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Fridays with Kevin McCarthy: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The science fiction movies of the1950s are the stuff of legend. Okay, some are ripe for a Mystery Science Theater parody; however, even the most unintentionally comedic of these works are intrinsically linked to the period out of which they sprung and as such, are a fascinating viewing. While Invasion of the Body Snatchers has since been remade–to popular and entertaining results– the 1956 original stands as a powerful example of how these movies fit into the very unique decade that is the 1950s.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers drops audiences into a rural California town as local doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns from a medical conference to discover that something just isn’t right. People aren’t behaving like themselves. One night, as he goes out to dinner with Becky (Dana Wynter) a divorcee who caught Miles’ own recently divorced eye, a local couple (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones) discover a body on their land who looks strangely familiar. Just what is going on? Don Siegel directs Invasion of the Body Snatchers from a script by Daniel Mainwaring.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one in a long line of science fiction horror movies which were all the rage throughout the 1950s. Chances are most people have likely seen at least a couple of these, be it Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or even It Came from Outer Space. However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the best.

Perhaps most interesting about Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the complexity inherent in Mainwaring’s script (which came from a story but Jack Finney). The thematic layers built into the work has fueled both academic and critical discussions of the film over the more than sixty years since its release. Deep diving into these wide-ranging discussions, it seems that while the film has been remade a number of times (most notably in 1978), it is most at home in the Eisenhower 50’s.  

Popular academic theory surrounding the movie revolves around the film’s thematic tie in to the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s. Are these pods a symbol for the spread of Communism? The very nature of the pods threat and the mystery in just how they spread their seed feels rooted in the fear of Communism during the era. A lack of knowledge and understanding breeds fear and panic. No one is safe! You’re next! It feels scarily relevant.

At the same time though, the post-WWII era is known for the forced return to “normalcy” which followed the end of fighting in 1945. Soldiers came home and took their jobs back, forcing women back into the home. We’ve seen happy depictions of this era in the television of the 1950s. Though, we look at these nostalgic, but decidedly white-washed images of suburbia with a bit of skepticism now; however, it’s harder to find period sources which are more critical of what was going on in the United States at the time. This is what people were supposed to want.

Later in life, Kevin McCarthy often sat for Invasion of the Body Snatchers tributes and spoke extensively about his view that it is in fact a critique of consumerism (which ran rampant during the rise of suburbia) that is at the thematic root of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The New York Time quotes McCarthy in his 2010 obituary:

I thought it was really about the onset of a kind of life where the corporate people are trying to tell you how to live, what to do, how to behave…

This quote harkens to more contemporary analysis surrounding 1950s culture: the “Problem with No Name” among housewives, the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “Keeping Up with the Jones’’”, it seems no one at the time was as together as culture wanted viewers to believe. People were stifling under the expectation to “be normal”.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers spotlights four unconventional types in 1950s culture. Miles and Becky are both divorcees while couple Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy (Carolyn Jones) are (by all accounts) childless. None of these people fit into the “Mom and Dad with two and a half kids and a picket fence” ideal which was the norm during the era. Is it coincidental that the characters defined as the “Other” are also the only ones to spot the oncoming invasion? 

Ultimately, decades of prodding never yielded clues to the creative intent behind-the-scenes. McCarthy is quick to point out in interviews that these theories sprung to life in the decades after the film was made with the benefit of hindsight. At the same time, quotes from director Don Siegel and writer Jack Finney have both expressed their intent as just wanting to tell a “good story”. 

McCarthy jumps into his first starring role with an easy likability. In the years before Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he’d largely worked as juveniles (like in Death of a Salesman), or heavies, (as in Drive a Crooked Road). This time out, he carries a heavy workload throughout the narrative. Miles’ primary function is as a figure of identification for the audience. A great deal of the suspense rests with him, as does the impact of the narrative. First and foremost, the audience must care about Miles.

McCarthy’s “All-American Boy” likability plays heavily into his success as Miles Bennell. This persona started with his earliest screen work in Death of a Salesman and stuck with him throughout much of the next decade (even when he was playing a villain). While this element of his star persona is a strength in roles like this, it was ultimately detrimental to his career in the long run. .

Hollywood casts specific types. We know this. However, McCarthy’s stage work shows he was so much more than simply the type Hollywood pegged him as (Miles). At various points throughout his stage career, he tackled the plays of Arthur Miller, Chekhov, Shakespeare and Shaw. In fact, he mentions in interviews that he considered himself a stage actor first. However, in a great many of the parts he landed, particularly throughout the 1950s, he was never able to show his true range as a performer.

In truth, there’s a similar struggle against type amongst the other cast members in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While they all shine brilliantly in this movie, each of these versatile performers struggled to fit into the mold Hollywood assigned them. Actress Dana Wynter acted not only on stage, but was drawn to journalism later in life where she penned a recurring column for the Guardian in London. Meanwhile, actor King Donovan, who plays Jack, never quite found his footing on film; however, he worked extensively on stage and on television. Donovan is also credited as the director on the infamous Jayne Mansfield film Promises Promises.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Jones, who plays Teddy, is probably the best known actor to contemporary audiences. She received an Oscar nomination two years later for her work in Bachelor Party, but truly became a household name thanks to her portrayal of the delightfully unconventional Morticia Addams when The Addams Family debuted on television in 1964. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers represents the peak of Kevin McCarthy’s career. He continued working prolifically after this film (his last IMDB credit is listed as coming in 2012); however, the work never quite reaches the same level he hit here. At the same time though, a number of his later roles harken straight back to this truly influential film. For example, in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) his character is named “Dr. Bennell” while he’s billed as “Miles” in a number of other works. Heck, director Joe Dante (who often collaborated with McCarthy in the 1970s and 1980s) speaks with fondness about the influence of Invasion of the Body Snatchers on his prolific work throughout the late twentieth century.

A deep dive into Invasion of the Body Snatchers shows how truly special this movie is. While Don Siegel was able to put together a talented and well-crafted cast who delivered a fascinating story, the science fiction essential connects on a deep thematic level. Whether it be though an examinations of the pods as a metaphor for communism, or perhaps as a larger argument towards the downside of consumerism in Post-World War II history, this movie is a riveting example of timely 1950s cinema. However, what is perhaps more important than that, it is a darn good movie which allows it to connect just as much now as it did then.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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