with Bennell frantically yelling his story to cars passing him by on the highway, as the pod people note with satisfaction that Bennell will be pegged as a lunatic and no one will ever believe him.  But it is simply too bleak an ending for the kind of story that had just been told. The framing device gives the viewer hope, but in a sneaky way. We may well conclude -- as Miles seems to --  that Hill's quick action has saved the day.  But we don't know for sure.




The Island Monster



Synopsis: Italian police detective Mario Andreani (Renato Vicario) is assigned to an interdiction effort on the island of Ischia, a fashionable tourist spot identified by the police as a hub of drug trafficking. Andreani's wife Giulia (Jole Fierro) is the jealous type, and worries that the island's surplus of wealthy and attractive women will lead her husband astray.

Despite her misgivings, Mario seems quite devoted to his wife and his young daughter Fiorella. Even so, the island's police chief tells Mario that the most promising informant on the island is the beautiful lounge singer Gloria (Franca Marzi), and that since Andreani is such a handsome galoot, he should have an easy time seducing her and gaining her confidence.

Andreani's task force carries out a number of successful raids against the local drug cartel. The cartel's head,  Don Gaetano (Boris Karloff) decides that he's been inconvenienced long enough.  Using his cover as a wealthy philanthropist who runs a free hospital for sick children, he befriends Andreani and his wife, learning their habits as well as their weaknesses.  One night, while Andreani is out on a raid, Giulia receives an anonymous phone call.  Her husband, the caller says, is at a local night club with another woman.  Alarmed,  Giulia goes to the nightclub, leaving her daughter asleep in bed.

The moment she leaves the house, Don Gaetano enters and kidnaps the child.  Giulia, finding no sign of her husband at the nightclub, returns home and is stunned to discover that Fiorella is missing.

Soon a representative from the cartel calls, demanding that Andreani resign from the task force.  If he doesn't comply, his daughter will be killed.  As Andreani struggles to do the right thing, Gaetano stays close to the family, offering them his friendship and his counsel....




Comments: The title of this Italian production fooled me completely: I figured we'd have a tropical island, a tentacled monster living in a swamp, and a glowering Karloff plotting to take over the world.  Instead, we have a  Italian crime melodrama notable only for its threadbare production values. The general cheapness of the movie is underlined by the worst English dub of a foreign film I've ever seen. Your average karate movie is a masterpiece of dubbing compared to what we have here.

The titular monster is Don Gaetano, presumably because he not only deals drugs, but kidnaps children and threatens to kill them -- though it should be noted that Fiorella isn't presented as being in any particular danger.  A real monster would have no compunction about harming the child, or even cutting pieces off her and mailing them to her parents, just to get their attention and persuade them to see things his way.

But the kidnapping plot doesn't make a lot of sense in the first place. It seems unlikely that Mario is such a critical piece of manpower that he couldn't be replaced (perhaps it's stated or implied in the Italian-language version that Mario is the only cop who Gaetano can't buy, but there's no evidence of that here). Forcing a detective to step down by threatening his family is possible, but only if the police brass is so corrupt it will look the other way. Again, there's no evidence of that in this film.  From what we can see, the Italian police is made up of loyal, honest do-gooders who doggedly stamp out criminal activity wherever it occurs. And in those circumstances, kidnapping a policeman's daughter would get you all the wrong kinds of attention from the authorities.

Dubbed movies often sport peculiar dialogue, and I often wonder whether we should blame clumsy translators or mangled line-readings by the voice talent.  Nevertheless, in The Island Monster we're presented with dialogue so eccentric it sounds as though it were written by an alien who had only been observing human behavior for a few months.  Here, for example, is a scene in Gloria's nightclub. She has just finished her song and heads over to the bar to flirt with Mario:

GLORIA
Don't you like our floor show?

MARIO
For right now, no.

GLORIA
That means you did like my song.

MARIO
Yes, you sing very well.

GLORIA
I must return your compliment. You're quite a guy.

MARIO
I'm about to blush.

GLORIA
I don't think that you're the type.

(A WAITER approaches)

WAITER
Gloria, a customer wants to see you.

GLORIA
In just a moment.

(she hands Mario her drink)
You might just as well take this.  A present until we meet again somewhere.

 The only actor who is well-cast is Karloff himself, who was playing criminals long before he was playing monsters, and he can switch between avuncular grandpa and steely-eyed mob boss in the wink of an eye.  Renato Vicario seems to be trying to channel David Niven, to judge by his curious mustache.  I was similarly vexed by Franca Marzi's clown-like eyebrows.  I can't say the thing about young Fiorella's performance, since her voice sounded as though it were dubbed by a 50-year-old cleaning lady.

1 comments:

kochillt said...

I enjoyed the tacked on ending for INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, it is reassuring if not conclusive, and doesn't hurt the picture at all. I haven't seen ISLAND MONSTER in over 20 years, mysteriously turning up on television in the late 80s, a film that clearly deserves its obscurity, despite Karloff's presence (let's hope he enjoyed the trip to Italy).

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