Invasion of the Body Snatchers – US, 1956
I wish I had Dana Wynter’s eyes. I say this because they speak volumes in Don Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. At times, they take on the gaze of a love-struck teenager who just can’t get enough of the object of her affection. At other times, they instantly convey the degree of terror that Wynter’s character, Becky Driscoll, is feeling. Towards the end of the film, the camera closes in on them to reveal what may be the harshest moment of the entire film, for in that one moment, all is seemingly lost for our hero, a laudable young doctor named Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy). It is quite a performance.
The film takes place in one of those small idyllic towns that one frequently sees in films, one in which everyone knows each other and politely uses titles such as Mr. or Ms. when they talk. In this kind of town, a doctor makes house calls at all hours of the night, and when an emergency strikes, one can call a restaurant and ask if a particular doctor just happens to be dining there that evening. In this kind of town, doctors and psychiatrists are mostly noble people whose opinions carry a great weight. In fact, in this film, all that is needed for the police to spring into action, it seems, is the word of one of these distinguished professionals. The town in the film also has a very modern feel to it, for some of its residents are dealing with contemporary issues. For example, both Bennell and Driscoll are divorced, and there’s an acknowledgement that the characters are living in a world in which nuclear weapons are unfortunately real. In one of the film’s many interesting moments, Bennell speculates that what is unfolding may be the result of atomic radiation.
The film begins with the doctor returning after being away for two weeks, and while he’s been away, a lot has happened. His secretary has been besieged by phone calls from frantic patients, all of whom insist that Bennell is the only doctor they want to see. Imagine his surprise when all that greets him back at the office are cancellations and missed appointments. Two events cause the doctor to sense that something more is amiss. First, he learns that Becky’s cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine) may be delusional. She claims that her uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t really her uncle. It’s not that she’s discovered that she may have been adopted, but rather that something about Ira just feels off. As Wilma explains it, her uncle doesn’t show even the slightest bit of emotion anymore, not even about things that he used to have great passion for. Uncle Ira seems perfectly normal to Bennell, but Wilma is adamant, insisting that the difference is something only someone who knew him very well would notice. Not even Bennell can deny the logic of this statement. In the second incident, a young boy is practically run over when he darts in front of Bennell’s car. The boy is completely terrified. When ask why, he just manages to get out that his mother is not his mother. We soon learn that there are many other people making such claims.
There is an established pattern that a film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers inevitably falls into. The doctor must first disbelieve, then begin to suspect that something out of the ordinary is happening, and then ultimately accept what was once unthinkable, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers does not deviate from this well-charted course. Eventually, Bennell is asked to forget that he’s a doctor and accept the fantastic. However, a film of this kind is rarely done as well as it is here. It helps that McCarthy is thoroughly convincing throughout the film. He makes Bennell’s transition from skeptic to believer quite easy to accept. In addition, McCarthy and Wynter have great chemistry, and their scenes together are extremely effective. Their dialogue cackles with energy, feeling and flirtatious double-entendres. In one clever exchange, Bennell takes Driscoll in his arms and kisses her. She asks him if this is an example of his bedside manner, to which he relies, “[T]hat comes later.” How that got past the sensors I’ll never know.
If Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a fault, it is in its explanation for what is happening to the townspeople. At times, it appears they are being physically replaced, which I assume would involve one life form either dissolving or killing the other, yet at the end it appears they are being either taken over, similar to what happens in The Hidden, or inwardly altered, like 28 Days Later. The film never seems to be able to make up its mind. However, this does not detract from what is a thoughtful and frightening film. We care about the characters on the screen as they fight for the right to remain who they are. In fact, there are a number of rather moving speeches related to the value of freedom and emotion that make me think that the film is about more than just meets the eye. Perhaps it is about some people’s penchant for safety over risk during times of increased pessimism. After all, losing the ability to love also means losing the ability to feel pain.
On a personal note, I was fortunate enough to have met Kevin McCarthy in my senior year of high school. His granddaughter was one of my classmates, and he came to talk to us about acting. He could not have been nicer. I’ll always remember his calm, personable demeanor, through which it was perfectly clear just how much he enjoyed doing what he did for a living. He will be missed. (on DVD)