Actor Kevin McCarthy died of natural causes last weekend at the age of 96. His most famous film was the science fiction classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." The article reproduced below, from the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue marking the 50th anniversary of its original release, examined the varying interpretations placed on the famous movie.
By Peter McDermott
Fifty years ago this month, Kevin McCarthy was screaming at any American movie audience that would listen to him: "They're coming. You're next! They're here already!"
The actor has played at least 200 roles in film and television, but for many he'll always be Dr. Miles Bennell frantically trying to wave down traffic on a highway, near the fictional Santa Mira, Calif. The "they" in pursuit were the alien "pod people," who duplicated and replaced humans.
The concept captured the popular imagination like few others from science fiction. Only last week, a New York Times editorial on the immigration issue said that the "recent wave of newcomers are not all potential terrorists living among us like pod people."
"Invasion of the Body Snatchers," made on a modest $415,000 budget, has taken its place in the pantheon of films classics. Time magazine puts in its top 100 movies of all time.
Mick Martin and Marsha Porter's "DVD & Video Guide 2006," one of the more popular volumes of the genre, calls it "quite possibly the most frightening film ever made."
It has yet another distinction: few movies have been subject to such differing interpretations. Is it, for example, a rightwing cautionary tale or a subtle leftwing satire? Or, more generally, might it be a critique of the depersonalizing tendencies of modern society?
For the lead role, director Don Siegel selected someone he'd used in a movie the previous year. In "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," McCarthy, a character actor much respected by his fellow professionals, plays small-town family practitioner Bennell who initially dismisses patients' claims that their loved ones are imposters.
The doctor's helpmate in his battle with the pods is an old flame, Becky Driscoll, played by Dana Wynter. (Wynter has spent periods living in Ireland and starred in the RTE drama series "Bracken" with Gabriel Byrne. McCarthy told the Echo that he and his former costar are close friends and talk on the phone every few days.)
But were the pods less than subtle stand-ins for Communists? In her history of McCarthyism, "Many are the Crimes," scholar Ellen Shrecker says that the interpretation was a natural one at the time when Communists, like the Japanese enemy a few years before, could be seen as "inferior beings who at the same time were uniquely powerful." Indeed, Life magazine referred to one prominent Communist agent as "almost a separate species of mankind."
So in the film, Shrecker adds, "outer-space invaders took control of ordinary people just as concealed party members presumably subverted labor unions and liberal causes."
But Walter Bernstein, a screenwriter targeted by the McCarthy-era blacklist, suggested in an interview for this newspaper a few years ago that the movie could be read in another way, too.
Rather than being Stalinists bent on creating a totalitarian state, the pods are more likely to be officials terrorizing non-conformist or radical Americans and demanding, like Sen. Joseph McCarthy, loyalty tests for everybody.
This reading of the movie became more popular from the 1960s onward, but it has a real basis in fact. In their latest book together, "Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television 1950-2002," Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner argue that "the director's (as well as the writers') connections with the Left were deeper than critics or devotees ever recognized."
Wagner told the Echo recently: "The message was indirect because there were always people who made careers and money out of fingering other people and [there were always] careers to be lost."
He pointed to the films coming out of Iran in the last 10 years as a contemporary parallel. They are often "superb" allegories about the mullahs' repression. "But the stories are never obvious," he said.
When Buhle and Wagner suggest that the writers of the1956 film were on the left, they're not referring to Jack Finney, who wrote the original novel, "The Body Snatchers."
McCarthy, who is now 92, recalled being asked by the director Don Siegel to consult the novel, which had being serialized in Collier's magazine in 1954, as preparation for the movie.
Reading it, the actor thought: "What the hell is he going to do with this?"
It was a highly elaborate science fiction fantasy, which, if done faithfully, would have required a massive budget. Instead, McCarthy said, the principal screenwriter, Daniel Mainwaring, and Siegel streamlined and simplified it.
But that isn't the only place where the novelist and the filmmakers differed. In his introduction to the 1976 edition of the novel, historian Richard Gid Powers, according to Wagner, "demonstrates from a thorough reading of Finney's other work that he was a small-town traditionalist -- that is, very much a conservative of the sort who supported Joe McCarthy in the '50s."
And, as it happens, the right-libertarian Powers went on to write a fairly sympathetic biography of McCarthy, defending him as someone who, said Wagner, "opposed outsiders, the new, the modern, the bureaucracy, all state intrusion - all the frustrations of the small-town burger of the era.
"Mainwaring was careful to preserve a good deal of this traditionalism, but to leave just enough room for ambiguity so that it could be read either way," Wagner said.
And significantly, the screenwriter "dragged Finney's novel into the realm of film noir," he added, a style very much identified with the Hollywood left.
In his TV work, Mainwaring "fronted" for and collaborated with his colleague Adrian Scott, one of the jailed Communist Party members known as the Hollywood Ten. (In his Oscar-winning movie "The Front", which starred Woody Allen, Bernstein told the story of how some blacklisted screenwriters survived in their chosen profession by employing others to submit their work.)
In 1952, the critic and novelist Mary McCarthy argued that the investigative methods of Sen. McCarthy and those like him could lead to a "society of surfaces, where papers and books circulate freely, like so many phantom abstractions, while their human authors and readers have been suppressed or excluded from the country."
A few weeks later, she told a conference that it was difficult to indoctrinate a student with anything, as every teacher knew, "yet a Communist teacher, presumably, can 'infect' her pupils with Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism by, to quote one writer, 'the tone of her voice'..."
Mary McCarthy (sister incidentally of the actor who plays Dr. Bennell) mocked the notion that certain ideas were "catching;" it's hardly a stretch, then, to say that the left-connected Mainwaring was satirizing 1950s anti-Communist hysteria.
If Mainwaring and Siegel's original 76-minute version made it onto the screen, this intention might have been more obvious.
The movie was supposed to end with McCarthy's highway moment but the studio imposed a prologue, a voiceover narration by the lead character and an epilogue, with the FBI coming in to save the day.
McCarthy was in South Africa when Siegel called him to say more work had to be done. "Hey kiddo, I need you," the actor remembered the director telling him. "These pods out here are screwing around with the film."
"He detested it," said McCarthy of Siegel's view of his own 80-minute version seen in theaters. And the studio, he recalled, still weren't too happy with it, either.
Siegel always denied the movie was anti-Communist but stopped short of saying it was anti-McCarthyite. Instead the director implied it was about the loss of individuality in modern life. He once said: "Many of my associates are certainly pods. They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you...."
Kevin McCarthy has tended to agree, seeing the movie as much a critique of Madison Avenue advertising executives as of red-baiting senators.
Buhle and Wagner argue, though, one couldn't attack 1950s suburban conformism and not also be indict the McCarthyism with which it was complicit.
Wagner suggested that that the 1978 sequel of sorts was more explicit politically and that certain "gestures were intended to help settle the debate."
He said: "About 15 minutes into the remake, Donald Sutherland asks Brooke Adams what makes her think her husband has been replaced? 'Has he become a Republican?'"
Not surprisingly, Finney didn't like that version. (Mainwaring died in 1977.) Wagner said the prominent cameos by McCarthy and Siegel "were pretty broad winks that they approved the story development." But, however one tells this episode of cinema history, the director of the 1956 version is at its center.
McCarthy said his friend Siegel was an outstanding talent and a "great guy."
Said Wagner: "Siegel was just a damned good storyteller. He was the master of the transparent style and could lead an audience anywhere."