We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For a listing of the greatest movies of the 20s and 30s click here.
15. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956.
This film has no CGI. No SFX. And no gripping battle scenes in outer space. And yet, absent these current staples of the genre, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, because it focuses relentlessly on humanity, and what makes us human, remains one of the greatest Sci Fi movies ever made,
Based on a 1954 novel by Jack Finney, Invasion was budgeted at $350,000 and a twenty day shooting schedule. Saddled with such a low budget, veteran producer Walter Wanger hired director Don Siegel. Getting his start in the montage department at Warner Bros.—he cut the opening montage of Casablanca—Siegel was accustomed to making the most of tight budgets.
Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay is elegant and crisp, telling the story of physician Miles Bennell (McCarthy), who learns that the population of his small, picture-perfect California town, is gradually being replaced with alien duplicates, identical on the surface but devoid of any emotion or individuality.
Endlessly and tediously analyzed by the politically correct as an allegory for McCarthyism, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an entertaining thriller, a sinister tale of fear and paranoia, a beautifully crafted work of sustained suspense.
First and foremost, Invasion of the Body Snacthers is about the destruction of man’s soul.
The problem with political allegories is they usually serve polemical ends; a bit like shooting an arrow and then drawing the bulls eye where the arrow landed.
But Dana Wynter as Becky, Bennell’s girlfriend, has the line of dialogue that serves as the thematic spine of the movie:
Becky: I don’t want to live in a world without love or grief or beauty, I’d rather die.
The invasion of the title is the loss of liberty. It is the crushing of individuality, and the enforced conformity of the human race.
And of course, love is the primary target of the alien invasion.
Good movies strategically use the set-up and payoff to buttress narrative and theme. Here, in act I, Mainwaring provides this beautiful set-up for Miles and Becky’s relationship.
Miles: This is the oddest thing I’ve ever heard of. Let’s hope we don’t catch it. I’d hate to wake up some morning and find out that you weren’t you.
Becky: [laughs] I’m not the high school kid you use to romance, so how can you tell?
Miles: You really want to know?
Miles: [after kissing her] Mmmm, you’re Becky Driscoll, all right!
Hiding in a cave in act III, Miles tells Becky not to fall asleep. Because if she does, her soul will be snatched and she will be transformed into an alien.
The pay-off, when it comes, is chilling:
Miles: I never knew fear until I kissed Becky.
With the loss of the soul, comes the death of love, which signals nothing less than the end of the world.
In the film’s original ending, Miles is seen rushing into highway traffic, arms flailing, like a paranoid schizophrenic screaming: “They’re here already! You’re next!”
But the studio, Allied Artists, was made nervous by this bleak ending and demanded a change. Reluctantly, Wanger and Siegel added a perfunctory flashback framing story that hints at a more optimistic resolution.
In spite of the less than persuasive end, Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains a gripping tale, a film that manages to transcend a central flaw, and remain a Hollywood classic.
The Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s will be continued.