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July 1st, 2010 · 5 Comments

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Dana Wynter Kevin McCarthy

In the month of July, I take a look at films released in my very favorite film stock and aspect ratio: black & white in anamorphic. Unless they’re being financed with credit cards, movies are rarely shot like this anymore because they’re impossible to sell to television. Yet these dreams sneak onto Turner Classic Movies every now and again …

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 poster A Invasion of the Body Snatchers dvd

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Directed by Don Siegel
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring and Richard Collins (uncredited) and Sam Peckinpah (uncredited), based on the magazine serial by Jack Finney
Produced by Walter Wanger
80 minutes

One of the most beloved of the science fiction B-movies that attacked the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a testament to how a powerful story and an appealing cast can elevate an otherwise awful mess into a classic. Originally published in Collier’s Magazine as a three-part serial beginning in November 1954, Jack Finney’s source material captured the imagination of producer Walter Wanger, who was coming off a personal scandal, prison term and even worse, a commercial calamity in 1948 with Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. Languishing in a deal at Allied Artists for Walter and Harold Mirisch, Wanger and director Don Siegel made box office lemonade with a prison reform picture titled Riot On Cell Block 11. When Wanger pitched the studio The Body Snatchers, AA purchased the screen rights.

Shot in 19 days on a $300,000 budget — $2 million in today money — Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a hit in spite of its studio, which hoping to sell more tickets, mangled Ellsworth Fredericks’ 1.33:1 compositions by cropping the frame to fit RKO’s “SuperScope” format of 2:1. They also inserted a prologue and epilogue that gave the film a resolution far more upbeat than what Siegel intended. The conceit of alien pods stripping human beings of their individuality while they sleep is seductive in how easily it can apply to any number of social or political paranioas, while Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter appear to have a blast as the doomed couple. A stiff voiceover narration kills the suspense and makes it difficult to stay on edge about anything in the film, but with so little money for special effects, the original Body Snatchers plays like a drum tight film noir as opposed to a silly sci-fi movie.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 title card

A psychiatrist (Whit Bissell) is summoned in the middle of the night to treat to a raving lunatic being held by police at a local hospital. The wild-eyed Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) insists that he is not insane and begging to be listened to, begins his story. Returning from a two-week conference to his practice in the idyllic town of “Santa Mira”, Dr. Bennell’s nurse Sally Withers (Jean Wiles) reports that several of his patients have demanded to see the doctor, only to later cancel their appointments as if everything was fine. On their way back from the train depot, Dr. Bennell almost mows down a boy running away from his mother; apparently, he’s scared to go to school. At his office, Dr. Bennell is reunited with a recently divorced college flame named Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter).

Becky is troubled by a cousin who claims Becky’s uncle is no longer her uncle. Santa Mira’s psychiatrist Dr. Kauffman (Larry Gates) reveals that he’s had a dozen patients suffering the same hysteria, which he theorizes is due to stress over world events. Dr. Bennell and Becky have their romantic evening cut short when his writer friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) and wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) summon them to their home, where the body of a strange being with a resemblance to Jack is laid out on a pool table. Dr. Bennell later discovers imitations of them hatching from seed pods in the Belicec greenhouse, where it becomes clear that aliens lacking emotion have replaced townsfolk while they sleep. With the phone company and police already fallen victim, the couples try to stay awake long enough to get help.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Jean Wiles Kevin McCarthy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Dana Wynter Kevin McCarthy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Kevin McCarthy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 King Donovan Kevin McCarthy Dana Wynter

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 King Donovan Dana Wynter Carolyn Jones Kevin McCarthy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Dana Wynter Kevin McCarthy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Dana Wynter

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Kevin McCarthy

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 5,280 users: 81% for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Aliens · Based on novel · Crooked officer · Dreams and visions · End of the world · Famous line · Forensic evidence · Paranoia · Psychoanalysis · Small town · Train

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Flickhead // Jul 1, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    When Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out, the “director’s cut” of Siegel’s film was shown theatrically in limited release. It was without the Whit Bissell framing device and had no narration. Unfortunately, being so familiar with the film at the time, I was incapable of absorbing it on its own terms — I kept making mental references to it versus the studio cut. But I do recall it as being far more eerie, especially without the doctor’s calming voiceover and the set-up as a flashback. His driving around town, finding friends and acquantances going crazy over identity issues after he’d been gone for just a few days, was rather bizarre. The narration softens all of this, but it’s still an excellent film.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 1, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Ray: I have no doubt that Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays so much better without the bookends, the narration or the happy ending. Ironically, the mandate that it also be released in “SuperScope” was the same bullshit routine the studios are doing today, converting 2D movies into 3D to sell more tickets. As fun as it is, I’m incapable of giving the original an inch on Kaufman’s remake because the 1950s version just speaks to an era that’s foreign to me. Dana Wynter is like a relic from Pleasantville while Brooke Adams in the remake is a woman I recognize. Anyway, terrific insights as always. Thanks for commenting!

  • 3 Flickhead // Jul 1, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Ed Howard recently reviewed the Siegel version at “Only the Cinema” where I pointed out how antiquated it now appeared, while the Kaufman film still looks fresh. (Ed didn’t agree.) When Kaufman’s version came out, 22 years had passed since Siegel’s, and in that time the language of cinema had changed dramatically.

    When I saw the Siegel version theatrically in the late 70s — both the studio edition and director’s cut were in limited release to cash in on Kaufman’s — the audiences laughed in some spots, most memorably the part where one psychiatrist says the citizens are flipping out because of “problems in the world.”

    Thanks to these Snatcher posts, I revisited the Nicole Kidman version. I’m sure purists will find it superfluous and mediocre, but I think it’s a good picture with pointed references to the recent vogue for “medication,” sham psychology, terrorism, and a nervous world under the watchful eye of Dick Cheney, Fox News and a recent President the GOP would love to sweep under the rug.

  • 4 J.D. // Jul 14, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Yeah, I like the Kidman version, too. For a film that supposedly had a troubled production it is remarkably coherent. I also like how they changed the ending from previous versions.

  • 5 mark kersey // Mar 18, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    dana and kevin….i love them together in the movie….i visited the martini room with fireplace @ woodland hills country club last afternoon…still there (although modified) they were lovely to let me tour!(1956…the ONLY Version)

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