Monday, February 14, 2022

Don Siegel Helms a Memorable Invasion


Ranking high among both Hollywood’s most satisfying low-budget sleepers and the 1950’s crop of sci-fi features involving ominous interference from galaxies far away, director Don Siegel’s tense, fast-paced Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes the idea of idyllic small-town America and turns it into a dark, paranoiac nightmare. The first and possibly best film adaptation of Jack Finney’s ingenious 1954 novel The Body Snatchers (first serialized in Collier’s magazine), Siegel’s 1956 Invasion utilizes ideal on-location shooting around Los Angeles to vividly depict a vile other-worldly threat infiltrating itself into the seemingly normal façade of fictional Santa Mira, a placid, friendly community until residents start becoming, one-by-one, cool and distant. Aided by a concise, first-class script by Daniel Mainwaring that cleverly leaves much to the viewer’s imagination, while addressing the dangers of harboring a mob mentality wherein any sign of individualism is destroyed and stark, stylized cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks that perfectly captures the mounting insidiousness pervading the story’s locale as “pod people” take over humanity, Invasion pointedly illustrates the havoc resulting in a society wherein fear and mass hysteria rule the day, during a time wherein irrational panic surrounding the “Red Scare” was recklessly causing damage to America’s democratic structure and the lives of many accused of harboring “un-American” sentiments.

Invasion stands apart from other movies of its genre by maintaining an element of mystery concerning the otherworldly violators and the threat they pose to humanity, and Siegel does a masterful job in upholding this enigmatic aura, while keeping the thriller flowing using simple, direct means, thereby enabling the story to have maximum impact on audiences without any ideas of artistic pretense cluttering up the proceedings. It’s never fully explained exactly why or how people are being overtaken by the alien pods, which makes the narrative possibly more chilling than if mankind was faced with aliens in a more overt manner, ala War of the Worlds or It Came from Outer Space.

A terrific cast, who whole-heartedly commit to the movie’s fantastic premise with conviction and flair, greatly aid Siegel in maintaining an eerie atmosphere as the story unfolds, along with beneficial traces of humor Siegel and Mainwaring throw in to counter the ever-rising tension. Although the film was shot in under a month, the playing upholds a consistently high level of quality due to a fine line-up of stalwart pros, from Whit Bissell and Richard Deacon, who help sell the framing device tacked on after principle photography concluded in order to provide a more upbeat ending, to bit players effectively conveying the sinister, glacial nature of the transformed, including soon-to-be-on-the-rise director Sam Peckinpah as Charlie, the seemingly innocent basement meter reader later seen among the posse out to chase down Dr. Miles Bennell and his former and current lady love Becky Driscoll, the last couple in town yet to be overtaken and zombified by the title characters.

As Miles and Becky, leads Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter expertly serve as audience identification points, with viewers quickly drawn into the plight of the attractive duo, as their rekindled romance is abruptly put on hold to focus on a fight for survival. McCarthy skillfully alternates between adopting the calm, rational sensibility befitting the doctor as he attempts to make sense of the increasingly unusual conduct of his community, with a more intense performance style as Miles’ world is turned inside-out after he discovers the literally out-of-this-world force behind the behavioral shift found in his friends and colleagues, adding an understandably frantic demeanor to Miles as he desperately seeks a way out of town for himself and Becky. As his intended, Wynter has exceptional chemistry with McCarthy; they make an ideal team both romantically- there’s a few provocative exchanges regarding bedside manners and such surprising for a 1956 feature- and in the action-oriented sequences.

 McCarthy had previously used his Actor’s Studio acumen to break through on stage and screen as Biff in Death of a Salesman (with a resulting Oscar nomination providing a great start to a fruitful and lengthy career in films, television and theater) and he brings an earnestness, energy and skill to his most famous role that adds invaluable creditability to Invasion. Substitute a more standard and less dedicated leading man of the period as Miles, and the implausibility of the film’s storyline could turn the whole affair into a laughful B worthy of a Mystery Science Theater salute. However, McCarthy invests every ounce of his considerable talents into making Miles a sympathetic, flesh-and-blood protagonist, resulting in one of the most memorable and convincing heroes found in a 1950’s film. Similarly, Wynter lends an intelligent, mature underplaying to her signature role as Becky that allows her to stand above the typical ingénue found in films, sci-fi genre or otherwise. She also adds a distinct air of class and (at least early on, before things get hectic to the nth degree) serenity to the part that establishes a nice synchronicity between Becky and Miles; both behaviorally and physically, McCarthy and Wynter make a perfect pairing as Invasion’s resident couple-on-the-run, and the audience follows their “Evasion of the Body Snatchers” attempts with rapt concern, due to the admirable credibility the stars bring to their meaty assignments.

Other Santa Mira locals making an impression are Virginia Christie as Becky‘s skittish cousin Wilma, who assertively informs Miles she’s convinced her uncle Ira isn’t what he appears, thereby kicking the plot into high gear. Christie nicely conveys Wilma’s unsettled sense of dread concerning the unknown, and what lies ahead for her once Miles and Becky depart, then later vividly depicts the sinister edge driving Wilma’s duplicitous nature as she genially assures Miles everything is A-Okay. King Donovan and Carolyn Jones make perhaps the strongest impression as Jack and Teddy, the couple who alert Miles and Becky to the actual physical threat involved in the odd events pervading the townsfolk. Donovan and Jones are given a few humorous lines to add a little diversion to the suspense and, as usual throughout the decade, Jones manages to stand out with limited screen time.

 Jones had an uncanny knack in the 1950’s to score small but, in her hands, significant roles in one high-profile film after another, and never disappointed in making an arresting impression in a wide variety of roles, leaving audiences eager for more. Check out her flirty charmer in House of Wax, terrified dice thrower in The Big Heat, blasé dog-walker in The Tender Trap, or provocative night nurse in The Seven Year Itch for a few prime examples of Jones adeptness at churning out notable work in the “there are no small parts” field. Fitting, these roles led to possibly Jones’ most original and daring performance as the unnamed Greenwich Village “Existentialist” in 1957’s The Bachelor Party, wherein Jones’ striking looks and fascinating portrayal of a jittery, desperate, lonely free-spirit pretty much walks off with the film in her seven minutes or so of screen time, landing a warranted Oscar nomination in the process. Jones is also in peak form in Invasion, using her huge, expressive eyes and an emotionally-driven acting approach to floridly showcase Teddy’s anxiety-ridden state in the face of truly abnormal circumstances. Like her co-stars, Jones’ realistic playing enhances the incredible plot’s believability factor and allows viewers to stay in-the moment during each riveting scene.

Siegel’s adroit handling of Mainwaring’s inspired script, beautiful camerawork that expertly exudes a specific time-and-place and a top-flight cast has allowed Invasion to endure as a sci-fi standard, capturing the imagination of generations of filmgoers while securing its current status as one of the most unique and venerated classics of 1950’s cinema. The deluxe Olive Signature Edition Blu-ray offer an exceptional presentation of the film in its original “Superscope” aspect ratio, and offers a substantial amount of bonus material, including great “Sleep No More” and “The Fear and the Fiction” behind-the-scenes documentaries featuring interviews with McCarthy and a still-stunning Wynter. Although there have been several further screen adaptations of Finney’s durable tale, including a terrific 1978 Philip Kaufman update that manages to sustain its own funky, harrowing sensibility, Don Siegel and company’s vision of a Santa Mira gone wild remains the first and foremost location to explore when one is inclined to partake in an irreplaceable Invasion.            

And a fond farewell to iconic screen legend Monica Vitti, the cool, enigmatic star of one of the great films, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 masterwork L’Avventura. Subsequent to her success this landmark film, Vitta would go on to serve as real-life partner Antonioni’s muse in other intriguing 1960’s works such as La Notte and Red Desert, but L‘Avventura, with its revolutionary approach to storytelling and vivid depiction of the transitory nature of relationships, offers perhaps the best and most unforgettable lens in which to view the lovely Vitti’s distinct, stylish screen presence.


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