Original publish date: February 6, 2011 Reissue Date: April 16, 2020
September 11 is an important date in this country. Its a date as important to our generation as December 11, 1941 (Pearl Harbor) and November 23, 1963 (John F.Kennedy’s assassination) were to the two generations preceding ours. It is the date the date of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in New York City. However, it has another meaning to me. On September 11, 2010, Kevin McCarthy died. Kevin McCarthy was an actor, a character actor to be precise. You’ve seen his face in countless films over the past half century but probably never knew his name.
Midwestern born McCarthy appeared in over two hundred television and film roles and an equal number of stage plays and productions for over a half century. For his role in the 1951 film version of Death of a Salesman, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year . However, I remember McCarthy for his starring role in the original 1956 version of the classic Sci-Fi / Horror movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, a film with a strong Cold War Era Anti-Communist theme.
I had the opportunity to meet Kevin McCarthy in Chicago back in 1992 and he was gracious enough to sign a photo for me. It remains a cherished possession. Not only was he a great actor, he was a cousin of former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy and one actor Montgomery Clift’s best friends. I could not help but smile wryly when I learned of McCarthy’s death last year on 9/11. He lived to the ripe old age of 96 (we should all be so lucky) and lived a life that most of us can only dream about. The irony of his dying on 9/11, one of the most controversial politically charged dates in American history, was not lost on me. For “Invasion of the body snatchers” remains one of the most controversial politically charged movies of all-time.
Invasion is based on the novel “The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney and was first featured in several installments in Saturday Evening Post magazines in 1954-55. It stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, and Carolyn Jones (Morticia Addams of the Addams Family). The screenplay was adapted from Finney’s novel by Daniel Mainwaring, along with an uncredited Richard Collins, and was directed by Don Siegel. The film is the first and most critically acclaimed of the novel’s four film adaptations to date.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The American Film Institute ranked “Invasion number nine on its “Ten top Ten” best ten films in the science fiction category. The film ranked number 47 on AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Thrills”, a list of America’s most heart-pounding films.
Set in the fictional town of Santa Mira, California (In the novel, the town is Mill Valley, north of San Francisco), McCarthy plays Dr. Miles Bennell, a local doctor who finds that several of patients are accusing their loved ones of being impostors. Assured at first by the town psychiatrist that the cases are nothing but “epidemic mass hysteria,” Bennell soon discovers that the townspeople are being systematically replaced by perfect physical duplicates, simulacrums grown from giant plant-like pods (found in basements, automobile trunks, a greenhouse, and on a pool table). The Pod People are indistinguishable from normal people, except for their lack of human emotion. The Pod People work together to secretly spread more pods which the film explains grew from “seeds drifting through space for years” in order to replace the entire human race.
The film climaxes with Bennell and a friend attempting to escape the Pod People, intent on warning the rest of humanity. While they hide, the doctor’s friend played by actress Dana Wynter fights an overwhelming urge to sleep and when she briefly doses off, she is instantly transformed into one of the Pod People. With the Pod People close behind, Bennell runs onto the highway frantically screaming about the alien force which has overrun the town to the passing motorists and (in a moment that is considered a breaking of the Fourth Wall) looks into the camera and yells, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!”
Bennell is picked up by the police and questioned in a clinic. The policemen in charge do not believe his account until they receive news of an accident in which a truck carrying strange giant bean pods is opened. The police are quick to alert the authorities; the message has been received, but the actual end of the story is left open. What cannot be denied is the central theme of the heroic struggle of one helpless but determined man of conscience, a small-town doctor (McCarthy), to vainly combat and quell a deadly, indestructible threat. An oft repeated theme of Sci-Fi films of today
The film had a few preliminary titles: Sleep No More, Better Off Dead, and They Came From Another World before the final choice was made. At first, studios considered established Hollywood stars like Gig Young, Dick Powell, Joseph Cotten for the male lead. For the female lead, Anne Bancroft, Donna Reed, Kim Hunter, and Vera Miles were initially considered. However the lower budget led producers to cast two relative newcomers in the lead roles: McCarthy and Wynter. The film was shot in just 23 days between March 23, 1955 and April 18, 1955 by working a six-day week with only Sundays off. The final budget was $382,190. When released in 1956, the movie made over $1 million in its first month and over $2.5 million in the USA for the entire year. British ticket sales raised that figure by a half million dollars. When the film was released, many theatres displayed several of the pods (made of paper) in theatre lobbies along with lifesize cutouts of McCarthy and Wynter frantically running away from a mob.
The film was originally intended to end with Miles screaming hysterically as truckloads of pods pass him by. The studio insisted on adding an ending that suggested a more optimistic outcome. The studio tried to get Orson Welles to voice the preface and a trailer for the film, but was unsuccessful. The film holds a 97% “Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. In recent years, critics have hailed the film as a “genuine Sci-Fi classic” and one of the “most resonant” and “one of the simplest” of the genre. Even though the movie has no monsters, minimal special effects, no overt violence, and no deaths. The BBC wrote, “The sense of post-war, anti-communist paranoia is acute, as is the temptation to view the film as a metaphor for the tyranny of the McCarthy era.”
The film is widely viewed as an indictment of McCarthyism and the Red Scare Anti-Communist Era. The unmistakable metaphor: the turning of people into soulless doubles while they sleep represents the dangers faced of America turning a blind eye to McCarthyism. Over the years, others have interpreted the film as a metaphor for the loss of the individual in modern mass civilization, or paranoia about the spread of socialistic Communism, or blacklisting of Hollywood, or as a representation of the loss of personal freedom in the Soviet Union, or the spread of an unknown malignancy or virulent germ (a metaphor within a metaphor about the fear of annihilation by ‘nuclear war’), or of bland conformity in postwar Eisenhower-era America. Still others argue the film is an indictment of the damage to the human personality caused by ideologies of Right versus Left, a theme that resonates today.
One of the things I loved about Kevin McCarthy is that he often said that he felt that the film had no political allegory at all, at least not by the actors or filmmakers. McCarthy backed it up by stating that in his talks with novelist Jack Finney, he too professed that there was no intended specific political allegory in the book.
The producer of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was Walter Wanger, a man not free from personal controversy himself. Wanger had just been released from prison for attempted murder after serving a 4-month jail term for the 1951 shooting of the lover of his unfaithful movie-star wife, Joan Bennett. Wanger’s attorney successfully offered a “temporary insanity” defense resulting in the light sentence.
The psychological sci-fi film was re-made three times starring Donald Sutherland, (1978), Gabrielle Anwar 1993 and Nicole Kidman (2007), although well-made, the remakes were inferior to the original, as were the lead star. The original 1956 film received no Academy Award nominations but has become more and more revered and distinctive as time passed.
Kevin McCarthy would go on to make film cameos in other sci-fi films including: The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Innerspace (1987), and a memorable appearance as his Dr. Bennell character (now elderly) in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) that appeared clutching a seed pod repeatedly muttering “You’re next.”
I think that the reason this movie spoke to me in particular and resonates in my memory today is the time frame that I associate it with. I saw the film in the late 1960s an era framed in my mind by political mistrust, conspiracy theories and assassination. Everything from who killed Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy to whether the moon landing was real or staged in a Hollywood studio to whether or not the Beatles Paul McCartney was alive or dead seemed to be surrounded by cover-up and controversy. This movie with its Zombie-like alien invaders bodily brain-washing their naive, unsuspecting victims could be conformed to any theory, right or left. As a child of the ’60s, this movie spoke to me like no other.
Meeting Kevin McCarthy was a lifetime thrill. I think often of McCarthy’s eloquent speech from the movie describing the shocking changes he’s seen in his fellow citizens, “I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind…All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.”
Followed by an unconvincing sales pitch by an antagonist colleague to McCarthy’s character, “Less than a month ago, Santa Mira was like any other town. People with nothing but problems. Then, out of the sky came a solution. Seeds drifting through space…Your new bodies are growing in there. They’re taking you over cell for cell, atom for atom…they’ll absorb your minds, your memories and you’re reborn into an untroubled world…Tomorrow you’ll be one of us…There’s no need for love…Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them, life is so simple, believe me.”
And whenever I wish, I can conjure up an image in my mind of the wide-eyed sweat and grime covered face of McCarthy as a crazed prophet of doom pointing directly into the camera desperately speaking his warning to humanity: “Look, you fools. You’re in danger. Can’t you see? They’re after you. They’re after all of us. Our wives, our children, everyone. They’re here already. YOU’RE NEXT!” Rest in Peace Kevin McCarthy.