Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Lobby card for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956.

Lobby card for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956.

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.

Wanger and Siegel wanted Dick Powell and Kim Novak for the lead roles, but with so little money available, the relatively unknown Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter were cast.

Dana Wynter, human or duplicate?

Dana Wynter, human or duplicate?

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?
Becky: Mmm-hmm.
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.

Dana Wynter, Kevin McCarthy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956.

Dana Wynter, Kevin McCarthy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956.

The Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s will be continued.

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  1. TheNonna
    Posted July 28, 2015 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    I agree that Invasions was terrifying in that ‘don’t go to sleep’ mode (but for me it’s was only that first night – and no nightmares), but my fave all-time Sci-Fi movie is The Day the Earth Stood Still. Bare minimum FX, but in a time when (like now) the world was on a path to destroying itself through violence, it left a blatant message. But moreover, what I always remembered most was the other message – unprovoked fear and intolerance and how that intolerance is detrimental to our progress and ultimately our existence.
    Besides, it was just mesmerizing story-telling (but please, no references to Klatu Barada Neekto!).

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  2. DavidP
    Posted March 17, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Robert and everybody else: I’m now seeing this movie in a whole new way.  To be frank, I had only seen snatches of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on late-night TV, and now I’ll definitely be heading out to rent the DVD and see the whole thing.

    Frankly, I had always thought this was a parable about communism (who was and who wasn’t, during the 1950s). I’d never heard that — according to lefty elites — that it was about McCarthyism. I did a bit of quick research, after looking at this post, and saw that some also saw it as a parable against the alleged “conformity” of the Eisenhower era. (For an argument against that false critique about Eisenhower-era conformity –  by intellectual elites of the era — read Alice McDermott’s” great novel “That Night” about life and bittersweet love in a Levittown neighborhood on Long Island.)

    I can’t help but recall along similar lines, a 1950s movie called “The Blob” (Steeve McQueen’s first leading role), and that filmmakers saw “The Blob” as a “Biblical parable,” but that many movie goers and critics, on the other hand, saw it as a warning against “creeping communism.” Incidentally, that film’s famous run-out scene is now reacted annually at “Blobfest” at The Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where the movie was filmed — all of which underscores Hollywood’s positive effect on American popular culture.

    Ultimately, I agree that it’s inappropriate to see “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as a parable about communism, McCarthyism or “Eisenhower conformity.” It is indeed about, as Robert put it, “the tyranny of collectivization, the loss of individuality” — all of which, in a way, could be reflected in McCarthyism, communism or in sociatial conformity.

    In reading this, I can’t help but recall Odysseus refusing Calypso’s offer of immortality — as tempting as it is — because he would be giving up, in a way, the same things that the characters in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” fear losing.

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    • TheNonna
      Posted July 28, 2015 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      It seems that there were entirely too many movies of that era interpreted as either Communism or McCarthyism – which in my book, look very similar in this millennium. Sad that no one could just see the ridiculousness of Steve McQueen trying to kill Jello as an all-around good time.

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  3. David Foster
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    There’s an old SF story in which people who have died can be replaced by clones (“pseudo-life”) for the comfort of their survivors–the pseudo-life is identical to the person replaced in appearance, memories, personalities, thought processes…EXCEPT that the pseudo-life is incapable of creativity.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink


      I will confess that sci-fi literature is the biggest gap in my education. I’ve tried, numerous times, to read what are considered classics of the genre, but for some reason, the books fail to hold my attention. I’ve always preferred sic-fi in the movies or TV. I think I’ve seen every episode of The Twilight Zone at least twice.

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      • Nickie Clifford
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Robert, you must view the old ‘Outer Limits’ episodes – they’re wonderful in-all their low-budget but high-creativity, ingenious splendor;) Also, ‘Blade Runner’ is a great flick – full of pathos (very “film-noir” as-well;)

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Every once in a while I do head over to You Tube and watch an old TZ episode. They hold up very well in spite of the low productions values. “Blade Runner” is a masterpiece.

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      • Larry
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        Just curious, which SF writers/books/stories did you read?

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

          Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Le Guin, Zelazny, Silverberg, Delany, the usual suspects. Tried Tolkien a few times and just got bored out of my skull. I like a few Philip K. Dick short stories.

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    • Posted March 15, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      David — I fear Hollywood may have been populated with these pseudo-lifes!

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  4. Nickie Clifford
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Another one of ‘your’ films I can comment on! (Karen and I just may have similar views of 1950’s Japanese art films:) I love this film – possibly because it juxtaposes small town life where everyone in the community is intertwined, and knows one-another well – yet are distinct individuals (the ‘personal’) with the inherently dehumanizing effect of the ‘collective’ (the ‘impersonal’). I remember the analogy of ‘McCarthyism’ (as it pertains to this movie) being bandied about by my Marxist political film series professor – but I felt that if there were a ‘political’ bent at all – it was much-more reflective of socialism/communism. That said – I’ve had a penchant for schlocky ’50’s Sci Fi flicks since childhood (Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, The Thing, etc…) when I’d stay up late and watch ‘Creature Features’ on Saturday night;)   

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink


      Everyone associated with this film has denied its allegorical connection to McCarthyism, even Daniel Mainwaring who was blacklisted for a while. And like you, I believe if Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about anything, other than a ripping yarn, it’s about the tyranny of collectivization, the loss of individuality. I first saw this film when I was quite young, and for weeks afterwards, I was terrified of falling asleep.

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      • Randy
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

        I remember a Twilight Zone episode I saw as a boy where a young girl fell through a dimensional doorway in her bedroom wall in the middle if the night. I wouldn’t go near a wall for days afterwards.

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        • Kevin Aldrich
          Posted March 17, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

          Wow. I saw this too as a little boy and it scared me so much, I mean like nothing I had ever encountered.

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  5. Bill Brandt
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the write up Robert – now that I have plunged into streaming I’ll see if this is on Netflix
    I was discussing the making of Shane with someone and it was funny that (I believe) George Stevens wanted different actors to star – and it became an iconic classic despite best efforts 😉

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  6. Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Finney was a great sci fi writer. He wrote several short stories and novels about time travel. My favorite was called “The Woodrow Wilson Dime” and was about a guy who picks up a paper at a news stand in New York. In his change, he gets a Woodrow Wilson dime, a coin he’s never seen before. When he is on the way home he sees a sign for Cooca Cola and wonders about the spelling. When he gets home, he discovers that his wife is the girl he almost married, but didn’t. He figures out that he has crossed into a world of other choices people might have made. The news stand is the intersection. It’s exciting to see what this new wife is like and he settles into the new world. Eventually, he gets bored until one day he finds another Woodrow Wilson dime in his change. That’s the end of the story. The version I read was a short story, not a novel.

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    • Barry
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      Jack Finney also wrote a novel called Time and Again set in the 1970’s and roughly one hundred years back, all at The Dakota. Thrill. A work of beauty. I don’t want to get into meaning and timeless love other than to say I believe. Time And Again had several semi-serious flirtations within the film world but sadly no deal. By that I mean no picture.

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  7. Barry
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Dick Powell…Yes! The rest of this is a generous assessment from Robert. Ah, no Dick Powell. No reason for generosity in that case.

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  8. Jake
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Most chilling line: “… and there’ll be no more tears.”

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes, a beautiful piece of dialogue.

      And this:

      Dan: Love, desire, ambition, faith — without them, life’s so simple, believe me.
      Miles: I don’t want any part of it.
      Dan: You’re forgetting something, Miles.
      Miles: What’s that?
      Dan: You have no choice.

      Like talking to Democrats.

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