By Julie Lavelle
Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1956 – dir. Don Siegel
Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers has prompted countless debates over its political message: is it anti-McCarthyism or anti-communist? Although the iconic invasion narrative gives the plot cohesion, the film is most interesting for its bleak envisioning of a post-World War II America filled with broken promises, mental instability, and general uneasiness–a world in which anxiety rules and love can’t save the day.
The film’s style emphasizes anxiety, insecurity, and paranoia. Siegel transports the aesthetic of film noir from rainy city alleyways to the sunny, tree-lined streets of the California suburbs. The film is shot in black and white, and relies heavily on the use of shadows to create atmosphere and build suspense. A looming shadow emerging from the cellar (a location motif in the film) becomes Becky’s father; another large shadow in Miles’ cellar becomes a gas man moving the meter. The ordinariness of the goings on is belied by frequent canted angle shots, as when Miles discovers Becky’s pod in the cellar. Low-angle shots (also a motif in the film) make an early appearance in a medium two-shot of Miles and Jimmy Grimaldi’s mother. The voice-over (which was added, along with the first and last scene, at the behest of the studio) also pays homage to the film noir genre.
The pessimism of Siegel’s vision is further emphasized by a preoccupation with mental illness. The tensions in the outside world are not held at bay by a suburban existence, as was promised to Americans in the 1950s. Fears about “going crazy” are raised early in the film during a conversation between Wilma and Miles. When she asks for reassurance, his response incurs as much anxiety as it dispels: “No, no, you’re not. Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you would think.” A psychiatrist or “witch doctor” comments on the cause of the “mass hysteria” that is gripping the community: worry about what’s going on in the world. References to madness and hysteria abound in this film. When Miles is fooled by the rags in the basement he says: “You win, pick up the marbles.” Even the film’s romance is not free of the conversation: when Miles first tries to kiss Becky she demurs: “That way lies madness.”
Siegel also foregrounds the insecurity of his male protagonist. Miles is characterized by a lack of seriousness and an inability to “perform masculinity” in his role as protector of family and community. Although he is the town doctor, he doesn’t have all (or actually any!) of the answers. When he and Becky talk in his office he comments: “Maybe I clown around too much—pretty soon my patients won’t let me prescribe aspirin to them.” Later, while talking about love, he says: “I wouldn’t know about that, I’m just a general practitioner.” When the subject of Wilma’s mental health comes up, he admits: “I’m a doctor according to my diploma, but I don’t really know what Wilma’s trouble is.” After the romance between Miles and Becky heats up, he questions her about her marriage. About his own, he adds that one of the problems was that he was never “there when dinner was on the table”– something that film scholar Tarratt interprets as a reference to his inability to perform sexually. Although in many ways Miles plays the standard male lead, his self-deprecating humor rings hollow and draws attention to his lack of success in the traditional Hollywood sense. Not only does he lose the woman but, in Siegel’s original version, he ends up on the highway shouting into the wind.
Finally, Siegel’s suburbia is a world in which romantic love doesn’t work and marriage doesn’t last. When Miles and Becky reunite she tells him that she has “been in Reno” for a divorce. A moment later she turns the conversation to him: “Dad tells me you were there too.” A film from the 1950s in which the lead romantic couple are divorcees?! The subject of divorce is not dropped after this set-up, but is raised several times throughout the film. Miles earnestly declares that he worked at his marriage—he hadn’t wanted it to fail. After they sleep together (she appears in his shirt in his kitchen—a typical “code” used by filmmakers who worked around the censors) he talks about marriage. He asks Becky: “Did you do this for your husband?” Becky replies: “Yes, didn’t your wife do this for you?” Although the topic of divorce is repeatedly discussed, we are given no real explanation for the failure of their respective marriages.
When Dr. Kaufman urges Miles and Becky to join with the pod people, they clutch each other and proclaim the importance of love. The psychiatrist reminds Miles that love is not the answer: “You’ve been in love before and it didn’t last.” It’s hard to imagine a darker take on love and marriage in an American film of this time period. Even the version of the film imposed by the studio against Siegel’s wishes (the tacked on first and last scene and voice-over) supports this pessimistic vision of love. Maybe the film’s most horrifying moment is not the iconic shot of Miles on the highway, but actually the close-up of Miles after he sees Becky’s changed face. Siegel’s film reminds us that there is no real escape from the world in which we live—the only escape is madness itself.