Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

2016 #147
Don Siegel | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | PG

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

A sci-fi thriller about a stealth alien invasion using human duplicates (clue’s in the title), this original film version of the oft-remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers is best not at genre-movie chills, but at evoking and commenting on paranoia and what causes it.

Thematically, the narrative of insidious outsiders slowly replacing good honest people with braindead versions who are on their side has been read as either anti-communist or anti-McCarthyite, with some critics claiming the framing story (more on that in a bit) changes it from the latter to the former. Allegedly none of these themes were intended — not by the author of the original story, the screenwriter, the producer, or the director. Which doesn’t mean you can’t see them there. Indeed, director Don Siegel felt the anti-McCarthy subtext was inescapable, but he tried not to emphasise it. Whichever reading you prefer, or none, the sense of unease, distrust, and lurking danger that the film creates are a peerless reflection of paranoid feelings.

Although I deemphasised the genre aspect above, that doesn’t mean it lacks for sophistication there either. It’s as much a thriller as it is science fiction, and more mature in that regard than what’s commonly brought to mind by the phrase “50s sci-fi movie” (whether that’s fair or not). The way the mystery slowly unravels — the calmness of it; how even our heroes unwittingly allow some of it to happen — sucks you slowly deeper into its anxious grip. (“Slowly” being a relative term, because this is a short, quick movie.) Nonetheless, the most outright SF elements — the plant-like pods that the clones emerge from — are suitably creepy. Not in themselves, but when they first burst open and the bodies inside begin to ooze out… Though not strictly a horror movie (at least not as we’d define it today), those moments are chilling.

Extreme gardening

The impact of this sequence is supported by the black-and-white photography, which helps obscure any cheapness or amateurism to be found from the era- and budget-restrained special effects work. But such photography benefits the film as a whole, too, with some great film noir visuals during nighttime scenes. Siegel had previously helmed several such crime pictures (and would go on to a couple more) and it’s clear those skills crossed over. It also works very nicely with the film’s paranoia — what’s lurking in the shadows?

In some respects it’s amazing Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as successful as it is, because the studio chose to dick around with it in a couple of ways. Originally the film had some humour, which (as I think we all know by now) definitely can have a place in a horror movie, generally to help manage tension levels. Despite successful test screenings in which the audience screamed or laughed as appropriate, the studio ordered the humour be cut. I guess they then felt they’d made the film too glum, because they next ordered the addition of bookend sequences, against the wishes of both the producer and the director. It’s clear these couple of scenes were shot much later, with much less care given to their quality. They do somewhat detract from the pervading pessimistic, bleak, increasingly hopeless tone — which was why they were added, of course, so at least in that respect they’re a success.

Those late additions aren’t bad enough to ruin the film, however, which still comes away as a well-made exercise in tension.

4 out of 5

High Noon (1952)

2015 #50
Fred Zinnemann | 81 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U / PG

On the day marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries his young bride Amy (Grace Kelly), hands in his badge and plans to leave town, word reaches Hadleyville that a criminal he arrested, Frank Miller (presumably Will read DK2 and arrested him for crimes against literature), will arrive on the noon train, bent on revenge. Afraid that Miller and his cronies will terrorise the town and/or hunt down the newlyweds wherever they go, Will elects to stay and face the gang. But will any of the townspeople stand alongside him to defend their home?

Well, you probably know the answer to that — it’s one of the film’s more (in)famous facets. If you somehow don’t know and want to remain spoiler free, look away now, because the answer is: no. No one will stand with Will. Interpreted by the American left as an analogy for people being afraid to stand up to McCarthy’s HUAC witch-hunt, some on the right were less impressed: John Wayne and Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo as a direct riposte. Both are regarded as classic Westerns, so in that respect there’s no ‘winner’ there. Besides, High Noon was eventually embraced by the right as well, turning it around to see it as a celebration of one man’s dedication to his duty.

Some would contend it’s impossible to engage with High Noon and ignore that political allegory; others, like Mike at Films on the Box in his eloquent take on the film, would say it’s more than good enough to stand apart from such concerns. I have sympathy with both sides: the parallels are surely there, but it’s also a fine Western thriller in its own right. You certainly don’t need to know about the contemporaneous events it was reflecting to enjoy it. As to whether that subtext is a beneficial added dimension or a needless distraction, that’s down to personal preference.

There’s plenty else going on to keep a viewer engaged, anyway. It’s not an action-packed Western, the style many people at the time were accustomed to: according to Wikipedia, it faced criticism for its shortage of “chases, fights, and picture-postcard scenery”. In its place there’s the slow-burn tension of the clock ticking towards midday and the inevitable confrontation, as well as the moral and emotional dilemmas of the townsfolk, who’ve been happy to rely on Will’s marshalling ability for so long but refuse to help when he needs them.

There are personal relationships to contend with too: Amy is a Quaker and so a pacifist, and just wants to leave rather than face a violent confrontation; Will’s deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), refuses to help because Will refuses to recommend him for promotion; and then there’s hotel owner Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), who’s currently Harvey’s lover, but used to be Will’s, and before that was Miller’s. She’s planning to flee town too because, well, wouldn’t you?

To top it all off, the film takes place in near-as-damn-it real time. Regular readers will know this is a plus for me, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom. In a narrative such as this, however, it only adds to the tension: you know it isn’t going to jump from 11:30 to the titular time, for instance — you’re going to live every one of those minutes with the characters; that’s exactly how much, or little, time Will has left to get ready.

Then it all culminates in a strong extended action sequence. Surely anyone feeling deprived of such thrills was satiated at that point? Maybe the now-more-familiar structure of building to a single big sequence at the end was less accepted back in 1952.

And the attitudes of 1952 do continue to surround the film. The activities of HUAC had a serious, enduring impact on Hollywood (you only have to see the footage of Elia Kazan receiving his honorary Oscar in 1999, and the varying reactions it provoked from the audience, to appreciate that), so it’s no surprise that a film that engages with those events, however allegorically, can’t wholly shrug off such an association. For those who aren’t interested in those affairs, however, it still has a tense story and powerful character drama. Either way you look at it, High Noon is a rich, well-made, rewarding picture.

5 out of 5

High Noon is on Film4 this afternoon at 2:55pm.