Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (Blu-ray Review)16 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones.
It must seem to a lot of people that this first screen adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel was a word-of-mouth classic from the get-go, but here’s a movie whose household-name status (“pod people” terminology and all that) was a result of television showings that commenced within four or five years after the film’s relatively unheralded theatrical engagements. Originally, this Allied Artists release probably didn’t rate a downtown gig in a medium-sized city near you. Double-billed in many early ’56 markets with the wacky Technicolor time-warp astronaut adventure World Without End, it was (especially with the title slapped on it by the studio) likely to be getting its local premiere engagement in a drive-in or a second-run neighborhood theater that occasionally played first-run cheapies.
Somehow, I missed getting the word about it until sometime early in 1960, when my art teacher rotated seating assignments and placed across from me the most beautiful girl in the entire seventh grade and, for my money, the entire junior high. In perhaps the only extended conversation I ever had with her when I wasn’t staring at the floor from the overwhelming nature of the experience, she told me of this movie she had seen at the drive-in about seed pods replicating the bodies of normal people, rendering their former selves emotionless and rather ruthlessly Darwinian in their approaches toward what was left of life. Even then, I knew a cool premise when I heard one — though I suppose she could have said that she’d seen John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, and I’d have said, “Hey, that sounds as if that could work.”
Cut to early summer of 1961, and the picture turned up on the local TV station where I later worked for five years — sunny afternoon on a Sunday (not the ideal milieu in which to see it). No matter. It was and is a grabber, no matter how many times one takes the plunge — and Olive’s frill-less but visually sturdy Blu-ray has just given me perhaps my tenth or twelfth viewing but the first in many years. For its sustained pleasures, we can thank the novel premise; the allegorical subtext (anti-Communist or anti-Red Scare; who knows for sure?); Don Siegel’s kinetic and even powerful direction (man, does he ever know when to go for a close-up, especially in the great greenhouse sequence); Carmen Dragon’s insistent score (which reminds me of The Night of the Hunter’s); a better than expected cast (lead Kevin McCarthy’s Oscar nomination five years earlier for the Fredric March screen version of Death of a Salesman had been no lie); and a Daniel Mainwaring script that lets adults act like adults. All in a pressure-packed 80 minutes.
The adult part isn’t just that the McCarthy and gorgeous Dana Wynter characters drink martinis like real (and especially ‘50s) grown-ups — but that in a couple lines of dialogue we don’t usually hear out of ’50s Hollywood, McCarthy makes it clear that he’s trying to get Wynter into bed for reasons that are only partially spiritual. Thus, the stakes are high when the pods try to steal her soul, a situation you do not get in sci-fi movies of the decade that starred Hugh Marlowe or Arthur Franz or John Agar or Faith Domergue or Joan Taylor or Mara Corday. The supporting characters also well drawn and performed. In a few strokes, for instance, one can speculate that King Donovan’s writer/friend character is probably the kind of hip and vaguely bohemian kind of guy who studies The Playboy Philosophy and whose wife (Carolyn Jones) might be an aspiring actress.
Invasion was shot in Superscope (called on one nuts-and-bolts website “a CinemaScope derivative”) — and though this kind of stuff is over my head, it was apparently not filmed with the process in mind. Whatever the reason, the pan-and-scan TV prints I saw of the picture in perhaps my first half-dozen viewings always looked surprisingly acceptable to the eye — though once you’ve seen its close-ups in widescreen, you don’t want to go back. And I have never minded the oft-criticized “frame” the studio imposed on the story. Yes, it does water the situation down a tad — but McCarthy and the Dragon score play this material with conviction, and the reactions by doctors Richard Deacon and Whit Bissell, upon realizing that McCarthy may not be crazy after all, always give me chills.
I doubt anyone predicted in ’56 that Finney’s novel (The Body Snatchers) would inspire three additional movies, including Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland (plus a great McCarthy cameo). I remember all kinds of instant naysayers rolling their eyes at first and then being delighted when the result turned out to be pretty damned good. Right after I saw Kaufman’s remake theatrically four nights after Christmas during its second week, I went to friends’ house to watch the Gator Bowl. Watching pods wreak havoc in San Francisco is wild enough — but when it’s immediately followed by the sight of Ohio State coach Woody Hayes deep-sixing his career by slugging an opposing Clemson player on national TV … well, life just doesn’t get any more surreal. Or an evening more entertaining.