Sunday, June 24, 2012

TV Bites: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Boiled Edamame (枝豆 - Soybeans in the Pod)

It's part deux of the "of the" double bill!

So, it's been up and down this last month or so. First, my cat Rocky came down with skin cancer in mid-April and I had to put him down about two weeks ago. It was initially a blow as with Chazz (my cat who died last year) gone, me & Rocky really started to develop a strong relationship. Originally he was my neighbor's cat across the street where I used to live. His owner was a very sweet little old lady who was so gracious my first year in Austin that she invited me over to spend Thanksgiving dinner as I really didn't know anyone much there then. Her name was Ophelia. Rocky and Chazz hated each other. But when she passed away and there was no one to really take him in, I did. He wouldn't come inside unless it was below 65*F or raining, otherwise he wanted to stay outside. So when I moved I took Rocky with me and he and Chazz operated under these very complicated rules of détente they had formally agreed upon. So for the last year, Rocky and I have been pretty chummy and I was expecting that to continue for a time. But so it goes. We did it here at the house. Actually outside. On this tree that has a big dip in it which he used to hang out on.

And now I'm looking forward to getting me some new kittens. 'Cause everyone loves kittens. Especially, on the Internet. My dear friend Tony recently found a kitten which became an Internet sensation. What a strange little world we live in. For those brief 15 minutes, Mercedes the cat was in millions of people's minds, trending higher than probably some reality TV stars. Who knows? But there's lots of things to concern ourselves with on this here planet we be spinnin' on. And yet, the 24-hour news cycle makes time for a story about a rescued cat. Perhaps we're not 100-percent pod people yet. Some of our emotional responses are still operative (and can be manipulated...beware!)

Obviously, of course, I'm merely setting up today's movie. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a movie that was not supposed to be what it was. It was supposed to be just another B horror/sci-fi flick. But it wasn't. It did and continues to warn us of the dangers of what happens if we stop using our critical thinking abilities.

The some folk saw/see the film as anti-communist, while others as anti-capitalist. But what folk like them didn't/don't see is that it's anti- all belief systems that require unquestioned belief in the authority of such system. Whatever the system.

But this isn't just me ranting. The film's producer, Walter Wanger said, "Many of us fear conformity. Wisdom and reason based on education will allow us to have individual judgment and character like the founders of this nation hoped that we would have. I have just finished a picture based on this subject of conformity. The film shows how easy it is for people to be taken over and to lose their souls if they are not alert and determined in their character to be free, otherwise they will become mere vegetables - just pods...." There's more of it below in the Background & Context section.

But best of all, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a fun, suspenseful, scary, and all-around great movie. I do love me some Don Seigel movies. There will be more to come on this blog, for sure.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is available for purchase and streaming @ Amazon.


"In my practice, I've seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind...All of us, a little bit, we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear."

Let's start here. Producer Walter Wanger was that rare beast in the studio days - an independent producer. He worked with every studio in Hollywood (except Warner Brothers). But his career can be divided in two acts. During the first, which spanned about two decades, he produced a parade of hits including the Marx Brothers’ first film The Cocoanuts, Greta Garbo's Queen Christina, Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once and Scarlet Street (the latter co-starred Wanger's wife Joan Bennett), Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, and John Ford's Stagecoach. Then in 1948, he produced a huge big budget flop, Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman. His next few films were also poorly received. He was also being forced to declare himself a "patriot," even though he personally found the House Un-American Activities Committee campaign in Hollywood to be against his values, in order to keep working.

His first act ended and his second act began in 1951. Wanger was bankrupt and found himself working for the cheapest of the cheap studios, Monogram. He was also convinced his wife, Joan Bennett, was having an affair. He hired a private detective and sure enough, she was having liaisons with her agent, Jennings Lang. (Lang was using the apartment of one of his underlings for the tryst, which inspired the Billy Wilder film The Apartment.) He caught Lang and Bennett returning one afternoon and shot Lang in the cojones. (Lang later began producing himself - including Don Siegel's Coogan's Bluff, amongst many others.) Wanger once famously remarked, "You chaps just talk about agents. I'm the only one who ever did anything about them." (However, he remained married to Bennett until 1965 when they finally divorced.)

Wanger, amazingly, only spent four months in jail and upon his release found new vigor and passion which he turned into the low budget Riot in Cell Block 11, an exposé about prison conditions and the need for reform. The film was directed by Don Siegel and script written by Richard Collins from Wanger's ideas. The 1954 film was a hit and was seen as a comeback for Wanger. Siegel and Wanger decided their next film would be Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Wanger first read Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers when it appeared serialized in Collier's magazine (the novel wouldn't be released until the film was in production) and immediately loved it. He brought it to Allied Artists (who used to be Monogram and whom Wanger had a five picture deal with) and they liked the idea of making a science fiction film. And that's where the conflicts began which would later on reveal themselves.

Collins, who had written Riot, was supposedly the first choice to write it, but was unavailable. However, he returned during principal photography to tweak the script and, according to Wanger's biography, contributed some of the most memorable lines of the movie, including the quote used above in the opening.

"I suggested Danny Mainwaring to write the screenplay," Siegel recalled. "Walter agreed and his enthusiasm was matched by my excitement. Despite the absurd title, which cheapened the content of the story, we recognized that a most original film could be made - not only entertaining, but frightening as well." (I should note here that Mainwaring also wrote under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes, including the Noir classics Out of the Past and Siegel's The Big Steal.)

"My idea, which Mr. Wanger enthusiastically endorsed," Siegel wrote (PDF), "was to face the problem of divulging the idea or 'pods' taking over the world, as normally as possible. By that I mean that obviously in real life if one were to state 'look out, pods are about to take over' no one would take one seriously and rightly so. So that's what we did. In the picture the various characters, when first learning about the pods, did not take it seriously, but when they were suddenly face to face with this monstrous horror, their reaction was genuine – as it would be in real life."

But one of the concerns when they first started was how to do a special effects spectacular on a budget of under $400,000.

"[W]hen Mr. Wanger and I discussed how to do the movie, I told him to forget all the problems concerning the special effects," Siegel wrote (PDF). "I had had seven years experience in special effects, and knew that the problems that faced us were not too tough and certainly not expensive. Most 'special effect pictures' spend millions on effects (we spent $3,000.00) [in other places Siegel says they spent $15,000 and in others $30,000]; have too-wooden characters in front of the effects, act badly or strangely and come up with a film which is poor."

"Instead of doing what so many science fiction and horror films do - spend all their money on special effects and put poor actors on the screen," he continued elsewhere. "we concentrated on the performers."

For the lead, Wanger wished for the likes of Joseph Cotten, Dick Powell, or Macdonald Carey. But realistically, he couldn't afford them. He offered the role to Richard Kiley (who had just appeared in The Phenix City Story, written by Mainwaring) but he reportedly turned it down. The part went to Kevin McCarthy, a New York stage actor for the most part then, who had just worked with Siegel on An Annapolis Story.

Dana Wynter, a British stage actress who had only done some American television, was cast as Becky, the love interest. "I was happy to be doing it because I liked Walter very much," Wynter said. "Your first picture, you're delighted whatever it is."

But back to the special effects. "My brilliant art director, Ted Haworth," Siegel wrote in his autobiography, "figured out a way of creating the pods that was simple and relatively inexpensive. The most difficult part was when the pods burst open, revealing exact likenesses of our leading actors. Naturally, they had to have naked impressions of their bodies made out of thin, skin-tight latex."

But Haworth was worried about the studio's reactions to nudity, even if they were just rubber cast models. Siegel wrote he told Haworth, "You forget, Ted, that the top executives at Allied Artists are all pods [themselves]. They couldn't care less about nudity, sex or dirty words. They have no real feeling about anything."

Siegel and the rest of the cast and crew had begun referring to the studio heads as "pods." (More on this in Background & Context below.)

"To my astonishment," Siegel continued, "one of the executives hadn't changed into a pod yet. He called me into his office and flatly ordered that there were to be no naked people in an Allied Artists picture. I noticed he looked sleepy. After playing innocent, pretending I didn't know what he was talking about, I rushed over to Haworth and told him to make the impressions secretly. I was sure that before the impressions were made, this executive would have become a pod too."

"Our crew found [the latex models of] Dana and Carolyn [Jones] particularly interesting, lying stark naked among our props," Siegel added elsewhere. And when the pods burst open.... "Good old-fashioned soap bubbles saved the day. We would shoot our rubber pods coming to life then, by cutting away to reactions from Kevin, Dana, King and Carolyn, we would pick up our pods more advanced. We would obscure the faces with soap bubbles then, by cranking at high speed reversing our film, it would appear that the bubbles as they burst, slowly took the form of the body they were taking over."

At the end of the film, McCarthy is on the highway screaming, warning of the pod people invasion. This was a particularly difficult sequence to execute, Siegel recalled.

"All of the shots on the highway of Kevin trying to stop traffic were shot on a crossbridge across the Hollywood Freeway. This particular bridge was not used by much normal traffic. We cordoned it off and shot from daybreak to dawn, completing all our work. There was no second unit on this sequence or, for that matter, nowhere else in the picture. There was no process used at all or any other trick mediums during this sequence," wrote Siegel (PDF). "All the shots were authentic. We rented about fifty cars, crossed our fingers and went at it furiously. There was considerable danger for Kevin. For one thing, he was exhausted. When we shot the final scene of his screaming at the cars, it was just before dawn. Kevin was so tired I was terrified that his timing would be off and he might fall down under the wheels of the cars and trucks. I put excellent stuntmen in as the actual drivers of the various cars which were near Kevin. They were all warned of the dangers and handled themselves very well. I saw no reason for so-called 'trick work.' I wanted very badly to make the sequence particularly believable – and so again with fingers crossed, I shot it all 'straight.'"

As noted above, Siegel hated the title The Body Snatchers (even without the "Invasion of"), but it stuck through principal photography. Also, everyone felt it would be confused with the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Body Snatcher, which was made into a film with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff a decade earlier. Allied wanted to call it They Came from Another World. Siegel hated it and suggested Better Off Dead and I Am a Pod. Wanger came up with Evil in the Night and World in Danger. Star Kevin McCarthy contributed another possible title.

I remember we were waiting to do one scene and Don Siegel said 'Hey, McCarthy can you think up a new title for this thing! I can't bear Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a title,'" McCarthy recalled. "I had just recently, before I came out [to Los Angeles], been doing some Shakespeare at the [Actor's] Studio and I began running some soliloquies from Hamlet in my head..... 'To sleep. To sleep no more.' [And I called out] 'Don! How about that? Sleep No More!' 'Terrific!' [he exclaimed], 'Although those pods [at the studio] won't probably let us use that!'

Even Dana Wynter went on record opposed to the film's title. "I begged Walter, I said, 'Walter, you can't [call it Invasion of the Body Snatchers]! I mean, my parents!... They'll think that I'm demented!'"

Allied turned them all down and made official the title, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in late 1955, during post-production.

If that didn't leave Siegel with a sour taste, that Allied Artists demanded changes to the film which he deemed were wrong-headed, left him forever bitter. The film originally ended with McCarthy screaming in the streets (as discussed above), and there was no voice-over narration. (There was also an opening scene between McCarthy and Wynter which the Hayes Office folks disapproved of. Apparently, they expressed positive outlook on divorce - both characters they play are recently divorced - and was considered inappropriate.)

According to Siegel, "There were three previews of the film the way I'd made it, and the audiences reacted in an extraordinary way, just as I'd hoped. They started out laughing, but then the tension increased and they ended up thoroughly scared.... But having heard the audiences laugh, the studio thought that the public was reacting against the film, and didn't realize what the laughter really meant."

"Allied Artists... cut out all the humor because in their hallowed words 'horror films are horror films and there's no room for humor.' In addition," Siegel stated, "they forced me, against Mr. Wanger's desire, to shoot a prologue and an epilogue. I resisted shooting this mish-mash as long as I could until they threatened to have one of the janitors shoot it if I refused."

At one point, Wanger was actually negotiating with Orson Welles to read a prologue and epilogue to the film on camera. The epilogue, as written by Wanger, went thusly: "Orson Welles again. That is the story. So if a man comes running toward you in the night, babbling obvious nonsense.... In this day and age, anything can happened and if it does... you may be next!" We are so glad Welles and Wanger couldn't agree on a price so that we were spared this awful idea.

"We had no idea what was going to happen" in terms of the popularity of the film, recalled Kevin McCarthy. "We only knew that the management of the studio had this attitude like : 'Look, don't get any ideas that you're some major motion picture. We make exploitation pictures and this Body Snatchers will probably be on the second half of a double bill, if not the third place of a triple bill.'"

But of course, its place as one of the great films of all time didn't happen over night. It wasn't well-received at first mostly because critics literally refused to go see what they guessed was just some low budget science fiction junk.

Wanger begged Bosley Crowther (of the New York Times) to review the film at the time of its release. He wrote to the critic: “I tried to make it a plea against conformity, and apparently the exhibitor didn't think it right to have an idea in a picture of this sort, and instead of a Broadway showing, it opened in Brooklyn.... No doubt you will see what I'm after in this picture, and apparently the public agrees with us. However, the ever-loving, complaining distributor and exhibitor has missed the chance to really exploit this picture. It's definitely an exploitation picture which they didn't exploit, which is not consistent.” But Crowther still refused.

Then, the French critics (including Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard) "discovered" Don Seigel and he began to get recognition as a serious filmmaker. Screenings on American television also helped gain the film a legion of fans back home.

Seigel is especially proud of the film. "It's about something, which is more than I can say for most of my films," he said. But elsewhere, more candidly, he stated, "This is probably my best film because I hide behind a facade of bad scripts, telling stories of no import and I felt that this was a very important story. I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow. I wanted to get it over and I didn't know of a better way to get it over than in this particular film. I thought I shot it very imaginatively. And I was encouraged all the time by Wanger. The film was nearly ruined by those in charge at Allied Artists...."

The key word there is "nearly." Because in spite of the "absurd title," the cuts, and Seigel's fears the film would not succeed, it did. Invasion of the Body Snatchers successfully taught us to fear "the pod people" and continues to do so. It has been remade thrice - never, in my opinion, as successfully as Seigel's version - in 1978 by Philip Kaufman, then by Abel Ferrara in 1993 (I especially dig Meg Tilly in it). And then there's Robert Rodgriguez's rip-off version. Even The Simpsons and Bugs Bunny have parodied it.

We'll give the final word to Mr. Siegel to clear up a certain myth: “As far as I'm concerned, Sam [Peckinpah] rewrote none of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's something that really should be cleared up." Peckinpah was the dialogue director of the film and had a small part as the meter reader. Apparently, he used to go around saying he rewrote the script. For those unfamiliar with what a dialogue director does, Kevin McCarthy explained: "He holds the [screenplay] and if anyone wants to know what's supposed to be said, or if anyone makes a mistake, he would say 'You didn't say that line correctly. The line is...' And we'd say, 'Thanks, Sam.'"


As I mentioned in the opening, there's been a lot of talk and writing over the last 50 years as to what "the message" of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, or was meant to be. Some people have said it's an attack on McCarthyism, others see it diametrically opposite as an attack on Communism. For example, here's a research paper (PDF) entitled "Using Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Teach Conformity and Communism in 1950's America."

I'm going to let the film's creators give their perspective....

As you've seen above, producer Walter Wanger said it was "a plea against conformity," and both Seigel and McCarthy have made it clear that it was "about something."

Dana Wynter put it like this: "It was just supposed to be a plain, thrilling kind of picture. That was what Allied Artists thought they were making. By the way, we realized – Walter and Kevin and people who CAN think about things – that we were making an anti-'ism' picture. Anti-'ism' – fascism, Communism, all that kind of thing. We took it for granted that's what we were making, but it wasn't spoken about openly on the set or anything like that. They were delicate times, and I think if Allied Artists had had the slightest idea that there was anything deeper to this film, that would have quickly been stopped!"

Kevin McCarthy said, “Well certainly there was, and is, [an underlying theme], but there was no talk when we were shooting about McCarthyism or Communism, and yet it's in the very texture of the story in some ways. I thought, at any rate, that it was about conformity. You know how the advertising agencies always want you to do certain things, follow suit; your boss wants you all to wear the same necktie he's wearing..”

Wanger expanded on his interpretation of the film during a speech at the American Booksellers Convention in 1956. "Many of us fear conformity. Wisdom and reason based on education will allow us to have individual judgment and character like the founders of this nation hoped that we would have. I have just finished a picture based on this subject of conformity. The film shows how easy it is for people to be taken over and to lose their souls if they are not alert and determined in their character to be free, otherwise they will become mere vegetables - just pods.... [W]henever I meet a man or woman who says: "I'm too busy to read," I know I am talking to somebody that is a pod and can be taken over by an enemy because there is no intelligent resistance."

Siegel, as you probably get by now, had some pretty strong feelings about this pod-invaded world. "I'm not interested in things political," he said. "The story was much more important than that. It's that the world is peopled with pods who have no feeling of culture, who have feeling of love, do their chores, come home, look at TV, fall asleep, get up the next morning. They have bodily functions but it doesn't mean anything."

"What we wanted to attack was much more a general state of mind that is found in everyday life," he said in another interview.

In yet in another interview (with Stuart Kaminsky) Seigel continued, "Pods. Not those that come from outer space, vegetables from outer space. People are pods. Many of my associates are certainly pods. They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you....

"Well, I think there's a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill health, and mental disturbance are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you with a very dull world, but that, by the way, my dear friend, is the world that most of us live in. It's the same as people who welcome going into the army or prison. There's regimentation, a lack of having to make up your mind, face decisions.

"The town [in the film] is like a cancer growth. The town, like a section of your body, is ill, and it's going to spread, the way, many times, political ideas spread.... People without being vegetables are becoming vegetables. I don't know what the answer is except an awareness of it. That's what makes a picture like Invasion of the Body Snatchers important



Oh, this was so obvious a choice. Pods!

"The Japanese name, edamame (枝豆)," according to Wikipedia, "literally means, "twig bean" (eda = "twig" + mame = "bean") and refers to young soybeans cropped with their twigs." Basically, edamame are soy beans harvested at the peak of ripening right before they harden.

The folks at the Soy Info Center traced the history of edamame in Japan and found the first written reference to it dates back to 1275, when Buddhist saint Nichiren Shônin wrote a letter of thanks to a parishioner for bringing some to his temple.

They also peg the "discovery" of edamame in America to the popularlity of the TV miniseries Shogun in 1980. The miniseries, they write, "created a great interest in traditional Japanese culture among Americans. With the sushi, they drank Japanese beer and sake. In America, beer is usually served with peanuts. But, true to tradition, Japanese restaurants served edamame, free of charge, with the beer."

And, of course, Shogun co-starred John Rhys-Davies who also co-starred in our last movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's all connected, kids....

The "sushi boom" first hit California before sweeping across the rest of the nation, and it was 1981 when I first was introduced to it living in San Francisco. I had just gotten my first credit card, and within a few months had somehow racked up $3000, mostly from going out with friends several nights a week, drinking excessive amounts of sake and popping sushi. Let's just say this was a valuable lesson learned about the danger of credit cards. Nowadays, however, there are sushi bars and restaurants in every city in the world. It's just a given in today's culinary landscape. They're everywhere. Everywhere.

But just remember, eating edamame will in no way turn you into a pod person. I promise. Trust me. As always, cook, eat, watch and... sleep... sleep... sleep.

Boiled Edamame (枝豆 - Soybeans in the Pod)
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 6 as an appetizer or snack

1 pound fresh or frozen edamame (in their pods)
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
Kosher salt

If using fresh edamame: Rinse and snip stems.

Prepare an ice bath.

Bring a large pot of water with the 1/2 tablespoon of sea salt to boil. When water reaches a rolling boil, add edamame and stir once gently. For fresh edamame, boil for 3-4 minutes; for frozen, 2-3 minutes. Do not cover pot. Edamame should be softened but not soft and retain its bright color.

When done, quickly drain, then submerge pods in the ice bath. Remove after a minute, drain, then drop into a clean dish towel and shake a few times, then toss in bowl with Kosher salt to taste (Hint: taste one before salting). Serve.

The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney (in its original serialized form from Collier's Magazine) Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (PDF)
Various Documents (including letter from Don Siegel, Distribution & Marketing materials) (PDF) @ Cinefiles: Pacific Film Archive
George Turner: A Case for Insomnia, American Cinematographer
The Sad Lesson of Body Snatchers, People Change, by Maureen Corrigan @ NPR

Invasion of the Body Snatchers DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming
Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Don Siegel, director (Rutgers Films in Print), by Al LaValley
They're here...Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute, edited by Kevin McCarthy & Ed Gorman
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Famous Movie Monsters Series), edited by Kerry Hinton
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (BFI Film Classics), edited by Barry Keith Grant
A Siegel Film: An Autobiography, by Don Siegel
Don Siegel, director (Curtis film series), by Stuart M. Kaminsky
Don Siegel/American Cinema (BFI), by Alan Lovell
Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent, by Matthew Bernstein
I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers, edited by Tom Weaver
Focus on the Science Fiction Film, edited by William Johnson
Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage, by Garner Simmons

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