Director Don Siegel was a shrewd operator who survived well in Hollywood. He understood that the movie moguls were always searching for the predictable to market and make a financial killing. Yet he managed to break the rules and individualise his film projects. Siegel wasn’t a mere number on the Hollywood production line. He was Don. Or the don of B pictures in the fifties who teamed up with Danny (screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring) to brilliantly dress up SF as a noirish thriller in the classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.
“The story concerns alien beings taking over the bodies of humans. The aliens assume the exact likeness of real people while gestating in pods. But these ‘pods’ possess no soul, emotion or culture. They exist like cows munching grass, without a care plaguing them. They are incapable of love: passion is unknown. They simply live – breathing, eating, sleeping. Danny and I knew that many of our associates, acquaintances and family were already pods. How many of them woke up in the morning, ate breakfast (but never read the newspaper), went to work, returned home to eat again and went to sleep?” -- Don Siegel: A Siegel Film
I love the way Siegel makes that sound like our pod replicas have already conquered us and are growing complacent. It slyly suggests that he’s not made a prophetic SF drama but a naturalistic documentary about everyday life in ones neighbourhood. And if you fall asleep then the pods have absorbed you to become an unthinking consumer citizen. No wonder one of Siegel’s preferred titles for the film was the ominous Shakespearian “Sleep no More.”
Bodysnatchers has been seen as an attack on the forces of communism attempting to infiltrate the shores of America. At one level this is valid given that the peak of McCarthyism was 1954 two years before the film. Yet perhaps that political message is too reductive. For once the moral panic of the red scare diminished we appear to have been left with the ubiquitous groupthink of a passive and acquiescent people driven to attain the American dream. Is there then an irony about the paranoia of the film? Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) isn’t mistaken to hold out against the aliens but is he really being cruelly judged by the new mentally simplified community for not joining the group? I mean he guessed the drift of things. It’s as if he’s woken up from a dream of smug sameness, already in existence, before the invasion, which determines (foolishly?) his right to stay human, to think for himself, feel and emphasise.
“In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead all at once. They didn’t seem to mind...all of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realise how precious it is to us, how dear.”
This is Miles’s reply to his girlfriend’s question about why the invasion is happening. His observation later carries considerable power during a scene both shocking and poignant when we discover Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) has been exchanged for a pod replica. The affection between Miles and Becky is sincerely depicted in the film. We identify with their renewed acquaintance and growing love for one another. Instead of being dictated by the mechanics of conventional movie romance Siegel’s direction turns it into a sane rock of supportive humanity in a world grown cold and conformist (Here I would recommend an accompanying text, Shirley Jackson’s famous, devastating short story 'The Lottery', written in 1948 about mob psychology and the scapegoat).
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is still a fast moving, suspenseful film. Beautifully photographed, with tightly framed compositions and close-ups, accentuating the pursuit of individuals as they try to reach the border of their small town and alert the authorities. We are minded that Siegel later went on to direct Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. He was a consummate director of action films even when delivering SF anxiety.
Daniel Mainwaring’s script is tight and forceful (The writer and Siegel’s regret was that a lot of humour was cut from the film which is a pity because Invasion of the Bodysnatchers hints at social satire). It's well cast and well acted. Much A class acting can be found in the most intelligent American B’s of the 50’s.
The film has an imposed prologue and epilogue that Siegel disapproved of. Yet it doesn’t wreck the film as you are still left feeling that there are perhaps many more pods around, which are difficult to kill in their embryonic state, than the government could possibly handle – or maybe they won’t handle if the rulers have already become breakfast for the pods.
“They’re here already! You’re next. You’re next..!” cries a distraught Miles Bennel on the highway out of town. “America first” asserted President Trump. Or am I being excessively glib about two peas in the same political pod? Watch Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and interpret away for yourselves!
- Alan Price