There are many different ways of looking at the 1956 film Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, none of them wrong. It’s been viewed as an expression of McCarthyism and as a reaction against McCarthyism, and lends itself to both points of view. The plot, taken from Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, concerns a town being taken over, one resident at a time, by aliens who resemble their victims to the last detail. They even retain their memories and personalities, so much so that only those closest to them can tell something’s wrong, and that beneath the surface they lack anything resembling human emotion as they work toward the advancement of their alien race. The gray specter of collectivism haunts their actions as they erase the individuality of those whose identities they assume, but the film plays just as easily as a stand-in for the mob mentality that let Joseph McCarthy run amok in his attempt to sniff out every last American with communist sympathies—past, present, and future—until all had conformed to a rigid definition of the right thinking.
Truth is, if Invasion were one or the other, or if it were only a reflection of that chapter in American political history, it would be half the movie it is. The film’s opacity helps make it resonant, and it remains the most powerful version of Finney’s story. (Though, until 2007’s The Invasion, there hadn’t been a bad take on the material, including Robert Rodriguez’s half-remake The Faculty.) That the film explores other, less era-specific themes doesn’t hurt either. Shot on a budget with characteristic punchy efficiency by Don Siegel, the film quietly emphasizes the dissatisfaction and despair just below the surface of its setting in the unremarkable small town of Santa Mira, California. Star Kevin McCarthy plays a divorced doctor who, after a short trip away, returns to find some patients protesting that their loved ones aren’t really their loved ones anymore. He’s concerned but finds no evidence to support their claims. He’s also distracted by his reunion with Dana Wynter, a high-school sweetheart who’s recently ended her marriage as well.
The film’s early scenes establish Santa Mira as a place where everyone knows everyone and quiet desperation has become generalized, even if it’s usually hidden behind smiles. On the way into town, McCarthy notes a vegetable stand that’s let its upkeep go but feels reassured by the sight of a pushy insurance salesman making his usual rounds and a businessman “taking his secretary to lunch,” a line delivered as if it were a euphemism. When he takes Wynter out on a date, they hit a supper club for martinis. Called back to town to deal with the crisis, they drink and their friends drink as the crisis mounts, as if applying more liberal doses of the anesthesia they use to make life bearable might somehow make the threat go away.
For all its political potency, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers also works as a metaphor for the disappointments and compromises of adulthood. With the exception of the newly revived spark between McCarthy and Wynter, its characters have allowed booze and comfort to dull their old passions. Settling into a familiar routine in an unchanging place, they’ve let their guard down to peril. Here it takes the form of an alien invader, but it might just as easily be an insidious ideology or a complacency that alienates us from our best selves. “I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away.” McCarthy says late in the film. “It happens slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind.” Decades after the Cold War paranoia that runs throughout the film has given way to other threats, those words still apply. Siegel’s film continues to chill because it still feels unsettlingly familiar.
Key features: Even the meager offerings of past DVDs have disappeared, but the Blu-ray transfer at least looks handsome.