Stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Larry Gates.
Whether viewed as the sci-fi/horror classic it justifiably is, or as an example of inept studio suits sabotaging their own picture, or as an early example of a theatrical underachiever subsequently “made” by television showings, or even as a stepping stone project for producer Walter Wanger after he served time for shooting his wife’s lover in a parking lot (pant, pant) … the original 1956 screen version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has provided lots of fodder for yarn-spinning over the years. And this “Signature” Blu-ray from Olive Films is worth getting despite at best a marginal visual upgrade from that distributor’s 2012 predecessor because nearly of them all get discussed in depth on this bonus-heavy new package.
Originally released in non-anamorphic SuperScope (akin to today’s Super 35) but shown on TV for generations in 1.33:1, cult filmmaker Don Siegel’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s Collier’s magazine serial — intelligently adapted by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring — was either anti-communist or anti-Red Scare, according to whichever political faction was speaking after both eventually took the picture under their allegorical wings. Male lead Kevin McCarthy says here that he can recall no political discussion of any kind over an unbelievable 19-day shooting schedule (some say 24, but so what?) — but he does note that Siegel often referred to Allied Artists executives as “pods.” He was, of course, referring to the celestial seeds that, per the movie, co-opted and replicated the sleeping physical bodies of our parents, teachers and probably even Orval Faubus to produce alternative versions of themselves that lacked genuine feelings, emotions and, to be sure, imaginations.
At first, the studio seemed to have high hopes for the project because after his short prison term for shooting agent Jennings Lang over an illicit affair with actress-wife Joan Bennett, Wanger had begun his comeback with the Siegel-directed Riot in Cell Block 11, a sleeper “glorified-B” that had delivered on box office and prestige reviews in 1954. (Lang survived to produce a couple good films and a slew of howlers like Swashbuckler, Earthquake, The Sting II and three Airport sequels — though let it be said that without him, George Kennedy and Bibi Andersson would never have worked together). But Allied Artists was after more easily exploitable shlock — hence, the schlocky title they wanted affixed (Finney’s book was simply The Body Snatchers) against the wishes of Siegel, who liked McCarthy’s excellent suggestion: Sleep No More.
The studio also demanded a more hopeful and much belatedly filmed “frame” around the story that all kinds of people knock, though I was happy to hear the spear-headers of separate commentaries here — one by historian Richard Harland Smith, another by director Joe Dante with McCarthy and co-lead Dana Wynter — giving this part of the movie a little love, as I have always liked it myself. (The climactic look on Whit Bissell’s face when he learns that some guy has been dug out of a truckload of pods is worth the price of admission just by itself.) Dante also speaks up for Carmen Dragon’s score, which, to my surprise, Smith says has been criticized as well — though I love its insistent brass enough to have included the opening credits music in the March-April 1956 playlist of my audio archives history project — along with Elvis’s “Tutti Frutti” and Perry Como doing “Hot Diggity” (these were cerebral times).
In any event, the studio slapped on the trashy moniker and relegated Snatchers to second billing under lesser titles (even, madre de Dios!, Lon Chaney’s The Indestructible Man) — pretty well icing it, along with a New York-area premiere engagement in Brooklyn, that the Times’s now famously numb-nutsy senior film critic Bosley Crowther wouldn’t touch it for reviewing purposes. And it was fairly obscure; I, who began charting and making notes on film releases starting in early elementary school, never even heard about the picture until 1959 — when the best-looking girl in all of seventh grade unexpectedly told me about it while sitting across from me in art class (one of only a couple really substantive discussions we ever had because I spent years looking at the floor out of self-consciousness when taking to her). I finally saw it on local TV in about 1961 — on a bright Sunday afternoon at that — launching a lifetime of pod-ish enjoyment. (I also love Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake, which I saw first-run in theaters maybe 90 minutes before Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes — who lived a block over from where I grew up — famously slugged that Clemson player on national TV, thus ensuring an evening where I satisfied all the pop culture food groups.)
So as Dante reiterates, Snatchers owes its following (or at least its germination) to TV, where I don’t think the 1.33:1 framing ever bothered anyone at the time. This said, the famed bit in McCarthy’s greenhouse — a perfect movie scene if there ever was one — is so masterfully composed for a wider screen that we must have all been myopic in terms of what we were missing (has there ever been more dramatic use of close-ups?). Later, of course, the picture became a staple of rep houses that was also easy to double-bill because a) it runs only 80 minutes; and b) is also applicable to all kinds of programmable series concepts (say, did anyone ever do “Whit Bissell”?; it would run two years even if you included only half of his output).
As mentioned, the bonus extras rock. The Smith and Dante commentaries are appealingly complementary, though both dwell a lot on the outdoor locations that dominated the shooting schedule and exhausted McCarthy because he spend most days constantly running across them in pursuit by marauding pod people. Smith practically knows every supporting actor’s dental records — which is important here because the cast is packed with not quite peggable familiar faces (Sam Peckinpah plays a gas man who, like nearly everyone here, is up to no good). And Dante has terrific chemistry with the since deceased McCarthy and Wynter, something this humor-heavy duo further displays during their own interactions. McCarthy ended up making several films for the much younger director, while Wynter (who also shows up visually with her co-star in a look-back featurette) remained gorgeous as a senior.
Siegel’s real-life son with Viveca Lindfords (actor Kristoffer Tabori) reads from Siegel’s autobiography, which I’ve had in hardback for years but have not yet read (Dante calls it “remarkably uninformative” — or close). The passage is mostly about the troubles he had with Allied studio execs, whose one shining light must have been Walter Mirisch, a future Midas whose career trajectory spanned Bomba jungle epics to West Side Story and beyond. And don’t knock Bomba, who was played by Johnny Sheffield, who had previously been “Boy” in the Tarzan series; how would you like to spend your entire career heaving a spear and pounding your leopard loin cloth on a rock?
So what else? Other filmmakers (Mick Harris, Stuart Gordon, the always funny John Landis) chime in about what the movie has meant to them; there’s another McCarthy interview that is, again, remarkably personable; assorted documents; and a really fun then-and-now look at the locations, which scrambled Los Angeles geography yet still impress for their breadth-on-a-low-budget. Very informative and off the beaten track is a featurette with Mathew Bernstein, author of another possessed hardback I’ve long wanted to read but haven’t — his bio on producer Wanger.
Pre-gunplay, the latter’s credits included the cinematic wack job Gabriel Over the White House but also Stagecoach and Foreign Correspondent before sinking himself with the bank-breaking Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc. A decade later, there was a major post-Snatchers comeback with I Want To Live! (Oscar for Susan Hayward) before Wanger took on Fox’s Cleopatra, which did for his career what Vietnam did for LBJ’s. From surrounding bookshelf appearances, interviewed Bernstein is a fellow subscriber to the Library of America (good to see), and he knows enough about his subject to report that Lang was up and playing tennis before very long despite rumors (noted on one of the other bonuses) that Wanger had shot him right … there. Whew: The lob shot also rises — or apparently did, which is something pod people presumably didn’t have to worry about all that much.