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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
There was nothing to hold onto - except each other.
Filmmaker(s): Don Siegel

A small-town doctor learns that the population of his community is being replaced by emotionless alien duplicates.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Pods, Plots and Plodders

Once in a while Hollywood produces a movie that decades later gets adopted by American industrialised secondary education. That’s because teachers confuse various notions of ideas and think that movies are a great teaching tool. So to teach the evils of communism, show “1984.” War? “Private Ryan.” And on and on including all sorts of filmed literature.

But no film has been so abused as this one. For our international readers, the American political identity for decades was defined as anti-communism. In many cases that led to responses that seem ridiculous in hindsight, including a public trampling of civil rights by a zealous senator. This is important history, all of it and worth understanding.

Now along comes this taut little film about possession. It wasn’t designed as an allegory, but was quickly adopted. Since, we have legions of schoolkids — and not a few critics — armed with three buzzwords (paranoia, communism and McCarthyism) diligently watching this and writing essays. But just take a look at the mechanics of what is happening: there is no paranoia because the threat is real; there is no brainwashing or convincing; there isn’t even a conspiracy in a normal (meaning social) sense. The allegory just doesn’t fit and why it persists is as interesting a story as what is purportedly allegorised.

You have to understand where this came from.

The biggest revolution in film at the time this was made was the notion of “noir.. The basic idea is an ordinary Joe (often including his girl) is caught up in a world of fate whose underlying laws are different, don’t quite make sense, and seem to be capriciously toying with him. Certain cinematographic conventions often accompanied this (darkness, high contrast, dutch angles, voice-over narrative, high caricature) which have been mistaken for what it is.

Noir completely turned filmmaking and film watching around because it could toy with the differences between the world of the viewer and the world of the movie. One main thread of this toying dealt with the already entrenched notion of what I call “folding,” the idea that the story somehow references the fact that it exists in a movie. Often this is subliminal, sometimes explicit but usually in between as here.

Just as side comment on genre: the fifties had a rather well understood notion of science fiction. It relied on science, usually by taking some known scientific principle (just one usually) and extrapolating into the future. In many cases, there were in-your-face moralistic allegories. “Star Trek” is an example of 50s science fiction. Today, science plays little part in what is called science fiction, especially in films.

When this movie came out, I was already a pulp science fiction reader. No one in its era would have thought of it as science fiction. Yes, it references aliens (by a psychiatrist no less) but it rather was considered noir thriller/horror because it has no science.

That “noir” part was because what we see are actors. We know they are actors, who have actorly behavior. What do actors do? They inhabit the “bodies” of characters. In a “Purple Rose of Cairo” twist, here we have the characters that actors play worried that another level of actors (passionless actors no less) will take over their bodies when they are no acting (that is, when they are asleep).

It is a far more sophisticated thing going on. We worry as viewers because when this sort of layer shuffling happens, we get confused about whether we are in the world of our theatre-bound butt or the world that we see on screen. This same confusion, incidentally, gives an opening for other sorts of confusions like the one about communism.

Posted in 2005

Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.


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