I recently saw the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first time. It’s much better than I thought it would be. My husband loves cheesy 1950’s sci-fi B-movies, and that was what I expected Body Snatchers to be. But it’s really not that cheesy at all. It’s fairly suspenseful, and its moody cinematography makes the film feel more noir than sci-fi. The inevitable romantic relationship between the male and female leads felt refreshingly adult, and quite relevant to the story. Drop the “happy ending” frame story (which both the producer and director objected to), and make the alien pods look a bit less like giant Belgian endive, and the film would be even closer to perfect.
Given that this is a movie from the 1950s about alien pods that turn humans beings into emotionless automatons, it’s not surprising that people link its themes to the then-current concerns. One could interpret the film as an allegory for the supposed loss of individuality that comes from communism. Or one could interpret it as a metaphor about the fear of expressing one’s convictions openly, because of McCarthyism. But the film’s director, Don Siegel, denies that he was referring to either of these:
…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. […] The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach.
— Interview with Don Siegel, as quoted at Wikipedia
I read Siegel’s comment to mean that to him, the movie was about people and society becoming increasingly mechanical, overly pragmatic; about society as a whole becoming less interested in beauty, culture, or joy, and more about efficiency and productivity. And as I discovered, this seems to be a feeling that other people of that era had.
Soon after seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I started reading J.B. Priestley’s 1953 short story collection The Other Place. In the introduction to the recent Valancourt Books reissue of the collection, John Baxendale writes that a common theme in the stories (all but one written in 1952 for the collection) is Priestley’s unease with the way he saw post-WWII society moving. Baxendale writes:
In 1954, during a visit to the United States, [Priestley] would coin the term Admass to describe the combination of materialism, advertising, mass communication and mass culture which he feared was creating “the mass mind, the mass man”, and preventing people from realising their true potential. This anxiety finds its way into these stories.
For me, the story that illustrates this theme most strongly is “The Grey Ones.” A certain Mr. Patson discovers that his brother-in-law, as well as several other influential people in his borough, are really strange toad-like beings that have come to take over humankind. Their goal is to make humanity “go the way of social insects… automatic creatures, mass beings without individuality. […] To wipe from the face of this earth all wonder, joy, deep feeling, the desire to create, to praise life.” Reading that felt quite familiar, after having seen Body Snatchers.
The difference between Priestley’s short story and Siegel’s film is that “The Grey Ones” is ambiguous: what Mr. Patson experiences could all be in his head. This is true of several other stories in the collection. It’s also appropriate, if you think of Priestley’s theme being the perception that everyone is becoming the same, conforming to the group mind. If you believe this, and no one around you notices (or cares) — well, it does make you look a bit crazy, doesn’t it? Body Snatchers hints at this too: the film was originally supposed to end with the scene of the protagonist running down the middle of a busy highway, pounding on the windows of passing cars, futilely warning of the alien invasion as the cars zoom past him, and trucks full of pods make their way to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
While I was working my way through The Other Place, I was also reading Dorothy Macardle’s haunted house novel The Uninvited (originally published as Uneasy Freehold in 1941). The Uninvited preceeds the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its source novel by more than a decade, yet even here we get hints of a feeling that a certain way of looking at life is vanishing. Some time before World War II (I don’t see explicit dates in the novel, but the 1944 film version is set in 1937), two characters, a writer and an artist, discuss the fascist movements then on the rise in Europe:
They subordinate the whole to the part….It is no longer life they are celebrating, nor nature, but some crude, fanatical party creed. I am afraid that doing things for their own sake will soon be a luxury for children and, perhaps … for freaks like you and me.
The fascists lost, but apparently the concern over the way society was heading continued after the war.
Living here in the early twenty-first century, I’ve never experienced the pre-WWII way of life that Priestley and Macardle (and possibly Siegel, who was about twenty years younger) remember, so it’s hard for me to intuit precisely what vanished quality life back then had. What was it that they missed? Have we become the Admass society that Priestley feared? I wonder what he would have said about modern social media and “fake news” and all the rest of it.
And if we are living in an Admass world, then by extension it follows that most of us are the Grey Ones, the Pod People, the ones (to paraphrase Priestley again) who think they are alive and awake, but are really asleep. Or dead. How sad.
Or maybe it’s another eternal complaint, like how kids these days don’t know how good they have it, or how they just don’t make X like they used to. In another famous fifties movie, Vertigo (1958), a character complains, “The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.” My cab driver said pretty much the same thing to me, just yesterday (“Back then, San Francisco had so many dance clubs, so much music! No one dances here anymore. Those techies are changing everything!”).
Either way, there’s hope.
Yes, I know it’s all more difficult… but if we only tried to stop shuffling round and slopping about, jeering at and cheapening life–if we brought to it energy and good humor and some sense of style—-
— “Night Sequence,” J. B. Priestley
So here’s to you, dear reader. May you live life with energy, good humor, and a certain sense of style.
Featured image: Screenshot from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Source: Media Life Crisis