[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
Although he has gone on to make such films as Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry, Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup, Hell Is for Heroes, The Killers, and The Beguiled, there are many who still regard The Invasion of the Body Snatchers as Don Siegel’s best movie. If I continue to prefer several of the others, it’s because Siegel himself seems to come through more directly. Many of the virtues of Invasion inhere in the writing of Daniel Mainwaring, an author of no mean importance whose scripts for Out of the Past (based on his own novel) and The Phenix City Story likewise postulate and effectively sustain film-worlds wherein the characters seem to breathe doom out of the very air; in Out of the Past the mutual corruptibility and mortality of Mitchum, Greer, and Douglas proceeds inevitably from the bemused sadomasochism that constitutes their behavioral style; Phenix City Story, filmed the year before Invasion, recounts the terror of a syndicate-controlled Southern town in which not only the back rooms, alleys, and dark streets but also the homes and the very minds of the citizenry prove insidiously, almost ineffably, pregnable. Then too, there’s the question of the belated and perhaps invalidating framing episodes of Dr. Bennell trying to convince Drs. Hill and Bassett about what’s happening in Santa Mira. Bob Cumbow has sorted out the interpretive problems which that gives rise to. But, in addition, I wonder how the main body of the film has been affected by the revision. In the original, did the events of the film simply unreel without benefit of voiceover commentary? Maybe, maybe not—in Out of the Past Robert Mitchum describes that past to Virginia Huston, which accounts for about half the movie, and the fact as well as the tone of the narration contributes to that film’s sense of eerie masochistic reverie. There are moments in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when Siegel’s camera just gives us Miles Bennell’s car moving through the streets of the town, fast and slow, by night and by day. Now we vvusually hear Kevin McCarthy’s voice describing the intensification of his concern, the specific doubts that specific details of the changed life of Santa Mira are stirring in his mind. But what if we didn’t hear that commentary? What would be the effect of those calculatedly mundane images and movements? I ask it with some regret because one of the grabbiest moments in the movie is the sight of the town square about 7:45 one Saturday morning; Miles peers down at it from the window of his office, and even before the pod-laden trucks arrive, that natural-sunlight scene has something unshakably awful about it.
The look of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is what I always flash back on first, that town square, Miles’s car bumped up onto the curb in front of Becky’s father’s house, the dusty road and disregarded produce stand at Grimaldi’s, the patronless nightclub with the jukebox jollying itself along, the stairs and the hallway to Miles’s office, Sam Peckinpah stepping into view at the foot of Miles’s cellar steps. The cinematography partakes equally and adroitly of the ambient-light, on-location shooting of the postwar, post–Italian-neorealism, technologically liberated movie and the brooding angularity of German Expressionism. When Miles and Becky hide themselves in his office closet and a pod-replaced policeman comes to peer over the bottom of the wired window, we have moved into the fateful territory of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once: Henry Fonda on a bed in the prison hospital isolation ward, his fingers probing the mattress for a hidden gun, his intent gaze meeting that of the guard outside the door. The guard has been reduced to an expressive function: the eyes watch without a ghost of humanity, only the skin around them moving slightly at the below-the-frame chewing of a wad of gum. But when Miles and Becky flee from their former neighbors, struggling up a steep, mountain-high stairway toward the camera, the natural locale yields the expressive means of describing both the near-hopelessness of their situation and the grandeur of their aspiration, their elemental fight to save their humanity.
Siegel, of course, made his first waves as a montage specialist (Casablanca, Gentleman Jim), and his editorial sense controls his shooting. Whenever he uses a quotable camera angle or frames an ingenious shadow effect, the detail is made to participate in the rhythm of the movie. We’ve all seen scads of science-fiction pictures in which 99 percent of the footage (forget about the performances) might have been directed by a pod, with the visual bravura reserved for a few shots that were probably left up to the special-effects boys anyway. The visual system of this film involves the impingement of precise imbalances on the business-as-usual style of life in Santa Mira. When somebody starts moving toward Miles’s greenhouse, Siegel cuts inside the place to watch the character approaching, and the shot he cuts to is tilted. We aren’t in the outlandish stylistic country of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, where the world fits together in distorted intersections because the controlling point-of-view is that of innocent/ignorant American Joseph Cotten. We’re in a place where people feel at home—barbecuing steaks in their own backyard, for God’s sake!—and just off that backyard they’re about to find something hideous. Hence Siegel’s tilt is scarcely gratuitous in itself; but more than that, the shift in viewpoint is fair game, recalling a previous moment when the camera backed up and everybody strolled over to see what was lying on Jack Belicec’s pool table in the dark. Something similar is about to be discovered in the greenhouse, but the situation is worsening: hence, the tilt. And once having tilted, Siegel continues to build intelligently, increasing the visual tension without grandstanding: Jack passes through a slanted, slatted light pattern that shears reality into sectors of almost clinical hostility. After Jack finds the pods, Miles enters the greenhouse to destroy them. Again the tilt, again the slanted shadows; and Miles, bearing a pitchfork, lifts a new set of slants—the prongs of the fork—into the frame at an opposing diagonal.
Another progression, less complicated but in its way more subtle, may be observed after Miles and Becky have fled from town. Collapsing in the comparative safety of the abandoned mine tunnel, Becky says, “I can’t go on much longer”—without sleep, that is, the sleep during which she would lose her soul. The camera drops slightly and the two are reflected in a puddle of water—a mirror reflex stylistically dear to the Doppelgänger-ridden German cinema. Miles leaves Becky for a moment, then returns for her. They run, trip, fall in that puddle. The reflection is shattered. Miles kisses Becky—Becky is not there to kiss back. She fell asleep for that moment he was gone, and now she is lost. It is a terrible moment, and Siegel completes his realization of it by intercutting ultra-closeup images of Miles’s horror and the neo-Becky’s epoxy-eyed stare.
A strain of humor as black as those eyes runs through the film and marks it as Siegel’s. Some of it surely derives from Mainwaring’s script (or even Jack Finney’s original story): Jack’s rejoinder, for example, when Miles asks him whether his wife Teddy doesn’t mind having been converted: “She feels exactly the way I do.” The line is a cliché consolation, one of our most conventional means of giving comfort to a friend in doubt; we hear the empty sentimentality knocking against the literal meaning of the words. The pods would talk in clichés. The film’s power to disturb depends largely on its abundance of observable normalcy. When a pod-police call goes out to apprehend Dr. Bennell and Becky Driscoll, we hear it over the radio of a police car stopped at a local eatery: the Hot Dog Show. The cops sit on stools at the counter; a great neon weinie shines overhead. A Big Mac might address us more directly in 1974, but that all-American image of (thankfully) unspecified meat ground and pressed inside an artificial skin makes an apt metaphor for what’s going on here. Similarly, Miles safeguards himself against discovery by stashing his car in a used-car lot and slapping a price sign on his windshield; what more apt image of interchangeability in a car culture! And speaking of black humor, note the MIROIR NOIR poster above the pod-laden pool table at the Belicecs’. And where better to start robbing identities than a town named Santa Mira (just say “mirror” with a New York accent).
“Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us.” The line comes as part of a speech so blatant that neither the director nor the actor can do much about it. But Siegel certainly endorses the notion, most recently in Charley Varrick. Most of his heroes are a good deal more complicated, and more complicated to watch, than Kevin McCarthy’s Miles Bennell (although Dr. Bennell surely does qualify as one of Siegel’s social-outcast protagonists—it’s just that what he’s outcast from is so horrific that there’s no way to feel ambivalent about his goal or his desperation). But even Miles gets torn up the middle at one point, and the audience with him. We’re back at the greenhouse. Jack and Teddy have been dispatched to get help, somehow. Miles picks up that pitchfork and moves to destroy the pods. Coming to the one that looks more like Becky with each passing second, he hesitates; momentarily, in sentimental anguish, he refuses to destroy something he inescapably sees as Becky herself. In our seats, we too squirm, partly with Miles, but more so at his failure of pragmatism. Yet nothing could be more pragmatic than Danny Kaufman’s arguments why Miles and Becky should cross over: “Love—desire—ambition—faith. Without them, life’s so simple.” For a moment we aren’t sure how to feel about Miles and that thing that has to be destroyed. But that’s OK: Frustration is human. Siegel approves.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson