Screen Gems In­va­sion of the Body Snatch­ers

IN­VA­SION OF THE BODY SNATCH­ERS 1956, hor­ror, not rated, Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, no charge, 3.5 chiles

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A man, look­ing ter­ri­fied, ex­hausted, and a lit­tle bit crazy, rushes head­long into traf­fic on a con­gested high­way, scream­ing at mo­torists to be­ware of a com­ing in­va­sion. “Can’t you see?” he screams to the in­dif­fer­ent mo­torists around him. “They’re here al­ready! You’re next!” This near-cli­mac­tic se­quence from 1956’s In­va­sion of

the Body Snatch­ers re­mains one of the most mem­o­rable mo­ments of cin­e­matic ter­ror. Seen as an in­ter­est­ing mis­fire when it came out, playing to so-so box-of­fice busi­ness and mixed re­views, Don Siegel’s in­ex­pen­sively made black-and-white sci­ence-fic­tion film has since at­tained the rep­u­ta­tion of a cult clas­sic. The Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter screens the film at 7 p.m. Wed­nes­day, Oct. 31, as its Hal­loween trickor-treat of­fer­ing. And this is no trick: Ad­mis­sion is free.

Based on a three-part se­ri­al­ized novel writ­ten by Jack Fin­ney and pub­lished in Col­lier’s mag­a­zine, the film de­vi­ated from the then-popular mo­tifs of the sci-fi genre. It fea­tured no mon­sters, no over­sized in­sects, no vis­i­tors from outer space, and al­most no vi­o­lence.

In­stead, it told the tale of the nice peo­ple of a small Cal­i­for­nia town who slowly be­gan to lose their per­son­al­i­ties and be­come, in their own way, the walk­ing dead: zom­bies who don’t want to eat flesh, but, per­haps more fright­en­ingly, don’t know how to love. The hero, an av­er­age Joe who doesn’t un­der­stand what’s go­ing on but knows he’s got to do some­thing about it, comes to re­al­ize that some strange force is be­hind the trans­for­ma­tions. In a shock­ing se­quence set in a green­house, he finds the answer: pods. Big pods, too, that pro­duce dou­bles of the lo­cal cit­i­zens and in­tend to take over their bod­ies.

Direc­tor Siegel was a na­tive of Chicago who had al­ready toiled away in Hol­ly­wood for nearly two decades, mostly work­ing as an edi­tor, sec­ond-unit direc­tor, or cre­ator of mon­tages for Warner Bros. For the first 15 years of his ca­reer as a fea­ture-film direc­tor, which be­gan in 1946, he ex­pe­ri­enced a frus­trat­ing rou­tine of nearly break­ing into the big time with one movie be­fore get­ting stuck in cin­e­matic mud with the next. It seemed like ev­ery other movie he made in those days ran out of money be­fore pro­duc­tion was slated to end, forc­ing him to shoot three days of footage in just one day. For ex­am­ple, a de­cent film noir with Robert Mitchum, 1949’s The Big Heat, was fol­lowed by a string of rou­tine B movies like The Duel

at Sil­ver Creek (1952) and Count the Hours (1953). He would later break this streak in the 1960s and ’70s with a run of suc­cess­ful films that in­cluded Dirty Harry (1971), Charley Var­rick (1973), and Es­cape from

Al­ca­traz (1979). In 1954, pro­ducer Wal­ter Wanger at Al­lied Artists hired Siegel to di­rect the tense prison drama Riot

in Cell Block 11. Af­ter that film’s re­lease, Siegel was hot. Wanger read Fin­ney’s story, called “The Body Snatch­ers,” and op­tioned it for Al­lied Artists with an eye to­ward hav­ing Siegel di­rect.

“De­spite the ab­surd ti­tle, which cheap­ened the con­tent of the story … we rec­og­nized that a most orig­i­nal film could be made — not only en­ter­tain­ing, but fright­en­ing as well,” Siegel wrote in his 1993 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, A Siegel Film. Siegel sug­gested that Wanger hire screen­writer Daniel Main­war­ing, who had scripted two previous Siegel pic­tures and would script at least two more, to adapt the story. “Danny likes to work closely with the direc­tor, talk­ing out a se­quence, writ­ing it, then show­ing it to me,” Siegel

wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. “Once we agreed on the pages, I would hand them over to Wanger. He usu­ally liked our ideas and would make a few sug­ges­tions, which Danny would re­write. Then we would plunge ahead to the next se­quence.”

The film­mak­ers shot the pic­ture in some­where be­tween 19 and 23 days (ac­counts vary) on a bud­get of some­where be­tween $300,000 and $400,000 (ac­counts vary again) in the small town of Sierra Madre, Cal­i­for­nia. The stars of the film were hardly stars: Kevin McCarthy, a stage-trained ac­tor with a pen­chant for in­cor­po­rat­ing in­tense Meth­od­style act­ing into all of his roles, played the hero, a small-town doc­tor un­able to fathom how to cure the spread­ing dis­ease around him. The lead­ing lady was Bri­tish ac­tress Dana Wyn­ter, who later said she thought the film was so ab­surd that she was ashamed to tell her mother she was act­ing in some­thing called In­va­sion of the Body Snatch­ers. The rest of the cast was full of rec­og­niz­able and pro­fes­sional char­ac­ter ac­tors like King Dono­van, Carolyn Jones (on the verge of screen and tele­vi­sion star­dom, most no­tably as Mor­ti­cia Ad­dams in the ’60s series “The Ad­dams Fam­ily”), Whit Bis­sell, Richard Dea­con and, in a small role, a guy named Sam Peck­in­pah, who was soon to make a name for him­self as a writer and direc­tor.

The film gives lit­tle sense of who or what is be­hind the transformation of small-town folks into the equiv­a­lent of hu­man pods. Siegel said he saw the emo­tion­less pod peo­ple as stand-ins for the men who ran the movie stu­dios at the time. Crit­ics and film his­to­ri­ans have since come up with an ar­ray of the­o­ries for what the movie is re­ally about: The pod peo­ple are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Com­mu­nist scare en­velop­ing Amer­ica at the time, or per­haps a sym­bol of a grow­ing lack of in­di­vid­u­al­ity in the 1950s cul­ture of rigid com­pla­cency and ad­her­ence to com­mu­nity norms. One char­ac­ter in the film won­ders aloud whether the whole thing is be­cause of “mass hys­te­ria ini­ti­ated by worry about what’s go­ing in the world.” Talk­ing to doc­u­men­tary film­maker Thys Ock­ersen for the film Don Siegel: Last of the In­de­pen­dents some­time around 1980, Siegel said, “Most of the time, my pic­tures are about noth­ing. You read into them, but I don’t read into them.”

You don’t have to read too deeply into the film to feel the ter­ror as in the course of a tight 80 min­utes, the few re­main­ing hold­outs from the pod plague des­per­ately look for a way out. They are liv­ing out a night­mare in which day­light does not make the scary things go away. Siegel cap­tures that sense of un­cer­tain fear in al­most ev­ery frame, adding touches of dark hu­mor (not enough, he later main­tained, be­cause Al­lied Artists’ pro­duc­ers cut a lot of that stuff out) and lit­tle mo­ments of risqué di­a­logue be­tween the two leads. The pro­duc­ers also in­sisted on adding a pro­logue and epi­logue to the orig­i­nal struc­ture, less­en­ing the im­pact of the film in Siegel’s eyes. But the story caught on: The pic­ture has since been re­made sev­eral times, though there are few crit­ics who be­lieve any of those ef­forts are as suc­cess­ful as Siegel’s.

Per­haps Siegel, who died in 1991, would be amused to know that there are some who be­lieve that pod peo­ple still ex­ist among us. Santa Fe film his­to­rian Jerry Bar­ron said Siegel’s ver­sion is “a pe­cu­liar film noir sci-fi about a pe­cu­liarly Amer­i­can sort of para­noia. It’s in­ter­est­ing that about ev­ery 10 to 20 years it gets re­made to ad­dress what­ever par­tic­u­lar anx­i­ety our col­lec­tive psy­che seems to be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. It’s es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing that per­haps we haven’t had a more re­cent re­make, be­cause the story’s de­pic­tion of anx­i­ety has fi­nally bro­ken out of the big screen and into real life in the form of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and his fear­some base of vot­ers/pods.” — Robert Nott

In­va­sion of the Body Snatch­ers screens 7 p.m. Wed­nes­day, Oct. 31, at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, 211 W. San Fran­cisco St. There is no charge for ad­mis­sion.

Kevin McCarthy pre­pares to torch a pod that may con­tain his dou­ble

On the run: Dana Wyn­ter and McCarthy; far right and be­low, the pods be­gin to mul­ti­ply

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