Things I read off the screen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

I hadn’t watched Don Siegel’s original INVASION for years — no, decades! And I can’t think why — I always preferred the Philip Kaufman remake, it’s true — check out the Arrow Blu-Ray for my article on that — but had only seen the original in pan-and-scan, then got hold of the widescreen edition, then failed to watch it, like a fool.

Now I’ve watched it! How excellent it is, and how ahead of its time, even with the tacked-on bookends and VO. I was watching it and I could sort of see the original, bleaker version THROUGH the re-edit, and it damn well nearly moved me to tears. Apparently the original cut does exist, so it’s monstrous that nobody seems to have released a dual edition. Still, if you were watching this in 1956, seeing love blossom between divorcees Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter only for the latter to get pod-personned out of existence would be pretty tough and shocking. It still is. Being more sentimental than I was as a teen, it really got to me, and I could appreciate how well set-up we are for that moment.

(Though, come to think of it, Dana’s conversion in a cavern doesn’t follow the pattern elsewhere — no pod in sight, and her doppelganger has somehow got all her clothes. The VO even tries to bodge this by saying her body’s been taken over, but that’s not what happens. That’s INVADERS FROM MARS you’re thinking of, Mr. Anonymous V.O. Writer. Haven’t you been watching?)

FOR FIRE ONLY. Alien creatures like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD are always vulnerable to fire. Later, Kevin will torch a couple of pods in the road.

ETAVIRP. The PRIVATE sign on Kevin’s door features A LOT, usually reversed. It symbolizes his individuality and his belief in personal freedom, also his all-important ability to lock himself in and the pod people out, which is critical later.

Save $1.25 FLINT-WARE. Dana Wynter’s character, who loves to cook, is positioned next to signs of domesticity. WIN A VALUABLE PRIZE! Kevin is in with a chance, or would be if this were a different kind of movie. But the advertising has a more sinister significance. Kevin McCarthy, in later interviews, says he saw the pod people as being like Madison Avenue men — harbingers of conformity, pushing a product. We see them arranging its distribution. Every home should have one! And they TALK like salesmen, stressing the necessity of their product. Once you have it, you won’t be able to imagine how you ever got along without it…

The prints on the wall may represent local author King Donovan’s book jackets, I’m not sure. CHAT BLANC (WHITE CAT). MIRROR NOIRE (BLACK MIRROR). FEMME FATALE. The black mirror is particularly apt here, as King looks at his own unformed reflection on the pool table. Femme fatale is of course what Dana will become. Not sure about the white cat, unless that’s what she presently is. In which case, reading from left to right we can chart her progress from innocent kitten (Alice’s cat, Dinah), through the looking glass black mirror, emerging as a fatal woman, possibly the Queen of Hearts.

LUBRICATION of the body-snatchers! Easing their penetration of society, I guess. Dunno what VEEDOL is, but we’re told it’s PREMIUM QUALITY 100% PENNSYLVANIA, which has a sinister ring to it.

UNION. My favourite! As the pod people gather to arrange their further dissemination. If you want to read them as communists, here’s your evidence.

RICHFIELD GUARANTEED BEST. More advertising hyperbole. The rich field calls to mind the seed pods, the agricultural nature of this evil. Pod people start out in the country, take over the small towns, then assail the cities. Which, as we’ve seen more recently, is true.

Contemporary audiences may also have been surprised by the partially-formed Wynter pod’s nipples (top). The censor’s rules are more complicated than I ever suspected. There’s the little-known Annabella doctrine dealing with small, French breasts, and now it turns out that the nipples of a pod person are acceptable as long as they’re not fully-formed and she hasn’t come to life yet. A loophole few other filmmakers were able to take advantage of.


18 Responses to “Things I read off the screen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

  1. Kind of a cross between “Twin Peaks” and “On the Beach”

  2. A classic, although not entirely true to the book by Jack Finney (another classic).

  3. Still to read the book! I *think* I have a copy somewhere…

  4. The book has its own compromises – at least I’ve always felt so.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    The thought occurred to me that “Veedol” might be a version of “Vidal,” someone who was involved in writing television dramas at the time. And didn’t Gore Vidal also write VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET? Hmm. A suspicious pattern emerges.

  6. Veedol’s a real product plug. Prob a contraction of two names.

  7. It does sound like an extraterrestrial dictator though. In wonder if he sits in a bubble or flies around in a little boat?

  8. I always particularly enjoyed the sequences at Santa Mira’s town square/pod distribution point. The location is on Beachwood Canyon, just up the road from me, north of Los Feliz Blvd. I was 6 when the movie was first released; it was x rated by the ever-unimaginative film censorship board, although perhaps they were also (unusually) alert to the subversive politics of Siegel’s film (subversive despite Siegel’s disingenuous claim that there was no intended metaphor in the entire movie). I was too young to go see it, but the posters and lobby cards nonetheless haunted my mind; when I moved to Los Angeles, it was in large measure because I wanted to be close to the very source of such images, and I was devoted to walking up to Bronson Caves with my dogs, where the nihilistic climax took place (the fact that Night of the Bood Beast also ended in the Caves was a glorious bonus).

  9. Siegel simply didn’t want his film nattowed to one interpretation. He only compared the pods to studio execs.

  10. Siegel was a proud liberal who also made the fascistic Dirty Harry, so he was no stranger to political ambiguity, I’d say. The film is evocative partly because it taps into what we know of the 50s zeitgeist, but also because its concerns are timeless and universal…

    I guess the locations are magical because the film makes the everyday seem strange and threatening, so to visit an ordinary American crossroads and experience cinematic deja vu is particularly apt.

  11. See what I mean about one interpretation re: Dirty Harry.

  12. Yes… Siegel really did try to add some complexity to that one, but I don’t think he was really able to do it. Clint’s charisma and Andy Robinson’s sneer really stack the decks, politically.

  13. Siegel was toying with making Scorpio an anonymous, well dressed psycho. Harry’s mini-me. To be played by Audie Murphy(!). Think Harry’s position is clear enough. If not, the sequel makes it explicit.

  14. Well, the sequel can’t be read as a means of clarifying the first film. It’s a different work by (some) different people. But regardless of who acted in it, it’s structured as a story to make us resent all these stupid civil rights that stop heroic cops from being able to just blow bad guys away.

  15. The sequel contrasts the illegal actions of Harry’s “sons” – cops who misread his actions just as film/social critics did. And you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think Eastwood was a controlling presence on both films…..

  16. Sure he was, but Siegel had a great influence on him, almost paternal. Since the original was a patchwork of different writers’ drafts laid out on the floor, selected on the basis of “good scenes”, it’s hard to say if any coherent intention was at work, but the EFFECT of those scenes, when assembled, was to get my mum, a sweet lady, shouting “Kill him!” at the TV screen.

    What I mean about the sequel being irrelevant is that it’s a separate work. So sure, it can show Eastwood’s feelings, but authorial intent isn’t the point either. As a standalone work, Dirty Harry has a specific propagandistic effect.

  17. The sequel exists partly to show there’s legal lines Harry won’t cross. Yes, Scorpio needs to be put down, but there’s no sense of victory after that. Rather, he quits. It’s his very misunderstood image that makes him an easy target for framing in the sequel. “Every body knows YOU’RE crazy”.

  18. Harry quitting in the first film echoes Gary Cooper discarding his sheriff’s badge in High Noon — “You guys aren’t worth defending,” or perhaps, in this case, this system isn’t worth being a part of. I don’t think anything in the first film can be read as supporting due process. The second film is more nuanced, yes, but that’s a separate concern if we’re looking at what Siegel’s movie seems to convey.

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