Issue 217 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

The big picture

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

'Communism in reality is not a political party. It is a way of life - an evil and malignant way of life. It reveals a condition akin to a disease that spreads like an epidemic. A quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting this nation.'

J Edgar Hoover's words to the House Un-American Activities Committee revealed not just a self justification of FBI witch hunting but also the favoured metaphor of the Cold War. Germ warfare could be the Commies' secret weapon. Invisible and deadly, germs quickly equated with ideas.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the Hollywood movie that dealt most explicitly with this metaphor. There had been over 40 anti-Communist B-movies, and a blossoming paranoid sci-fi genre of blobs, gases, aliens and spaceships terrifying small town folk. But this 1956 thriller - special effects apart - retains a dramatic power absent from the rest.

Body Snatchers was censored by its producers by the addition of material, rather than cutting or replacing. To imagine the meaning of the film as delivered by director Don Siegel we just need to subtract the 'brackets' of opening and closing scenes - plus some voice-over commentary.

Santa Mira doctor Miles Bennell notices a growing list of character changes in his community. Colleague Dan Kaufman dismisses his observations as hysteria, 'worry about what's going on in the world'. But friends Jack and Teddy are not imagining the body lying on their pool table. Miles and girlfriend Becky Driscoll examine it, yet it has disappeared by the time Kaufman arrives.

This time he suggests that Bennell was hallucinating. 'The mind is a strange and wonderful thing. I'm not sure it will ever be able to figure itself out; everything else maybe, from the atom to the universe, everything except itself.'

Bennell then finds a double of Becky in a basement. Again it has disappeared by the time the law arrives. Eventually they find foaming huge pods in their greenhouse, which reveal incomplete figures of themselves. Jack and Teddy flee. Miles and Becky are alone against the world.

When cornered, Kaufman tells them, 'Love, desire, ambition, faith; without them life's so simple.' He explains that seeds drifting through space for years came to earth in a field and grew into pods capable of reproducing the exact likeness of any form of life. 'While you're asleep they'll absorb your minds, your memories and you're reborn into an untroubled world.' 'Where everyone's the same?' asks Miles. 'Exactly', replies Kaufman.

Miles refuses to relinquish his subjectivity. 'I love Becky. Tomorrow will I feel the same?' Kaufman reminds the pair of failed previous relationships. The whole town pursues the lovers. Exhausted Becky falls asleep and a kiss tells Miles she is lost too. His final sprint takes him onto a busy highway at night, where he shouts at the traffic, and directly into the camera - 'You're next...'

At the time, Allied Pictures was facing financial crisis, as was the whole industry. Television was irreversibly wrecking box-office takings. Any new film had to do well at test previews to get marketing clearance. Bodysnatchers didn't.

Allied was worried by the humour in early scenes and the unorthodox ending. Siegel had wanted the relaxed early mood so as to heighten the emergent fears and the in-your-face finale. Miles is not saved, and the audience is directly addressed with a warning.

The key headache for the studio was that Siegel's story had included the state as part of the problem. Local police officers are keen poddists, and the FBI does not answer Miles's calls for help. So Allied ordered changes.

The director refused to oversee them. The new introduction shifted the original film into flashback, and the new ending shows the police setting off to deal with the problem and calling the FBI. This destroyed the dramatic structure by letting us know at the outset that something awful has happened. It also rescues the story from the inference that the state is complying with the ideological transformation of America.

The director was no lefty. Originally titled Sleep No More, Siegel's film was no more than a liberal's plea for free speech and heroic individualism, a theme that brought him later success with the Dirty Harry films. But what remains fascinating is that CIA sophisticates were covertly championing such qualities in Abstract Expressionist painting at the time, but corporate pop culture was still wary of transgressing the crude FBI line.

Nick Grant


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