A small-town doctor learns that the population of his community is being replaced by emotionless alien duplicates.
As both a tale concerning invading alien pods and a stark critique of small-town America, Invasion of the Body Snatchers stands as a significant US film; whether it is considered merely a low-budget science fiction B movie, a fantastic story that serves as an allegorical warning or an accurate portrayal of suburban life in the 1950s, the film continues to challenge modern audiences.1 This is a taut mixture of conspiracy narrative and contemporary fears; a film noir tale (Booker 2006: 59), as told by its main protagonist, Dr Miles Bennell, of the ‘outsider’ as threat to a supposed tranquil American idyll. David Seed rightly places the film within its cultural contexts, stating that
“A cluster of films from the mid-fifties demonstrates a consistent paradigm of such invasionas-conspiracy where the battle for the nation’s mind is played out in Smalltown USA.”
In Invasion and these other contemporary films,
“The instrumentality of threat comes from outside (creatures from Mars or Venus, pods from outer space) but the real power of these films is carried by their transformation of humans rather than the crude ‘monstrous’ devices, their fracturing of the nuclear family or local community.” (Seed 1999: 132–3)
The last point is crucial, since the family and community were seen by many politicians, including those involved with the Communist witch-hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), as important weapons in the fight against Communism and the socialist threat to American capitalism. Invasion’s significance partly lies in its role as a social barometer for America in the 1950s but also in the fact that it dared to compare the imaginary invading ‘other’ with the then largely unrecognised danger posed by America’s consumerist ideology.
Mark Jancovich (1996: 15) points out that most critics of the decade’s invasion narratives see them as being inextricably linked to Cold War ideology. American films of the decade, this critical orthodoxy claims, demonised both the Soviet Union and any resistance to the status quo, ensuring that the institutions and authorities of the country were protected from the so-called ‘red menace’ that was seen as permeating the nation. Americans were given two choices, either support America or be seen as a Communist sympathiser – in Invasion this distinction is clearly represented between Miles and the residents of Santa Mira as they try to persuade him to become a pod person. This distinction meant that there was a clear line between right and wrong, America and the alien ‘other’. However, Jancovich contends American culture was itself going through a sort of identity crisis as men returned from war to face changes in the work and domestic spheres. The so-called ‘suburban dream’ was little more than a cover for a loss of individual identity, the threat posed by the Communist as ‘alien’ was not as pressing as the threat posed by the push to conform: men having to go to work in the city dressed in grey flannel suits and return home to idealised, yet all too similar, modern suburban homes. The technological advancement of consumer culture that had promised so much was instead stifling Americans’ own self-worth:
“It has often been pointed out that the qualities that identify the aliens with the Soviet Union are their lack of feelings and the absence of individual characteristics. It was certainly the case that during the 1950s many American critics claimed that in the Soviet Union people were all the same; that they were forced to deny personal feeling and characteristics, and to become functionaries of the social whole. It should also be noted, however, that. it was common in the 1950s for Americans to claim that the effects of scientific-technical rationality upon their own society was producing the same features within America itself.” (Jancovich 1996: 26)
Despite the contradictory reasons for America’s feeling of vulnerability in the 1950s, the fact remains that the alien, its desire to conquer Earth and technological pre-eminence, were common themes in films of that decade. Along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and Invaders From Mars (1953) presented America and the world in the grip of emergencies – emergencies ‘that jeopardized the future of the race; they were not national, nor even international, but planetary’ (Biskind 2000: 102). Invasion took that external threat and made it a discernibly internal one by focusing on the invasion of the human body by an alien force (Hendershot 1998: 26). Yet, what makes this film stand out is its constant ability to contradict itself, to offer the audience competing definitions of what might be the most attractive lifestyle to have.
In Miles the audience has an ideal role model, a successful professional man loved by the local community. His race to prevent the pods from spreading to the rest of the west coast and perhaps the entire country is a heroic representation of American masculinity. At that time, such masculinity was valorised as part of the nation’s Communist containment strategy:
“the decade’s focus on rigid gender roles, respect for authority, patriotism, and hygiene was part of a larger fear that [America] might unravel from within.” (Caputi 2005: 142)
For Elaine Tyler May (1999), the Communist threat could be contained by a return to the family values of a pre-Second World War America where men went to work and women stayed at home. However, with the disruption that the war brought, husbands were displaced in both the home and at work by their wives; this led to a sense of masculinity in crisis as the traditional male breadwinning role became increasingly obsolete. Thus, like the male protagonists of popular books such as Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), Miles is a man caught in a suburban nightmare, unable to escape the encroaching conformity symbolised by the white picket fences and mundane daily routine of work and family responsibility. The kiss between Miles and Becky Driscoll towards the end of the film, and his revulsion as he realises she has become a pod person, has been read as an indicator of emasculating femininity and symbolic of Miles’ latent homosexuality – a common theme in science fiction films of this period (Benshoff 1997). Christine Cornea, for example, links the role of women in the film to the then contemporary theory that domineering mothers who smothered their teenage male offspring posed a threat to the patriarchal status quo (2007: 43–4). However, what really appears to be at stake here is the notion that America’s changing society is the threat to Miles; neither the pods as Communism nor Becky as the feminine are as critical as the choice he has to make between becoming a pod person or continually running from the conformity that a pod society ultimately represents.
When Miles and Becky are confronted by the pod versions of Jack Belicec and Dan Kaufman they are offered the choice to become pod people. The complicated emotions of modern life such as ‘love, desire, ambition, faith’ would be destroyed and life simplified; and since the pod people have no need for these ‘human’ traits their society would be one without conflict and pain – Miles and Becky would be ‘reborn into an untroubled world’. This scene is an important signifier of the social contradictions at the heart of 1950s America, conformity to the status quo would offer a safe society in which to bring up the nuclear family – free from a Communist threat and wealthy enough to participate in a consumer lifestyle; yet conformity also signals an end to the individualist ethos of American culture – the business ethos of the period was creating a society of ‘clones’ with no individual creativity. What is truly horrific and unnerving in this exchange and underlies the tensions beneath the film’s narrative is that both choices are attractive:
“Amid all this critical activity, one might also note that there is a definite emotional appeal to the idea of being ‘taken over’ which goes beyond the inherent attractions presented by the pod-psychiatrist in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That added emotional attraction is ‘no more responsibility’. Being ‘taken over’ can be likened to being drafted, to having to follow orders. ‘Taken over’, we cannot be held accountable for our crimes – passionate or passionless.” (Sobchack 1998: 123)
It is the mundane appeal of conformity, the normality and familiarity of small-town life, which the film makes out to be threatening. The look and feel of the film underscores the contradictions in individual identity; the audience becomes vigilant in watching for anything that looks out of the ordinary. The low-budget mise en scène, black and white colourisation, and flat characterisation contribute to painting a picture of domestic drudgery that was both desired and despised:
“What is visually fascinating and disturbing … is the way in which the secure and familiar are twisted into something subtly dangerous and slyly perverted.” (Sobchack 1998: 124)
Humans in this film are dehumanised in such a way that we can neither tell them apart nor perhaps want to differ from them.
1. Produced on a shoe-string budget, Invasion of the Body Snatchers continues to stand the test of time both visually and in terms of narrative. Contesting accounts of the production budget put the film’s price tag as low as $382,000 (LaValley 1989: 3), dead on $400,000 (Booker 2006: 64) and as high as $417,000 (Cornea 2007: 71). In an interview by Stuart Kaminsky (1976: 77), Don Siegel specifies $15,000 went on the special effects that produced the transforming pods and replica corpses. Although these figures appear insignificant compared to other more special-effects-orientated science fiction films of the decade they do draw attention to the understated nature of the film’s production and the important role this plays in the construction of a believable and, at first glance, normal small-town setting.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Walter Wanger Productions. Director: Don Siegel. Screenwriters: Jacky Finney, Daniel Mainwaring and Richard Collins. Cinematographer: Ellsworth Fredericks. Music: Carmen Dragon. Editor: Robert Eisen. Cast: Kevin McCarthy (Dr Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr Danny Kaufman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Theodora ‘Teddy’ Belicec), Jean Willes (Nurse Sally Withers).]
Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1997.
Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, London, Bloomsbury, 2000.
M. Keith Booker, Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture, Westport, Praeger, 2006.
Mary Caputi, A Kinder, Gentler America: Melancholia and the Mythical 1950s, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
David Castronovo, Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit: Books from the 1950s that Made American Culture, New York, Continuum, 2004.
Christine Cornea, Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Barry Keith Grant, ‘Movies and the Crack of Doom’ in Murray Pomerance (ed.), American Cinema of the 1950s: Themes and Variations, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2005, pp. 155–76.
Cyndy Hendershot, ‘The Invaded Body: Paranoia and Radiation Anxiety in Invaders from Mars, It Came from Outer Space, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, Extrapolation, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1998, pp. 26–39.
Mark Jancovich, Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996. Stuart M. Kaminsky, ‘Don Siegel on the Pod Society’ in Thomas R. Atkins (ed.), Science Fiction Films, New York, Monarch Press, 1976, pp. 73–83.
Al LaValley (ed.), Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Don Siegel, Director, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (revised edition), New York, Basic Books, 1999.
David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1950. David Seed, American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
Vivian Sobchack, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1998.
J. P. Telotte, Science Fiction Film, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.