Allied Artists

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)

The longest continuous stretch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about fifteen minutes (the film runs eighty). Small California city doctor Kevin McCarthy and his long-lost lady friend Dana Wynter have just spent the night holed up in his office, hiding from their neighbors, who have all been replaced by “pod people.” The pods are giant seedpods. They birth human facsimiles, down to scars, memories, and current injuries. They just don’t have any emotion. The evening before is another lengthy sequence, but not continuous like this fifteen minute one, which comes at the end of the second act. It doesn’t exactly end the second act because the third act is really wonky (Body Snatchers had just about as much studio post-production interference as a film can have, down to the studio literally cropping director Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s framing by ten percent).

After a big hint McCarthy and Wynter consummated their reuniting—it’s a shame McCarthy doesn’t get to talk about it, from his third scene in the film he’s constantly chatting up the ladies—the bad guys arrive and give McCarthy, Wynter, and the audience an information dump. It’s all about where the pods come from—outer space—and how McCarthy and Wynter are just going to love being passionless. Despite being a tell-all moment, the dump doesn’t feel like one. Daniel Mainwaring’s script is great—especially when characters get to monologue (save when Wynter gets lovey-dovey in an even more panicked moment)—and the actors’ not quite emotive enough delivery is perfect. Siegel does a great job directing his actors; at least the actors who matter. The occasional gas station attendant gets a pass.

As McCarthy and Wynter are faced with their loveless (sexless?) future, they start to break down before thinking their way out of the situation only to end up betrayed by their humanity and on the run into the mountains surrounding the town and, presumably, the third act.

But that third act is the wonky thing I mentioned before. See, Body Snatchers has a framing device—McCarthy telling disbelieving doctors and state troopers about what’s going on in his hometown. The pods have taken over, they’ve got to believe him, it’s almost too late to save everyone from being the same! Okay, he probably doesn’t say the thing about being the same at the beginning because part of the wonkiness is how much Body Snatchers just gives up on internal consistency. There’s three layers to the narrative. McCarthy on screen in the framing, McCarthy on screen in the flashback, McCarthy narrating the flashback (from the frame). The third, the narration, proves the most problematic in the third act. There are plot holes to jump over or at least to address and the narration plows over them instead. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially since it takes the film away from omnipresent protagonist McCarthy at the end.

Though it doesn’t help the frame already forces a protracted distance from McCarthy, which the narration and the actual story help to correct. Right up until the third act smacks it even further away than before.

The entire thing hinges on McCarthy. Body Snatchers isn’t about the fear of being replaced, it’s about the panic of being in danger. When the film starts and McCarthy is hearing about all the slightly weird stuff going on in town, people desperate to get an appointment then cancelling, kids not thinking their parents are their parents anymore, the opening has the audience primed for how it’s all going to play out. It plays out gradually, with recent divorcee McCarthy pursuing even recenter divorcee Wynter as fast as he can. He literally can’t keep his hands off of her. There’s the lovey dovey in the script and there’s some chemistry thanks to the direction, but you know McCarthy’s crazy about Wynter because McCarthy appears to be uncontrollably crazy about Wynter. And their romance subplot introduces some more information about the goings on before the first pod person shows up.

McCarthy’s pal, King Donovan, ruins their date because he’s found what appears to be a body and wants McCarthy to take a look at it. For a while, Donovan and Carolyn Jones (as his wife) are the main supporting leads. Because they’re panicked and they’re active so they end up around McCarthy. When it seems like Wynter isn’t going to be part of this core, McCarthy brings her into it. Very smart script, plotting-wise. Once McCarthy and Donovan start investigating, they’re going to discover missing bodies, strange gatherings in suburbia, and what’s better than dry martinis for putting on the steaks.

Because even though they’re in danger of being replaced by the pod people, they’re not going to miss out on steaks and martinis. It’s the fifties and they are Americans, after all. Panic can only drive you so far. If you skip martinis, the pod people win. And, somehow, magnificently, it all works. When Body Snatchers is being quiet about the culture it’s portraying, it excels. When it tries to explain what that portrayal means… the opposite. Are the “pod people”—who are without love, desire, ambition, faith—stand-ins for communists? Stand-ins for McCarthyists (no relation)? McCarthy (actor Kevin) apparently thought it was a comment on “Madison Avenue”-types. But it seems like something, only it’s really unfocused and the narration plays directly against what’s described and portrayed in the action. By the end, McCarthy is just ranting nonsensically, not because he’s panicked, not because he’s exhausted, but because the script doesn’t have the answer.

Excellent acting from McCarthy throughout, with really strong support from Donovan and Larry Gates. Jones is good. Wynter is… often good, sometimes thin. She’s got too much of an English accent, which the film explains by her living in England for five years but… really?

Jean Willes and Virginia Christine are good in the other two biggest roles. Most of the townsfolk, pod or not, are background.

Great direction from Siegel. You wish you could see the other ten percent of his framing. There are a lot of night exteriors and Fredericks’s photography on them is glorious. Fredericks’s photography is superb throughout, but those night shots are exceptional.

Good enough score from Carmen Dragon, good enough editing from Robert S. Eisen.

Great production design from Ted Haworth.

Even with the three times clunky finish—even without the framing device, it’s impossible to imagine what the film would play like without the added narration and since that narration screws up the third act, there’s not a lot going right outside the spectacular technical filmmaking-Invasion of the Body Snatchers is exquisite. It’s a step higher than almost great (so pretty great?). It just should and could be better. And—rather frustratingly—would have been better, had the studio just kept their hands off it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on a story by Jack Finney; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Robert S. Eisen; music by Carmen Dragon; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr. Danny Kauffman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Teddy Belicec), Jean Willes (Sally Withers), Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Virginia Christine (Wilma Lentz), and Tom Fadden (Uncle Ira Lentz).


The Oklahoman (1957, Francis D. Lyon)

The Oklahoman is–well, I don’t want to sell it short because its discussion of racism and prejudice are rather straightforward and singular for pictures of its era–but at its core, the film’s a love triangle between fifty-two year-old Joel McCrea, thirty-five year-old Barbara Hale and twenty-six year-old Gloria Talbott. Talbott’s supposed to be playing an eighteen year-old, McCrea’s probably not supposed to be fifty-something, but I imagine mid-thirties is the intended age for Hale. McCrea’s character is likable enough, but it’s never clear why he’s got to beat women off with a stick. Maybe because he’s the star.

The film’s at its best when it’s concentrating on McCrea’s intolerance for bigotry (Talbott’s playing a Native American, with Michael Pate as her father and McCrea’s friend). The script’s strangely subtle in these scenes. There’s no explanation of what makes McCrea different from the rest of the settlers (there is a fine scene with some guys sitting around after Pate is suspected of murder, deciding they’d understand if he’d all of a sudden just decided to start killing whites). Not much about The Oklahoman is subtle, so this approach sets it apart. Unfortunately, since it doesn’t appear to be intentionally subtle–McCrea doesn’t have a belief in equality, equality is the way it is–there’s a lot the film misses about itself. The villain, Brad Dexter (who gives a pretty lame performance, but he just needs to be nasty so it doesn’t hurt much), isn’t just a bigot, he’s also a would-be oilman, lousy neighbor and aspiring rapist. But he’s also a cattleman and Hale’s a cattlewoman so she defends him in a couple arguments with McCrea. The film doesn’t seem to recognize she’s not just coming off as a cattle rancher herself, it pushes the line to where she’s coming off as a fellow bigot. McCrea’s performance, for the most part, certainly plays like he recognizes it. The chemistry between McCrea and Hale as a romantic couple is mediocre at best. When they’re peers and neighbors who argue–but hold some generally similar opinions and can’t resolve everything else with them–it’s great. Hale’s a strong female character in those scenes.

The Oklahoman has a number of strong female characters, actually. Talbott’s decent, has some good scenes. The script shortchanges her. Verna Felton is awesome as Hale’s mother. She gets the best lines in the film. Esther Dale’s got a small part as McCrea’s five year-old daughter’s caretaker. It’s never explained why McCrea waited until his late forties to start a family… but if the film had taken his age into account, it would have had a lot more potential. The last fifteen minutes or so flushes most of the characters’ strengths. The film forgets Hale’s a cattle rancher, forgets Talbott’s a strong person, ignores daughter Mimi Gibson’s established character. Just before the last scene, Hale explains how it’s going to be and it seems to make sense… except the next scene is completely different and makes no sense.

The film’s not self-conscious about being socially conscious, which is nice. But it does force a romance where there isn’t one and ignores the potential of exploring the characters and situations it creates.

But it moves really fast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Francis D. Lyon; written by Daniel B. Ullman; director of photography, Carl E. Guthrie; edited by George White; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Walter Mirisch; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Joel McCrea (Dr. John Brighton), Barbara Hale (Ann Barnes), Brad Dexter (Cass Dobie), Gloria Talbott (Maria Smith), Michael Pate (Charlie Smith), Verna Felton (Mrs. Waynebrooke), Douglas Dick (Mel Dobie), Anthony Caruso (Jim Hawk), Esther Dale (Mrs. Fitzgerald), Adam Williams (Randell), Ray Teal (Jason), Peter J. Votrian (Little Charlie) and John Pickard (Marshal).


Soldier in the Rain (1963, Ralph Nelson)

Soldier in the Rain is a peculiar film. It’s one of Steve McQueen’s odder performances–his character is a doofus, both the protagonist and the subject of the audience’s (intended) laughter. Jackie Gleason gives an excellent performance, though his scenes with McQueen compare poorly to the ones with Tuesday Weld. Their scenes really bring something special of out of Soldier, so it’s a big disservice when their importance is ignored, the film instead concentrating on gags. The problem with the film–besides the script, which I imagine is partially William Goldman’s novel’s fault, the wandering emphases, but also the terrible Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin script–not so much the dialogue, but the plotting. It’s separated into a handful of scenes, almost intended more for the stage. And Ralph Nelson really tries to be an interesting director–whether it’s the omnipresent (sometimes louder than dialogue) Henry Mancini score, or the silent scenes with nothing but breathing–Nelson is definitely trying for something and he’s failing miserably. The film’s atrociously edited, discombobulating at times. Nelson will occasionally have a good shot, a good sequence of shots, then he’ll toss any goodness away with a terrible cut. Either he didn’t get enough coverage or he’s just incompetent and sporadically lucky.

Nelson’s problems don’t just hinder the film visually (and audially, that music gets annoying fast)–every scene is told in summary until the last half hour. Worse, the actors aren’t working towards anything. While Gleason has a good role and even with the film’s problems, it turns out very well for him, McQueen’s is convoluted. He goes from being a doofus to being a smart guy in a flash (the film needs a conclusion, after all). Weld’s similarly wronged. All of those scenes in summary suggest the film is leading up to something, even though it’s long clear it’s not. They’re starter scenes, ones to be expanded one on later, but Soldier in the Rain never goes in a traditional or good direction. While it’s the closest Edwards has probably ever come to art house, it’s not intentional–the scenes are ripe for trailer moments and commercial breaks. Edwards and Richlin’s script isn’t just erratic (it either takes place over a week or a month, there’s nothing definite and a few contradictions), it’s cheap. Soldier in the Rain feels incomplete, slapped together and pushed out the door.

I remembered thinking it was a stunning piece of work–and with McQueen and Gleason and Weld, it could have been–but instead it’s a mishmash. A poorly directed one too.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ralph Nelson; screenplay by Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin, from the novel by William Goldman; director of photography, Philip H. Lathrop; edited by Ralph E. Winters; music by Henry Mancini; produced by Edwards and Martin Jurow; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Jackie Gleason (MSgt. Maxwell Slaughter), Steve McQueen (Sgt. Eustis Clay), Tuesday Weld (Bobby Jo Pepperdine), Tony Bill (Pfc. Jerry Meltzer), Tom Poston (Lt. Magee), Ed Nelson (MP Sgt. James Priest), Lew Gallo (Sgt. Fred Lenahan) and Rockne Tarkington (Sgt. William Booth).


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