The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Monday, June 28, 2010

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

This post was originally published here on Februrary 9, 2010.

Another blogger (Pat Conlon) recently compared Oregon Democrats to the Pod People in the classic SF movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."  I don't know any Oregon Democrats but I trust Mr. Conlon's assessment. And this allusion to the famous 1956 film got me thinking about it again. I've viewed "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" over thirty-five times. I can still see the look of horror on Kevin McCarthy's face (in the role of Dr. Miles Bennell) when he kisses his girl friend (played by Dana Wynter). She's fallen asleep and has been taken over by an alien consciousness.

Thirty five times, you say? No, I'm not crazy. I frequently used "Body Snatchers" in a college class I taught on Science Fiction. Even though it's a cheaply and quickly made "B" film, it transcends those "B" limitations because it was based on a solid script and directed by Don Siegel ("Flaming Star," "Dirty Harry," "The Shootist," etc.) with great care and skill.

"Body Snatchers," which took only 23 days to shoot, was successful when it was released and is still highly regarded today. Wikipedia says the film cost only $380,000 to make, but earned over a million dollars in its first month. In 2008, the American Film Institute ranked it the 9th best SF film of all time.

Although many leftists spin the film as critical of McCarthy era fear and paranoia, the film itself  makes much more sense when viewed from an actual anti-communist perspective. Those involved in the production of the movie, however, say they were just interested in making a good thriller. Wikipedia says:

In his autobiography, "I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History," Walter Mirisch writes: "People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an example of that. I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple."

That being said, any work of art once it's released into the public is open to interpretation. At that point, the artists who created it join the many who offer insights into the work. Their insights are valuable, but so are other viewers. And the "Body Snatchers" seems to invite interpretation of its subtext, political or otherwise. And that contributes to its effectiveness in generating horror.There are no bug eyed monsters, no tentacles, no blood spattered clothing, and yet, lurking just below the surface of the dialogue and the minimal action, is real socio-political terror. What makes "Body Snatchers" scary?

First, the hero is a man of science, a Doctor, Miles Bennell (played by Kevin McCarthy). He's very skeptical of the initial hysterical reports from people who say their loved ones are imposters, that they have been taken over by an alien consciousness. When he finally realizes the horrible truth, we do too.

Second, those who have been taken over by the alien pods, the ones to fear, look just like us. You can't tell the enemy just by looking at the surface. You have to pay attention to what they say, what they do. Can you trust your colleagues, your patients, your aquaintances, or even your girl friend?

Third, in the film the take over occurs when we literally fall asleep. And who can do without sleep? We can resist it, but it will eventually come. Figuratively, the take over occurs when we let our guard down. When we stop being vigilant.

Trust is the thread that knits a society's disparate parts together, keeps it whole and functioning. When that goes, social dissolution begins. If we are not vigilant, if we don't watch our leaders carefully, if we don't question and challenge the messages being presented in the media and in schools and universities, we are in grave danger. That's why the film struck a chord in the Cold War fifties (people in general were truly opposed to and fearful of an external Marxist/Communist/Socialist attack or the possibility of an interal takeover via secret communist cells).

For example, one of the most popular TV shows of the fifties was "I Led Three Lives," about a man who (1) lived an ordinary working man's life as a family man and good neighbor, (2) who was secretly a member of a communist cell, plotting sabotage, etc., but (3) who also was an undercover agent for the FBI, bent on infiltrating and exposing Communist activity in the US. 

The film's message of eternal vigilance is also why I think the film still speaks powerfully to us today. The threats are still there. And they're even more insidious in that they are made to appear so glamorous and attractive in popular entertainment, and so caring and sensitive to the plight of social victims in the news media, and so urgently and logically necessary in classrooms and curricula in academia.  As the film suggests, the people who spread the pod poison look just like the rest of us. 

In a memorable scene near the end of the film, a frightened Dr. Bennell (McCarthy) is on the highway screaming at passengers in passing cars and in a close up that breaks the so called "fourth wall" shouts his warning directly to the audience with the words, "You're next!" It's true I think. We could be next.

Some other reasons to watch the movie: the performances of McCarthy, and Dana Wynter (who plays Becky Driscoll), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), and Carolyn Jones (who plays Becky's friend), plus some wonderful noir camera work. 

This post was originally published February 9, 2010.

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