With THE INVASION opening this Friday (a remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, first filmed in 1956), I thought I would dip into the archives for a relevant tidbit. In July of 2005, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences launched a tribute to late director Don Siegel with a screening of the ’56 BODY SNATCHERS, with actor Clint Eastwood on stage to discuss the film. Eastwood appeared in many of Siegel’s later action films (most famously DIRTY HARRY), but he had personally selected Siegel’s only science-fiction effort as the first entry in the series.
Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy): “They’re here already! You’re next!”
The event began with some prefatory remarks from the evening’s host, director Curtis Hanson (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL). The evening’s first standing ovation occurred when he introduced actor Kevin McCarthy, star of BODY SNATCHERS (who also appeared in the 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland). McCarthy got a big laugh by announcing, “I have to tell you: they’re not coming” (a reference to the hysterical warning he shouts at the end of the film: “They’re after you! They’re after all of us!”).
The next standing ovation occurred when Hanson introduced Eastwood, who had selected BODY SNATCHERS to be the film that launched the Siegel tribute. Eastwood had re-seen the film a few years ago and was impressed with how well it stood the test of time.
“I just thought it was one of the great [films]”, Eastwood said. “It was a very small movie. It was the first movie that I remember Don Siegel was famous for. It was a B-movie, a modest budget at that time, when they made A- and B-movies. But it was a great B-movie, a great example of film-making, a great example of getting a lot with very little. He had very good actors, but he didn’t have a lot of money to make that movie. You can see that, but you still are engrossed by it. Even though you can see the movie-set type streets, it’s a very engrossing film. And it’s one of the greater little science fiction films, without all the gore, without the stuff you’d have to put in nowadays, and without any visual effects, to speak of.”
Hanson pointed out that, in the 1950s, when Siegel directed BODY SNATCHERS, he was a contract director, who worked on projects that were assigned to him. Because of his earlier work as a second-unit montage director, he earned a reputation for being able to handle non-dialogue sequences—a fact that typecast him as an action director. BODY SNATCHERS is his only science-fiction feature film (he also directed some episodes of the old TWILIGHT ZONE television show).
Eastwood acknowledged the problem of typecasting in Hollywood, which relegated Siegel to the B-Movie realm for most of the early part of his career, but he added that Siegel “was great at making a lot with little. He didn’t have a lot of sets to work with. He wasn’t getting the budgets that John Ford and William Wellman and Howard Hawks were getting. So Don had to make a lot with little; that’s why he was a B-Movie maker. He eventually went on, and I’m proud to say I was on the ride with him, into A-Movies. He was a guy who knew how to economize, and he was forced to do that. If you went over-budget, you didn’t get the next job. […]”
Hanson recalled Siegel’s “two rules” for working in his early B-movie days. “One was ‘Start the movie fast and under schedule, so that the front office won’t pay any attention to you.’ The second was, ‘Shoot only what you need, so when you finish, they can’t screw it up too bad.’”
Eastwood elaborated: “In those day, everything was on production reports. They would say, ‘When did you get the first shot?’ So most directors, who were very clever, would pick some shot like an insert and make that the first shot of the day. Sure enough, the guys would call them, and they’d say, ‘We got the first shot five minutes before we were supposed to start shooting.’ And then they’d never call back the rest of the day. That was one of Don’s tricks. I’d learned them from TV directors, but Don knew them all. He couldn’t help himself as far as being economical. In this era, there are guys who’ll print 30 takes, and there were guys who did it then, too, like George Stevens. It would drive the actors fruitcake. You can see a certain weariness to those old films. In Siegel’s films you didn’t. Even if you didn’t like the actors and the relationships, there was never a weariness, because they were always ready—they had to be.”
After showing clips from several other Siegel-directed films, Hanson thanked Eastwood for sharing his memories of working with Siegel, then wrapped up with some words about INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and the print being screened.
“The film holds up so well in terms of tension,” Hanson said. “After it was completed, the studio found it a little too disturbing and insisted that a prologue and an epilogue be shot. Don argued and lost, then shot the prologue and epilogue himself, because he didn’t want them shot by anybody else. One could—it was a thought tonight—one could show the movie without the prologue and epilogue, but in truth this is the version that went out into theatres; this is the version that became part of our culture. To just cut them off would not create a director’s cut, because Don was also unhappy that some other things were cut out of the movie.”
Hanson thanked Paramount for preparing a new print of the film. “The original negative had been destroyed; they put together a new negative and made a widescreen print,” he explained. “The movie has not been shown in widescreen, with a decent print, in a long, long time.”
Eastwood called the opportunity to see a new print of BODY SNATCHERS on the big screen “a great treat, a great example of Siegel in his younger days. This is one of many fine films that he made on limited budgets. It’s a good example of what people had to do. There’s no luxuriating. I’ve said it many times, but I still think the picture we are running tonight is one of the best B-movies ever made.”
It would be hard for many films to live up to praise like that, but INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS comes close. The new print was fabulous, and the film itself has not dated badly at all. There are some obvious flaws, but they were always apparent. Not only are the wrap-around prologue-epilogue sequences a bit of a cop-out (providing a phony Hollywood happy ending), the added voice-over narration sometimes overstates the obvious, drawing unintentional laughter. (The low-point comes when Miles realizes that his romantic interest has become a pod person: “I never knew real fear until I kissed Becky.”)
In spite of these problems, BODY SNATCHERS remains a classic, maybe even a masterpiece. Too often we hear older films praised for being made with low budgets in the days before computer-generated imagery and graphic special effects, but BODY SNATCHERS is an example where the praise rings true. Don Siegel’s resources may have been limited, but he managed to direct a film that works emotionally and dramatically on its own terms, so that there is never a moment on screen that makes you think, “If only they had a little more money…”
The film’s portrait of human beings gradually assimilated by an alien invasion of emotionless duplicates creates a profoundly disturbing sense of paranoia that seems somehow rooted in reality. Despite lip service to the science-fiction genre (a few dialogue references to seeds from outer space), this is a great piece of film noir that plays out like a Kafkaesque nightmare or a TWILIGHT ZONE episode expanded to feature length. It wouldn’t be surprising if many in the audience checked under their beds and in their closets that night, making sure no pods were waiting to snatch them.
Of course, in Hollywood, it might be hard to tell the difference.
[NOTE: You can read the complete version of this article at Hollywood Gothique, including comments from Eastwood about working with Siegel on many other films.]