Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Produced and Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation and Walter Wanger Productions
Directed by Don Siegel
Screenplay by Jack Finney and Daniel Mainwaring
I recently proposed Don Siegel’s 1956 science-fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers as required viewing for directors who have lost their way. I was thinking of all those filmmakers who deploy multimillion-dollar special effects to compensate for what they lack in cinematic resourcefulness. Siegel’s movie is just the tonic they need. Of course, there are any number of other low-budget pictures from earlier decades that might prove equally restorative, especially those made between 1940 and, say, 1975. In the sci-fi genre, Howard Hawks’ The Thing (1951) and John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1967) come to mind. In a more realistic vein, Double Indemnity (1944) and On the Waterfront (1954) are highly instructive. As different as these films are in theme, style, and talent, they all have one thing in common: They exercise genuine cinematic imagination. As such, they constitute a potent antidote to what’s currently infecting the multiplexes.
Many big-budget movies today are less films than contraptions designed to bedazzle the eye even as they numb the brain. The onset of this trend can be celluloid-dated to 1977. This was the pivotal year in which a promising young director released a film that would trans-form the industry: His name was George Lucas; his film, Star Wars. Lucas was still a filmmaker then, but he was already starting down the path to becoming an impresario of contraptions. In 1977, he still loved his medium and knew how to use its unique resources. After the success of Star Wars, however, he allowed his boys at Industrial Light and Magic to lobotomize his cinematic intelligence. A comparison of the first Star Wars installment and the most recent one makes the case. Star Wars (1977) begins with a spaceship gliding into the frame from its top edge. The ship feels like it is flying over us from behind. It’s then followed by a much larger ship, which also noses into the frame from above and then slowly fills the screen with its monstrous bulk. The first ship is a fleeing rebel craft; the second, a destroyer sent in pursuit by the evil empire. There were many ways Lucas could have shot this sequence. He could have flown his toy models across the screen horizontally. He could have put his camera inside the first and then the second, showing us his star-filled space-scape whizzing past their windows. But none of these alternatives would have had the same impact. The simple strategy of bringing his models into the frame from above makes all the difference. Before a word has been spoken, we feel the suffocating weight of the empire’s warship as it seemingly hovers over us in its leisurely but inexorable pursuit of the smaller craft. Lucas’s models are not what make us gasp; it is the unprecedented way they move into the frame that unnerves us. (At least, I think it is unprecedented. I cannot recall another such sequence before this film.) Now cut to Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones (2002). Lucas seems to have forgotten everything he ever knew about his medium’s peculiar resources. He is content to set up his camera, keep it as still as possible while shooting his actors, and then digitize his special effects into his scenes afterward. To be sure, his computer-generated gizmos are astonishing, but they are barely memorable beyond a week or two. Why? Because his camera has no life; his montage, no surprise; his compositions, no wit. With unintentional irony, the antimechanist theme of his first film continues to be intoned in his latest episodes, but it now sounds mechanical and rote: Jedi knights are forever exhorting one another to transcend the technology at their disposal and trust their instincts. “Let go. Trust the Force.” If Lucas would only abide by this advice, he might still be able to make a film rather than a contraption.
And here is where Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers might come to the rescue. It’s a textbook case of what a talent-ed, film-obsessed director can do with the barest of means. On a budget of $300,000, Siegel made what Clint Eastwood has justly called one of the two or three best B movies ever. (The film so impressed Eastwood that he chose Siegel to be his director in five films, which turned out to be among his best.)
Body Snatchers is far from being a great film, but anyone who has seen it knows that it is unforgettably ingenious. What’s more, its very deficiencies support my argument. On a 19-day shooting schedule with actors who, in most cases, were no better than competent and with minimal, almost laughable, special effects, Siegel created a minor classic that continues to fascinate new audiences today.
In 1955, RKO Studio executives assigned Siegel to adapt Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which had recently been serialized in Collier’s. They insisted on a new title, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Siegel thought the title tacky and would have much preferred using a line from Macbeth Sleep No More, suggested by the film’s star, Kevin McCarthy, brother of Mary. The studio would not hear of it. They wanted a horror film that unmistakably proclaimed itself as such to the matinee and drive-in patrons they expected to make up most of its audience. As it turned out, the title is quite apt in a way the studio tyros never considered. This movie first invades and then colonizes your mind. Once seen, it lingers hauntingly in the recesses of your consciousness. Siegel accomplished this on such limited means by drawing upon the resources of his medium rather than importing special effects.
Finney’s narrative used the conceit of extraterrestrials assuming human identity so that they could replace ordinary citizens down to their every wart, whisker, and wanton tic. Once the replication is complete, the original person is disposed of, and the alien takes his place. These beings are soulless conformists. They are as maddeningly rational as Jonathan Swift’s all-too-sensible equines, the Houyhnhnms. Being vegetable in origin, they live and work collectively with no sense of individuality. The allegory is fairly clear. These beings formed in huge seedpods were Finney’s metaphor for those who had succumbed to the lure of communist ideology. The pod people look the same, act the same, speak the same as anyone else, but they have an alien agenda. They want to do away with American individualism and capitalist competition. In their place, they mean to install a sensible state-controlled collectivism. In adapting Finney’s allegory, Siegel envisioned it in wider terms. While allowing for Finney’s political warning, Siegel emphasized the pod people’s conformism, their willing submission to a lock-step social engineering, regardless of the “-ism” label under which it would be enforced.
Interesting as it is, this allegory was hardly original, and it certainly does not explain the film’s continuing resonance. Body Snatchers achieves its remarkable power from another source: Siegel’s deft cinematic handling of his material.
Take, for example, a scene in which an unformed pod being shows up in a suburban home, ready to duplicate its owner. The householder has discovered the invader and assumes it is a corpse that someone unaccountably had left in his basement. After seeking help, he and his wife decide to keep watch over the body through the night. The sequence opens unsettlingly with a shot of a pod lying motionless on a pool table in the extreme foreground. In the background, the husband and wife are shown slumped on their bar, having surrendered to sleep during their vigil. Siegel has elected to keep everything in this shot equally in focus, regardless of how near or far it is from the camera. Since film is a two-dimensional medium, this results in a grossly distorted perspective. The alien’s head appears to be larger than the couple, who are only 15 or so feet farther from the lens. The head dominates the screen with its ominous presence. Once this is visually established, Siegel has the actor on the pool table slowly open his eyes. The effect is uncanny. Intellectually, we know that we are watching normally proportioned people, but we cannot help feeling the monstrous menace in the creature’s simple act of awakening. With-out anything being said, we realize that it is assuming the suburbanite’s being while he sleeps.
Then there’s the scene in which the hero, Miles Benning, first discovers pods giving birth to his own facsimile. In fear and rage, he takes a pitchfork and plunges it into his double, an all-too-obviously rubber mannequin. Just as the tines touch the creature’s chest, however, the film cuts to an extreme close-up of a ringing phone, its soundtrack pumped up piercingly. Not having the special effects to make the stabbing look real, Siegel decided to shock us instead with an abrupt edit to a 15-by-20-foot screaming phone. And it works every time you see the film. More than a thrill, this cut perfectly reinforces the film’s theme. The pod people began as plants growing on vines. They are organically networked, living and thinking as one. What happens to each happens to all. What better way to reinforce this than the implied analogy with the telephone system, in which each receiver is wired to all the others? When Siegel cuts from the stabbing to the ringing phone, we cannot help making the association, if only subliminally. The phone network stands for the pods sounding the alarm: One of their members is under deadly assault; all are on alert. The imagery of this sequence is made to do double duty: It both shocks us and deepens our understanding of the narrative’s implications.
Siegel used many such devices, but the one that I have come to admire most is much quieter. Miles and his girlfriend, Becky, are hiding from the pods in his office. Night has fallen, but they do not turn on the lights for fear of attracting attention. As they talk of the events that have brought them to this pass, they stand before a window, its shade almost fully drawn. Siegel arranged for this shade to be lit from outside, as if by a street light. It becomes a luminous square in the middle of the frame. By placing his actors in front of it, he gives this still moment in his otherwise hurtling narrative an unusual intensity. Musing on what this alien invasion is doing to his community, Miles talks somewhat illogically about how people give in to the pressure to compromise and conform in a society that does not welcome individualists: “In my practice, I see how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happens slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind.” When Becky insists that this only happens to a few, Miles demurs. “No, all of us, a little bit. We harden our hearts . . . grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us.” Of course, this is the subtext that informs the film’s narrative. As Miles says these words to Becky, we see their shadowed faces in sharp profile against the white shade, their own defiant individuality etched on its glowing surface. Clearly, Siegel wanted to suffuse this otherwise still moment with cinematic energy. It was his way of underscoring the theme at the heart of his allegory without quite giving the game away.
This cinematic fusion of metaphor and theme, style and substance, is what intelligent filmmaking is all about. My quarrel with special effects is not that they are bad in themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs lumbering through iterations of Jurassic Park. I just could not understand what the robotic human actors were doing in these movies. They seemed entirely unnecessary to what was, after all, a speculative documentary in the National Geographic mode. In short, as effects be–come ever more astonishing, they tend to replace the human element that was once so abundant in what Evelyn Waugh called “the one vital art of the century.” Of course, he was talking of the 20th. Who knows what lies ahead in the 21st?