Thursday, November 29, 2018

Short Take: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

(1956) Directed by Don Siegel; Written by Daniel Mainwaring; Based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney; Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Willes and Ralph Dumke; Available on: Blu-ray (Olive Films) and DVD

Rating: ****

Note: This is a slightly expanded version of a capsule review that appeared on this blog several years back.

“…I have no recollection of any serious discussions taking place about what the film is about. To me, the film is about conforming… I said to myself that Jack Finney, who wrote the novel, was thinking about the fact that everybody started trying to be taught to do certain things, and the advertising agencies are responsible...” – Kevin McCarthy (from Blu-ray commentary track)

To date, there have been four film versions* of Jack Finney’s novel (which originally appeared as a serialized story through Collier’s Magazine), but the first is the most faithful to the source material. Kevin McCarthy stars as family doctor Miles Bennell, who watches as the residents of his small town become systematically replaced by emotionless duplicates. Filmed on a modest budget of $350,000, the Allied Artists (formerly Monogram Studios) production is big on performances and atmosphere. If ever there were a candidate for sci-fi noir, this would be it, with a man and woman running from authorities who are complicit in a shadowy conspiracy. As if to reinforce the point, the filmmakers recycled some footage from the Allied Artists film noir, The Big Combo.

* True confession: We are, to a greater or lesser extent, a product of our time, and I’m no exception. My favorite adaptation of Finney’s book is the 1978 remake, although the original is a very close second.

Olive Films outdid themselves with their Olive Signature Blu-ray edition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It boasts a solid lineup of features, including interviews with cast members and filmmakers that were inspired by the movie. A fun group of featurettes spotlight the Southern California locations where the movie was shot. But the crown jewel is the commentary track (one of two), recorded more than a decade ago, with filmmaker Joe Dante and stars Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, providing illuminating stories about their early careers, along with their perspectives on making the film.

More than half a century after its cinematic debut, Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains as relevant as it was in 1956. Director Don Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring set out to make a scary movie with no specific political or social ideology, which makes it applicable to multiple situations. One of the story’s lasting effects was adding the term “pod people” to our pop culture consciousness.  It’s been used interchangeably to describe someone whose behavior has become erratic, or alternatively, one who thinks and acts like everyone else. The film can alternately be regarded as an allegory for communism or McCarthyism, or in a more general sense, a loss of individuality in cookie-cutter post-war American society. The source material is so timeless that we likely haven’t seen the last of the film adaptations. Bennell’s chilling admonition “You’re next” penetrates our souls to the core – at once a warning and reminder that a little healthy paranoia can be a good thing.

* Fun Fact: The solid cast also includes a pre-directing-career Sam Peckinpah, and Carolyn Jones, several years before her role as Morticia Addams.

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