Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1956

Director – Don Siegel

Starring – Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, and Larry Gates

In the early to mid-fifties, a relatively new genre had taken hold of the film industry.  Taking the place of the grand, war-themed dramas, science fiction (often times tinged with horror elements) came into its own with the birth of the atomic age.  And while there had certainly been stories of space travel, monsters, and aliens before this timeframe, the films of the fifties and sixties came to represent the fears of the modern world.  Fear of radiation, fear of communism, and the fear of the perceived corruption of the “American” value system (these fears would stem from events as diverse as the Korean War, race relations in the United States, the burgeoning civil rights movement, and eventually the assassination of JFK).  So the question is, does Invasion of the Body Snatchers exist as a commentary on this change, or is it simply an exploitation film, capitalizing on this social upheaval to make a buck?  The answer is…both.

The story is relatively simple, a doctor in a small California town returns home from a medical seminar at the insistance of his secretary.  The doctor’s office is flooded with cases of hysterical people claiming that close friends or members of their families are in some way different, and not themselves.  When pressed for details on what is different, the only elaboration is that despite looking and acting exactly the same as usual, these people are different, and somehow off.

Eventually the doctor, teaming up with his former sweetheart, learns that the town’s people are steadily and silently being replaced by these malicious, un-feeling, pod-people, called this because of the giant seed pod that the replacement’s are born out of (a device that works especially well in the United States thanks to our dependance on and prevalence of agriculture in this country).  From then on out, it is a fight to escape the clutches of this foreign, yet eerily familiar menace.

Now, as far as I’ve read, the film was never trying to be anything more than a riveting, good time.  It may have borrowed on the xenophobia and tension that came from the communist threat, but it was never meant to be a direct allegory.  Never-the-less, the film, intentionally or not, has managed to distill the anxiety of it’s time to great effect.  Tension in the story is built slowly over the course of the story.  It never goes for the easy scare, relying instead upon the unease of the situation.  In fact, once the pods and the blank, faceless, replacements are finally shown it is almost a relief; Once we know what to look out for we can stop concentrating on everything else that we don’t have to.

In terms of the look of the pod-people, in their unformed state they aren’t so much shocking as they are unsettling.  The un-defined shape of these intruders fits nicely with the un-ease that the town’s folk are feeling.  When we’re confronted with what seems wrong with it, we can’t put our finger on it, and therein lies the success of this film.

As far as acting goes, each actor does what is necessary but no more than that.  Don Siegel, director of such other classics as Dirty Harry, The Killers, and Escape from Alcatraz, knows just what to get from his actors to keep the momentum going, and the tension thick.

I know that there are now two different re-makes of this same story, one in 1978 with the same name starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy, and another in 2007 with Nicole Kidman called simply The Invasion.  I’ve heard from a trustworthy source that the 1978 version is pretty great, and I’ve heard from a number of sources that the 2007 version is anything but.  All in all, I was surprised with the quality in this film, pleasantly so.  I’m not sure why, but it was better than I thought it was going to be.  Definitely worth the watch.

“Pod people, yo!” – Ashley

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident – 1943

Director – William A. Wellman

Starring – Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, and Anthony Quinn

The Western, as of late, has gone through a bit of a transformation.  What was once a nice clean depiction of black and white, good and evil, has changed over the years flitting across many different themes and archetypes into the  metaphorical and allegory laden period pieces that they have become today.  As I’ve said in my review for the fantastic McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I have tended to discount westerns in general, and early westerns in particular as being fluff, and devoid of value.  My appreciation for the genre came to me fairly recently, and I’ve been working to shake my initial impression ever since.  The Ox-Bow Incident goes a very, very long way in repairing my misconceptions of what the western is capable of, as well as make me wonder why I haven’t seen Henry Fonda in more films.

As the title suggests, the plot centers around a single horrific incident, that we the audience don’t even see.  Everything that inspires what we see happens off-screen.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Quentin Tarantino took a little inspiration for how to achieve the bank heist from Reservoir Dogs from watching this film. There is not a word of dialog wasted in this almost too-brief potboiler that deals with fear, anger, and the tenuous connection between the two.  Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (better known as, and from here out, referred to as Col. Potter from the M*A*S*H TV show) play a couple of ranchers who, fairly new in the area, come into town for a bit of relaxation and a bit of drink.  Conversation in the saloon quickly turns grim when word comes that a local cattleman has been shot to death and his herd stolen.  Fear quickly turns to anger, and despite the best efforts of the few level-headed townsfolk, a posse forms and rides on the word of rumor to intercept the criminals.  Soon enough, the lynch mob happens upon a group of three sleeping men, who quickly become a target for the aggression and fear of the scared towns folk.

So we have a typical western-ish set up, and a cast of characters that also seem a little typical for your average western, so what makes this one so different?  Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.  Henry Fonda’s character, Gil, is neither good nor evil.  He doesn’t moralize, blindly standing up to do “the right thing”, nor is he driven by nefarious motives toward the typical tying of a helpless maiden to the railroad tracks.  He is a cynical observer who is no more exempt from the actions of the mob than the rest of them.  Despite his objections, he believes without question that there will be no redemption, no help for the three accused men.  He is a beaten man from the beginning.  The real hero, “Good Guy” is played by Dana Andrews, as Donald Martin, one of the suspected cattle rustlers.  He tries to reason with the mob for the lives of him and his companions, a senile old man, and a Mexican man (played soulfully by Anthony Quinn) who is instantly demonized by the crowd due to his race.  Together Gil and  Donald juxtapose the humanity of individuals as well as the monstrosity capable of indifferent men, a struggle that wouldn’t creep into mainstream cinema consciousness till the noir films that came out later,  after the war.  It is in these two men, that we see victory battle defeat, and true good versus true evil.

As far as the artistry and construction of the film, it is economical, taking place in two main locations (the Saloon, and at the accused men’s camp site).  The film doesn’t rely on flash, massive set pieces, or spectacle.  Instead, it simply lets the solid, well-told story play out as it should.  The fact that it was shot in black and white (although probably more of a decision based on when it came out rather than as a conscious artistic choice) really helps to underpin the fact that the characters see each other as well as themselves in terms of black and white, good and evil.  Similarly, the “trial” of the three men takes place out in the wild, literally and figuratively outside the bounds of civilization.  Civility is not a quality that the mob has going for it, and the creaky, shadowy setting suits this subtext perfectly.

I chose to watch this movie via my streaming Netflix choices mainly based on it’s length (it’s only 74 minutes), but I was wowed by everything about it.  The message of the film can be seen in both the overt imagery, the subtext of the plot, and the finely honed dialog.  Each element of this film works together so incredibly efficiently, that 74 minutes was all it needed to do the job right.  You owe it to yourself to watch this film, I promise it won’t take long and you’ll be happy you did.

Laura (1944)

Laura - 1944

Laura – 1944

Director – Otto Preminger

Starring – Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Vincent Price

Laura is the story of a Detective who becomes facinated with the victim of the murder that he is assigned to investigate, the movie’s namesake, Laura.  Detective McPherson isn’t so much a fully realized character in this story as he is a vehicle through which the audience can be introduced to, and participate in this story of un-requited love and murder.    Inspite of this, or maybe even because of it, we the audience are still drawn in to the fold. 

We  are placed in the detective role, and are given a cast of characters from which to choose the killer.  There are some red herrings in the lineup, some genuinly shady people, and some obvious innocents, but isn’t that half the fun of watching a brassy noir movie anyway?  Guess at the beginning and at the end seeing if you’re right.  (I’m happy to say that I did indeed guess correctly)  We are presented with the well-to-do, writer-mentor, Waldo Lydecker, played to the hilt by a flamboyant Clifton Webb, the unfaithful, yet seemingly good natured love interest/fiance, played by a venomously charming Vincent Price, and the icy two-faced Aunt Ann Treadwell, fleshed out by Judith Anderson.  It is throught the lenses of these characters that we learn about Laura Hunt, told at first through flashback.  Each of them provides a different spin on the events leading up to the night Laura was murdered, and each in turn reveals more about their potential motives than the intend to.

The pace is quick.  Quick enough that, at one point, we are left reeling and unsure about whether we are seeing reality or the a booze deluded dream.  In the interest of not spoiling a major plot point, I won’t say exactly what that event is, but rest assured that without an immediate explaination we simply have to wait and see to be sure.  This , of course, only leads to more questions about conspiracy, motives, and method.

Despite really enjoying Laura, I’d have to say that this movie didn’t have nearly the effect on my that some others noirs, such as “The Third Man”, “Sunset Boulevard”,  or “Out of the Past”, did.  It’s almost unfair to judge any movie this way, these movies helped introduce me to, and cultivate my appreciation and love of the film noir genre.  Still I think the comparison holds water because of the shared subject matter, the bent reality that the audience is presented with from the beginning, the hoops the characters must jump through along the way, and the long twisty, torturous path towards the truth that our hero (and by extension, we) must travel.

Laura was a solid, thouroughly enjoyable movie.  From the deep shadows of this duplicitous world, to the campy excess of Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb, Laura never faltered in it’s execution, and it never failed to keep my attention.  Bravo.