Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) is graced with one the most recognized film titles of the 1950s, known even by most non-classic movie fans. It helps that there have been a number of remakes of the story (in 1978, 1994 and 2007), but even those who are not film fans at all have heard the term “pod people,” a phrase that has crossed over into the general lexicon.
The film is also one of the key entries in the 1950s cycle of science fiction movies. It ranks in just about anyone’s list of top five titles, along with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1958). It is also a movie that is best experienced with an audience. There is something nefariously infectious about seeing a study in paranoia with a large audience—just as the characters on the screen begin to doubt their neighbors, the effect is heightened for the moviegoer who, though lost in the story unfolding onscreen, is surrounded by a large number of strangers!
Although it is now difficult to imagine INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS without him, Kevin McCarthy was not producer Walter Wanger’s first choice for the lead role of Dr. Miles Bennell. Others considered (though not necessarily approached) included Joseph Cotten, Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan and Barry Nelson. No doubt the low budget ($300,000) of the Allied Artists picture dictated a lesser-known name. McCarthy was well respected in the acting community, however. Known mostly for his stage work at this point, he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination for his second film, an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1951). McCarthy was also good friends with Montgomery Clift, and was the first person on the scene following Clift’s disfiguring car accident outside Elizabeth Taylor’s house in 1956. Kevin McCarthy died in 2010 at the age of 96; fortunately he lived long enough to greet generations of fans at horror and pop culture conventions and sign his name to thousands of stills that showed he and Dana Wynter running in a panic through the streets of Santa Mira.
One of McCarthy’s biggest fans and boosters was director Joe Dante, who considered McCarthy to be a good luck charm—the actor appeared in an astounding percentage of Dante’s films, including Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Innerspace (1987) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), in which he is seen carrying a pod around!
So, who better to introduce the 35mm SuperScope print (courtesy of the George Eastman House and from the personal collection of Martin Scorsese) to passholders this afternoon at the Egyptian than Dante himself? He called McCarthy a “dear friend” and recalled the occasion when the two drove to meet Jack Finney, the writer of the Collier’s magazine story “The Body Snatchers” upon which the film was based. (Allied Artists executives added the more exploitative “Invasion of” part of the title).
Dante described the SuperScope process, which involved simply filming at 35mm full frame but leaving a lot of headroom in the picture. To create the wide aspect ratio, picture area was simply lopped off the top and bottom of the screen. This led to a somewhat grainy image on movie screens, but Dante described the real problem: when TV prints were later made in 16mm, the SuperScope image was panned and scanned, cutting even more information off the sides of the screen! Thankfully, the “bad old days” of seeing the film in this manner are over. Dante noted that INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is seldom revived on the big screen because of various rights issues. He revealed that these issues have also prevented the release of a DVD commentary track he recorded years ago with both Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. That such a recording exists is very welcome news and it leaves the film’s many incurable fans something to look forward to hearing someday!