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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

by Glenn Erickson Oct 13, 2018

A super-classic receives a super ‘Olive Signature’ Blu-ray release. CineSavant clears up some online rumors complaining that the disc producers didn’t do a full restoration. The original release Superscope version of Don Siegel’s soul-shaking chiller has been handsomely remastered — and with the extras we’ve awaited for 12 years.


Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Blu-ray
Olive Films

1956 / B&W / 2:1 widescreen / 80 min. / Olive Signature Edition / Street Date October 16, 2018 / 39.95
Starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Willes, Virginia Christine, Whit Bissell, Richard Deacon, Bobby Clark, Dabbs Greer, Marie Selland, Sam Peckinpah.
Cinematography
Ellsworth Fredericks
Film Editor Robert S. Eisen
Original Music Carmen Dragon
Written by Daniel Mainwearing from a magazine serial by Jack Finney
Produced by Walter Wanger
Directed by Don Siegel

 

One of the greatest of 1950s science fiction films transcends the genre so neatly that many don’t see it as Sci-fi at all, despite the presence of monstrous alien plants that duplicate bodies and consume human consciousness.

Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a Walter Wanger/Allied Artists production with rights that are now securely lodged with Paramount/Viacom. I reviewed a dandy plain-wrap Olive Films Blu-ray back in 2012, discussing the picture in full. I also lamented that a bundle of added-value extras produced for an aborted Paramount disc back in 2006, were still nowhere to be seen. Some fairly impressive featurettes have become lost items, tied up in rights issues — I myself edited a one-hour documentary on West Side Story, with many exclusive interviews, that MGM long ago shelved for rights reasons.

In this case everything worked out for the better. Olive Films got together with the 2004 extras producer Scott Levine, and this Olive Signature edition of the film is now a real keeper, rescuing invaluably worthwhile key-source interviews with stars Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy. Ask Tom Weaver — the ranks of actors and filmmakers that worked on films before 1970 are thinning out fast.

With its wealth of intriguing ideas Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been a great discussion topic from the moment it arrived. Rather than repeat my plot synopsis and essay from the old review, you might want to take a look at that first. The essay is also in my book Savant Sci-Fi Reader. For this ‘review’ I’ll try to add some more observations that have come up in the meantime.

I’ll get the lofty faux-intellectual notions out of the way first.

 

“Boy, this movie is like, you know, profound.”

Sometime in the 1960s, probably stemming from TV exposure, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was co-opted as a political allegory, the standard interpretation being that the insidious Pod People represent insidious totalitarian conformism by either the Far Right or the Far Left. From what the author Jack Finney has said it seems the original intention was to comment on conformist trends in 1950s American life, when a ballooning middle class responded to secure lifestyles and good eating for all (see No Down Payment) either by becoming complacent, apolitcal zombies, or working up neuroses about unseen conspiracies. The ‘personal’ anxieties of film noir were usually concerned with the breakdown of individual morality or various flavors of criminal conspiracy, but this ‘political’ Sci-fi gives us paranoia on a much more vast, frightening scale: Everything you know is wrong. 1953’s Invaders from Mars tapped into the fear that normalcy was an illusion, branding the brains of American kids with nightmarish notions that their parents aren’t their parents. These Sci-fi fantasies only scratched the surface of the same cultural concern that found expression in books about how corporate power and conformist advertising were changing the way we worked and how we lived, and breaking up the multigenerational family unit: Whyte’s The Organization Man, etc.

In other words, one may feel free to interpret Invasion as whatever kind of political parable one wishes. That was not the original intention, but all will agree that the show generates a new kind of uncanny horror. Who is to say what reality is when so much is hidden? Everything we see, especially those neighbors we never seem to get to know, could be part of an unholy conspiracy intent on wiping out our individual identity and personality. “Gooble Gobble Gooble Gobble One of Us One Of Us.”

On the more practical plane, during the 1960s the cult of Invasion began to sink into my generation’s consciousness. Already made aware/cynical by Mad Magazine, many of us finally began to doubt the Consensus Truth being pushed by national leaders. Yes, the awareness of the draft didn’t make us more secure either. Most often first experienced on some late night movie program, Invasion of the Body Snatchers hit us like a bolt of lightning. It existed as The Truth, the way books by Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were permeating our group consciousness. If I spoke the words ‘pod people,’ some of my friends and many of my teachers instantly knew what I was talking about. We had quite a few frustrated liberal high school teachers back then…

Invasion joined the list of topics most likely to be discussed during all-night gab sessions. When genre film criticism began to reach print in the years around 1970, Don Siegel’s movie became a touchstone for counterculture worship. Impressive Superscope 35mm prints screened in repertory houses; I must have seen it four times that way, with packed crowds that screamed at Becky Driscoll’s ‘death kiss’ and applauded at the end. When I screened 35mm features at UCLA’s Melnitz Hall back in 1975, our biggest draw was a ‘paranoia’ double feature of North by Northwest and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In one movie the paranoid aspect was ‘fun’ — our hero’s loss of identity was re-affirmed once the villains had been rounded up. Invasion, despite its semi-positive conclusion, still left us with the uncomfortable eerie feeling that the Big Game was Over, that it was already far too late to prevent the eradication of human values. Let the all-night dorm discussions begin.

 

“It’s not like other monster movies. It’s not stupid. It’s really happening.”

Yes, Invasion isn’t a typical ever-so-slightly infantile Sci-fi exploitation thriller, like the same year’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. We see no fantastic spaceships, ray guns or hulking rubber mutants. The cast list avoids celebrity scientists, government agents, dazzling adventuresses and athletic heroes. No annoying hipster teenagers are present either. The action plays out in normal neighborhoods and on a sleepy small town square. The cop giving out parking tickets and the corner gas attendant know Miles Bennell by name.

Not only that, the film isn’t blocked like so many Hollywood B-pictures staged on cardboard studio sets. The eerie night locations and naturalistic lighting make the blend between studio and exterior work imperceptible. Everyday routines lull us into acceptance of what we see. Everything is incredibly normal, so that when the pods make their frightening first appearance, we know we’re in BIG TROUBLE. Our doctor hero is smart enough to see an enigma developing, but not so conspiracy- minded to question his psychiatrist buddy’s vague, passive response to what should be alarming phenomena.

One of many iconic (and I don’t use that word lightly) moments occurs when Miles Bennell realizes that Santa Mira’s phone exchange is in ‘enemy’ hands. Rather than blow a fuse, he pretends all is well to the operator, and then runs like hell: not only is an invasion underway, Miles knows that the enemy has him in its crosshairs. That scene may feel like the birth of cinematic ‘wiretap paranoia,’ but film noir had struck first in that groove. Eight years previously, Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil showed a nervous lawyer played by John Garfield, hearing a nearly imperceptible ‘click’ on his phone line, the sound of the wiretappers tapping into his conversation: “A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.” Miles might be thinking, “They’ve been monitoring every move I make, stalling me while getting pod production up to speed.”

 

About the movie’s widescreen format.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed like other B&W pictures of the middle 1950s, shot flat and full-frame with the intention of being projected faux- ‘widescreen’ with the top and bottom of the frame matted off to 1.85:1. But Allied Artists decided to go with the slightly wider 2:1 anamorphic ‘Superscope’ format. Superscope allowed filmmakers that didn’t want to rent expensive Bausch & Lomb CinemaScope lenses to produce widescreen pictures — the flat original negative was blown up and squeezed into an approximation of the CinemaScope standard. As soon as producers saw the higher rentals for ‘scope pictures, some shelled out to have their films re-formatted.

Why? For a few years, ‘scope films could command a slightly higher rental fee from the exhibitors. A cameraman once told me that some non-scope films may have been reformatted to SuperScope specs because they were going to be released as double bills with ‘scope movies. Exhibitors would not have to change lenses and re-focus five times a day.

I once saw projected a 35mm print of Roger Corman’s Machine-Gun Kelly that had been put through a Superscope re-format. We were used to seeing flat prints on TV that looked a little loose top and bottom. This version severely cut off the tops of heads. In medium shots, Charles Bronson’s gun was often partly below the frame line.

Invasion was filmed for 1:85, and in most shots the clipping to 2:1 isn’t noticeable. Only on the choker closeups of Miles and Becky are chins and foreheads perhaps a bit tight. Proof that the film was shot ‘full frame’ but composed for 1:85 can be seen on the original trailer included on the disc. Shots we’re accustomed to seeing very tightly framed top and bottom, are very loose on the trailer.

Until Criterion’s widescreen laserdisc from 1989 or 1990, Invasion was seen by most people on pan-scanned TV prints. The ones we saw post- 1970 were a mess. Allied Artists had apparently forgotten that the film originated flat, and to make TV prints they pan-scanned the already severely cropped Superscope-adapted film element. This yielded a flat picture, taken from an area not much bigger than a 16mm frame. No wonder we were impressed when the Criterion laser came out, with all that cinematic real estate restored. On the new extras, Joe Dante tells us that original 16mm prints for TV around 1960 were done from the flat original, like the 1:33 trailer. So it does indeed look as if the original, pre-Superscope printing elements were worn out, or lost, or inadvertently thrown away sometime in the 1960s.

 

Now, about the legendary first cut of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In his very informative new featurette, biographer Matthew Bernstein covers producer Walter Wanger’s full career, with special detail on the delayed release of Invasion. Among other reservations, Allied Artists thought that the first, non-flashback cut would confuse audiences, that they wouldn’t follow the story. Bernstein explains that a script was written for Orson Welles to introduce and finish the picture ‘telling the story’ directly to the camera; perhaps Welles was to speak the interior voiceover eventually recorded by Kevin McCarthy as well. In the featurette Bernstein simply says that it was decided to get McCarthy back to film the narrative flashback bookends we see in the movie now.

But in his excellent book Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent, Bernstein states that Orson Welles, then in Europe making various movies, was contacted and hired for the job. Allied Artists cabled him a large sum of money to come back to Hollywood for the filming and recording. According to the book, Welles took the money but when the time for filming came ‘could not be located.’ I realize that this is probably the wrong year to say anything negative about Welles, who had so many enemies that the story could have been distorted. But the anecdote certainly shines light on the Hollywood hostility that the great filmmaker claimed was so unfair.

What was the original cut like? Apparently close, although both Wanger and Allied Artists reportedly removed some humorous asides, such as some breakfast banter. But the emergency room bookends definitely weren’t there, and no McCarthy narration popped up in the movie to amplify Dr. Bennell’s growing anxiety. Joe Dante mentions some 1970s 35mm screenings in which a version surfaced that didn’t have the bookends. That was what I ended up renting for UCLA in 1976, from Kit Parker Films; Mr. Parker later explained that altering some prints was their doing. A splice simply jumped from the Don Siegel credit to the wide shot of the train station, eliminating the opening bookend scene. At the end Kit Parker introduced a quick optical substitution that (I believe, it’s been a long time) faded out on the blurry wide shot of the freeway overpass, and added a new ‘the end’ title.

We didn’t expect to see this version. I was certainly surprised, and remember feeling like a know-it-all when I explained the missing footage with Richard Deacon and Whit Bissell to the audience. The screwy aspect of the Kit Parker cut is that it didn’t do anything about Dr. Bennell’s past-tense narration, which was still heard in the body of the film. Past-tense voiceovers imply that the speaker survives the events he’s talking about … from exactly what cinematic space was Dr. Bennell narrating?

 

It’s now possible to approximate Don Siegel’s first cut, the one that was rejected by Allied Artists.

Over the years I’ve cut several personal ‘fan edits’ of Invasion, to see how the movie would play in a form closer to what Siegel said was his original cut. This became a lot easier three years ago when an original soundtrack recording was finally released to CD; with some work, the voiceover segments could be covered with the actual clean music cues behind them. I cut on a new opening train sequence with shots from another movie, and ended on the final close-up of Kevin McCarthy before dissolving to black.

The fan re-cut mainly produced more questions. Because I personally can’t un-see or un-remember twenty viewings of the full movie, I can only guess at what a virgin preview audience in 1955 might have made of Siegel’s first cut. I’ve only shown this experimental fan cut to a couple of people that haven’t seen the movie before, and they responded positively. But intent viewers read movies more closely than do ‘average’ audiences. And I think it is safe to say that, then and now, ‘general’ audiences expect a movie to explain itself early and to do most of the thinking regarding narrative gear-changes. The average genre movie from 1955 might carry only two distinct plot re-adjustments, and those would be carefully re-iterated and re-clarified so as not to confuse 12 year-olds in the audience.

Even Alfred Hitchcock was distrustful that audiences were paying attention to major plot points; as he feared leaving the mass audience behind, his films often take ‘7th inning stretch’ breaks to explain everything we’ve seen so far. These scenes in Vertigo and North by Northwest are often discussed. Hitchcock said he was doing this because it was common for audiences to just drift in any time during a movie, and then to wait to see the beginning when it came around in the next showing. Exhibitors liked this because it kept seats filled. It’s surely the reason Hitchcock asked for the ‘no late seating’ policy for Psycho.

I think that a ‘virgin’ viewer seeing my fan cut of Invasion would follow the story perfectly, were they paying attention from the beginning. The problem is that the movie’s unusual events would cause ‘casual’ viewers to get lost right away. In some other movie a whispered, ‘the marshall is cheating on his wife’ might explain everything, but not here. We aren’t supposed to understand what’s going on until around the sixty-minute mark.

Without the flashback structure Invasion is a clean first-person account. Audiences focusing on Miles Bennell will receive the exact same jolts and be just as involved. But for the first two reels or so we don’t know what’s going on, and without the narration, I’d say a considerable portion of a dullard audience might stop paying attention — and disengage. Where’s the invasion? Where are the monsters? Should we go home early and save a couple of dollars with the babysitter?

What the fan cut tells me is that the well-written narration spoken by Kevin McCarthy makes casual viewers connect to his character and keeps them from getting lost. Every few minutes Miles Bennell breaks in, to express his confusion but also to analyze what he does know. His thoughts assure us that we’re not missing the boat, and also binds our identification to Miles more tightly. It’s only a review exposition, as no new information is given. But audiences listen intently, keen to keep up.

People that saw Invasion on its first release attest that it wasn’t an extraordinarily popular picture, but that it impressed many that did see it. Few really negative or even tepid reviews were written, something unheard of for a Sci-fi thriller. Even Variety was bullish: “Occasionally difficult to follow due to the strangeness of its scientific premise, action nevertheless is increasingly exciting as it builds to a suspenseful climax.”

Joe Dante is likely correct when he suggests that Invasion didn’t really catch on big until it hit TV. The only negative response I’ve ever witnessed is to one McCarthy voiceover line, that often gets an unintentional laugh: “I didn’t know the real meaning of fear until, until I kissed Becky.” We were merciless in college — when we learned that nobody could decide on a final title for the movie, the sarcastic alternates we proposed invariably included ‘The Meaning of Fear’ and ‘Until I Kissed Becky.’


Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Invasion of the Body Snatchers looks great. It is a new transfer, given a boost in the bit rate so that viewers with higher-end players will see an uptick in quality. Being a Superscope picture, the entire show is a dupe-neg optical, enlarged and squeezed to create a wider screen ratio. It will never be quite as sharp as a scan of the original negative, and since that is apparently no longer around, this is as good as it’s going to get. That means that an occasional shot that was never in perfect focus, and the stock shots that were already dupes, will look a little soft.

Anyone complaining online doesn’t understand … the picture looks wonderful.

As explained above, the better angels of Blu-ray extras have come together to resuscitate an added-value package assembled for the film back in 2006. I’ve heard and read about them since that time, and even corresponded a bit with their producer, Scott Devine, who thought it was fine for me to write Olive a reminder about them. No reminder was needed. Author and ultimate monster fan Bill Warren was interviewed for one of the featurettes and told me of his disappointment when the 2006 special edition was cancelled. As it turned out Bill passed away two years ago, which leaves us to enjoy his contribution. The 2006 extras will probably please the many interviewees, all of whom are magically twelve years younger than they are now.

The main content that makes the older extras so important is the enthusiastic input by both Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, the film’s stars. He passed away in 2010 and she in 2011. Were those important interviews lost, all we would have is Kevin McCarthy’s brief 1985 interview with the KTLA TV host Tom Hatten. It appeared on an early Republic Pictures tape and disc releases, and has been retained for this new Signature Edition as well.

Scott Devine’s older video pieces give us the irreplaceable McCarthy and Wynter interviews, along with good input from John Landis, Stuart Gordon, W.D Richter (Invasion 1978), Stuart Kaminsky, Leo Braudy, Bob Burns and Bill Warren. A second shorter featurette constructed from the same video session addresses a lot of ‘what does it all mean’ interview responses.

A little less inspiring is a piece on the film’s proposed titles, none of which fully embrace its uniqueness. And somewhat frustrating is a repetitive series of not-very-informative short pieces on the film’s many locations in and around the Los Angeles area. The annoyingly simplified narration tells us that the outside of a building might be filmed in Sierra Madre, but the inside could be on a soundstage! That wouldn’t be bad once but we’re informed of this at least six times. After getting us excited, many of the locations are just said to be ‘in a Los Angeles neighborhood.’ Were real addresses omitted on the say-so of studio attorneys?  We are interested to hear that back in 1955, that famed downtown Sierra Madre triangle might have only been a few blocks from orchards and bean fields. And I believe that the ‘office building with the stairs in Los Feliz’ may be a building I’ve been in on North Vermont Avenue, that has a restaurant downstairs and offices upstairs.

Just as much fun is a 2006 commentary with both stars and Joe Dante. Dante’s commentaries for his own pictures are always special, and the same excitement carries over here. Both Wynter and McCarthy aim to please in their remembrances and Joe points them in some fun directions. They’re both pretty sharp cookies too; at least once when Joe sneaks out a jokey remark, Dana Wynter bounces right back with a gotcha response. Both accomplished actors long ago accepted the humbling fact that this picture is what they’ll most be remembered for; they take it in good spirit, grateful that Invasion is such a good picture.

The very good new extras were produced by Olive and Elijah Drenner; although never redundant they indicate that the 2006 items may not have been originally planned. The new video extras are easy to spot: they’re in HD, not digibeta, and the music beds behind the talking heads are from the original soundtrack. As there was no clean music source available in 2006, those extras used well-chosen needle drop cues.

Richard Harland Smith provides an academic and insightful new commentary; Smith very helpfully discusses the differences between Jack Finney’s first iteration of the story, and a novelization that changed a number of details — and initiated a lot of arguments among fans. His analysis is good throughout, as is his detailed research on the film’s release and rollout — some of Invasion’s original double features were real losers. Don Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori reads selected pieces from his father’s book, A Siegel Film. And Joe Dante and Larry Cohen (The Body Snatchers 1993) regroup for another discussion of how Invasion has gained special cultural significance.

As mentioned above, Matthew Bernstein’s lengthy discussion of producer Walter Wanger is fascinating. It of course covers the notorious Beverly Hills true-life gun-down involving Wanger, his movie star wife Joan Bennett and agent Jennings Lang. Bernstein even explains how the love triangle relates to Billy Wilder’s masterpiece The Apartment.

Some documents including call sheets and the first page of Orson Welles’ proposed narration appear in a slide show gallery, and an original trailer finishes the video package. Walter Wanger’s name is billboarded, and the text talks about science-fiction thrills, clarifying the movie’s intended genre designation. The final shot of Miles shouting, “You’re next!” is an outtake: Kevin McCarthy’s voice cracks! The trailer is given a full frame transfer. Somebody call Jeffrey Wells, for shots that very tightly framed in the Superscope final presentation suddenly have a surfeit of head- and footroom. Yep, if the original negative is ever located, an even better transfer could be made, at 1:85 or 1:77 as it was filmed — it looks good at 1:33, too. The Superscope version has sufficed well for over sixty years. I don’t mind a chin being clipped here and there: “Stop acting like a fool Miles and accept us!”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New extras: Audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith; The Stranger in Your Lover’s Eyes – A two-part visual essay with actor and son of director Don Siegel, Kristoffer Tabori, reading from his father’s book A Siegel Film; The Fear is Real – Filmmakers Larry Cohen and Joe Dante on the film’s cultural significance; I No Longer Belong: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger – Film scholar and author Matthew Bernstein discusses the life and career of the film’s producer. 2006 ‘recovered’ extras: 2006 audio commentary with actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, and filmmaker Joe Dante; Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited – featuring actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, along with comments from John Landis, Mick Garris, Stuart Gordon and others; The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon more interview material with Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter and the others, discussing its larger social meaning; Return to Santa Mira – An exploration of the film’s locations; What’s In a Name? – On the film’s title. 1985 archival interview with Kevin McCarthy hosted by Tom Hatten; Gallery of production documents. Insert essay by Kier-La Janisse; original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 11, 2018
(5840body)
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Here’s Joe Dante on Siegel’s SF classic:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.