Teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Rashna Wadia Richards

 

“I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained.” That’s how Dr. Miles Bennell begins his implausible tale of pods replacing people in Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers,[1] a serialized sci-fi novel that is transformed into Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). I’ve shown Siegel’s film in an advanced topics course on the 1950s, in a survey of American cinema, and in an introductory course, where it is the first screening of the semester. That course offers an introduction to film analysis through a critical understanding of the technical language and the socio-cultural contexts of cinema. Film analysis, however, involves something less tangible too. One of the greatest joys of teaching film is diving into uncertainty and ambiguity. But how do we teach analytical irresolvability to students, especially to those who believe they will discover the meaning of film in this class? By exploring the varied allegorical readings of Invasion, I try to demonstrate that films can contain multiple, often contradictory, meanings. Through such analyses, I hope to reveal the joys of not having “everything resolved and satisfactorily explained.”

I teach at a small liberal arts college where we offer only a Film Studies minor. Our introductory course attracts students with a wide range of expectations and experiences. Students at every level (from incoming first-years to graduating seniors) and from every discipline (from Art and English to Biology and Economics) take the course. Some students need it for their minor, others to satisfy a general education requirement; and, let’s be honest, a few are there expecting an undemanding course on film appreciation. They also come with different levels of preparation. A few students can effortlessly identify chiaroscuro lighting or a Dutch tilt, but paying attention to cinematic technique is a fairly novel enterprise for many. While some have seen the entire Welles or Bergman or Varda canon, others have never heard of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). I teach Invasion early in the semester because it has something for everyone. It seems unmistakably about more than what its plot suggests. The film is layered complexly enough to engage students who are familiar with film analysis. Even those who are skeptical are willing to explore what the extraterrestrial invasion of alien seed pods might actually be about.

Before the screening, we discuss the introductory chapter from Bill Nichols’s Engaging Cinema,[2] which proposes the concept of formal-social analysis. I open our discussion of Invasion with this question: what do the pods represent? Someone inevitably claims that the pods are about the fear of the Other. Since the most identifiable fear in fifties America is Communism, we begin by going over what anti-Communism meant during the Cold War. Starting in the late 1940s, Americans were regularly reminded of Soviet spies posing as Americans. I give them examples of Alger Hiss, a State Department official accused of being a Communist before a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) panel, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, an electrical engineer and an aspiring actress, who were convicted of espionage and executed for treason. It is easy for students to see how this anxiety of ordinary Americans being Communist subversives is reflected in Invasion. We talk about early scenes where characters notice that something isn’t right about their family members or friends. Little Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) insists that his mother is not his mother. Wilma (Virginia Christine) worries that, though her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) “looks, sounds, acts, and remembers” like him, he is “an impostor or something.” I then let students ponder the particular differences between these real humans and their pod replacements. For Wilma, her new Uncle Ira is missing “a special look in his eye.” What does it mean to think of Uncle Ira and other pods as cold, emotionless replicas of their earlier selves? During the Cold War, Communists were often regarded by Americans as dispassionate and inhumane; J. Edgar Hoover, for instance, called Communism “a prison for the heart, mind, and soul.”[3] As if echoing Hoover, my students recall, Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) and Jack Belicec (King Donovan) tell Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) that, post-conversion, the pods “absorb [their] minds,” such that all individuality disappears. Initially, we argue, Siegel’s film sees real people and their pod duplicates as stand-ins for Americans and Communists.

To dig deeper, we look closely at the scene where Miles and Becky hide in his office after failing to alert federal authorities. We analyze how high-angle long shots from his office window demonstrate the transformation of their little Norman Rockwellesque town. Though it appears to be “just like any Saturday morning,” Santa Mira is filled with strangers who are picking up pods to replace humans in neighboring towns. At this stage, we agree that Invasion works as a cautionary tale about secret, robotic Communists hiding among unsuspecting, passionate Americans and initiating a cultural revolution.

Then, I ask if Invasion sustains this reading by re-viewing the uncanny moment in Miles’s office. After briefly defining the uncanny as something that is familiar yet foreign, I have students think about whether the film deconstructs the binary logic we’ve identified. From his claustrophobic office, Miles worries that the pods are “a malignant disease spreading through the whole country.” This notion of describing conversion as an infection aligns well with a common metaphor for Communism. In a 1952 campaign speech, for example, Adlai Stevenson called Communism “a disease which may have killed more people in this world than cancer, tuberculosis, and heart disease combined.”[4] Describing it as a malignant disease amplifies the pods’ threat, which can be read as a Communist invasion in this context.

But students also chuckle when they hear such hyperbolic rhetoric, and it doesn’t take long for one of them to connect it to Miles’s own magnified declaration at the film’s climax. We turn to that scene when, having escaped from Santa Mira to a nearby highway, Miles sees trucks filled with pods destined for Los Angeles and San Francisco and screams wildly at passing motorists: “You fools! You’re in danger! . . . They’re after you! They’re after all of us! . . . You’re next!” Some students observe that Miles’s direct address to the camera makes him appear crazy and hysterical. Others chime in that they’ve giggled multiple times along the way: when Jack’s underdeveloped body lies in the foreground on his pool table, when pods explode into a milky fluid like rotten cabbages, even when Miles and Becky are followed by converted townspeople to a wooded area. These examples lead us to think about the other meaning of hysterical and what that implies for our allegorical reading of Invasion. After all, Kauffman initially calls this “an epidemic of mass hysteria,” which applies nicely to the cultural context of the Red Scare. I remind students that Cold War fears of Communism led to widespread panic about subversives lurking everywhere. Members of HUAC and Senator Joseph McCarthy led witch hunts against government officials, celebrities, intellectuals, and even ordinary American citizens, if they were suspected of harboring leftist sympathies. Various industries established blacklists barring suspected radicals from employment, the Truman administration instituted a loyalty program for federal employees, and many individuals were convicted under the Smith Act for plotting the violent overthrow of the government. These illustrations certainly sound hysterical for a country that values personal liberty and prides itself on its freedom of speech and organization, thus leading students to argue that Siegel’s film may be seen as a satire of anti-Communist frenzy and a critique of social conformity during the Red Scare. What does it suggest, I ask, that the film now seems to be doing the opposite of what we’d assumed earlier? Are both interpretations, incompatible though they may be, possible? Someone invariably returns us to Nichols’s argument that most films “possess an inherent ambiguity,”[5] and students agree that Siegel’s text remains ambiguous about whether it is commenting on the internal threat of totalitarianism or the external threat of invasion.

Next, I ask students to look beyond Invasion’s political allegories for analyzing other cultural anxieties. Specifically, I have them consider what it means that the most terrifying moment for Miles occurs after Becky has been converted—that he “didn’t know the real meaning of fear . . . until [he’d] kissed Becky.” Actually, what terrifies him is that the kiss never happens. Now a pod, Becky is incapable of expressing human emotions; in a classic shot-reverse-shot, Siegel shows Becky blankly staring past Miles, followed by his look of abject terror. To trace what makes Becky so alarming, we turn to a discussion of gender and sexuality in the 1950s. Most students know this era via TV reruns of Father Knows Best or I Love Lucy, where the nuclear family is affirmed and gender hierarchies enforced. I complicate this notion by suggesting that, though this domestic model was upheld, it was also critiqued and sometimes challenged in postwar America. Rather than cheerfully tolerating their submissive roles, women also questioned why “our culture does not permit [them] to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings.”[6] And rather than celebrating their triumphs, men often felt uneasy and out of control. Fifties America, then, was as conflicted about domestic conformity as it was about socio-political conformity.

I have students contemplate Miles and Becky’s relationship within this context. Initially, it seems fairly traditional. They note that Becky’s strapless gingham dress, and her dramatic entrance in Miles’s office, sets her up as an object of pleasure. As Miles takes the lead in their courtship, the couple quickly falls into conventional gender roles. Here, we focus especially on the scene where, after spending the night at Miles’s house, Becky becomes the quintessential homemaker, seen the next morning making coffee and offering to fry eggs just the way he likes them. However, there is something artificial about this moment, when she is wearing his clothes after a night of illicit sex. Students notice that Miles and Becky, who are both divorced and sexually independent, are performing domesticity while enacting a scene of middle-class, heterosexual marriage. Thus, we decide that, although it seems to validate their romantic relationship, which might’ve turned into a nuclear family—Becky later claims to “want [his] children”—Invasion is actually conflicted about normative domestic life. So, what does Miles’s terror over Becky’s conversion represent? Barry Keith Grant reads Siegel’s film as “intimately bound up with the dread of sexual difference and of female sexuality.”[7] Students agree, seeing how Becky’s refusal to be kissed makes her “a monstrous embodiment of the more independent woman in postwar America.”[8] But not everyone is comfortable with this analysis. As an emotionless pod, some suggest, Becky can hardly be seen as liberated. When I push them toward a counter-reading, they argue that Becky embodies not independence but conformity; by converting she has become just like everybody else. “No longer the glamorous divorcée,” as Jennifer L. Jenkins argues, “Becky is now the dowdy rural housewife.”[9] By this point in our discussion, students allow that Invasion can be read both as a (liberal) critique of compulsory domesticity as well as a (conservative) warning about the loss of patriarchal authority.

Once students see the film’s ambivalent sexual politics, I invite them to think about its racial politics in similar ways. Because there is no explicit interracial conflict, some students suggest that we are, as Greg M. Smith might put it, “reading into” it.[10] We pause to clarify how the absence of people of color doesn’t imply the absence of a racial discourse. I remind them that this was the era of white flight, prompted by the migration of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans to cities, particularly to California’s urban centers. After Brown v. Board of Education, the popular press often warned against “Negro home buyers penetrat[ing] more deeply into the most desirable residential sectors of Los Angeles and its suburbs.”[11] Given the proximity of this idealized small, all-white suburban town to California’s metropolises, students interpret Santa Mira’s venomous resistance to alien outsiders as a fight against racial integration. Recalling that the invasion is spread to nearby towns on produce trucks, they also notice parallels between Santa Mira’s aliens and illegal immigrants. We thus see how Invasion racializes its alien Other; as Katrina Mann notes, it “employs prevalent postwar tropes of cultural difference that may have resonated in specifically racial terms among postwar audiences.”[12] Does the film uphold this racial Otherization, I wonder? At first, yes, but then the distinction between “natives” and aliens becomes impossible to maintain. Students recall that when Dan and Jack enter Miles’s office, right after he’s observed out-of-towners loading their trucks with seed pods, Miles assumes they’re human. Though the difference is indiscernible, they have already been converted. As Vivian Sobchack remarks, “not only can’t we tell who has been ‘taken over,’ but we also can’t tell who hasn’t been ‘taken over.’”[13] Thus, students decide that Invasion distinguishes between human and alien in racial terms and then subverts that distinction.

We conclude the class by reflecting on what it means that Invasion’s us-versus-them scenario—in Miles’s terms, “They’re after all of us!”—is undermined in so many ways. Unlike films whose Others are distinct, like the Rhedosaurus in Eugène Lourié’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) or the gigantic ants in Gordon Douglas’s Them! (1954), Siegel’s aliens are both human and posthuman, us and them, all at once. That’s why we can have multiple, opposing allegorical readings at the same time. Because film analysis is not a question of choosing the correct interpretation but discovering how a film is complex enough to make them all possible—and reveling in what Finney’s Miles calls a story that is “full of loose ends and unanswered questions.”

 

Rashna Wadia Richards is Associate Professor and T. K. Young Chair of English at Rhodes College. Her book, Cinematic Flashes: Cinephilia and Classical Hollywood, was published by Indiana University Press in 2013. She is currently co-editing Film, Teaching, Love: Cinephilia in and outside the Classroom with David T. Johnson.

 

Notes

[1] Jack Finney, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (New York: Dell, 1961), 1.

[2] Bill Nichols, Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).

[3] J. Edgar Hoover, On Communism (New York: Random House, 1969), 152.

[4] Quoted in Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War (New York: Dial Press), 201.

[5] Nichols, Engaging Cinema, 25.

[6] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), 77.

[7] Barry Keith Grant, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (London: BFI Film Classics, 2010), 77.

[8] Ibid., 89.

[9] Jennifer L. Jenkins, “‘Lovelier the Second Time Around’: Divorce, Desire, and Gothic Domesticity in Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” The Journal of Popular Culture 45 (2012): 478-96.

[10] Greg M. Smith, “‘It’s Just a Movie’: A Teaching Essay for Introductory Media Classes,” Cinema Journal 41 (2001): 127-34.

[11] Quoted in Katrina Mann, “‘You’re Next!’: Postwar Hegemony Besieged in Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Cinema Journal 44 (2004): 55.

[12] Ibid., 57.

[13] Vivian Sobchack, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 125.

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