Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) has quite a story to tell. A couple of days ago, he returned home from a conference to the small town of Santa Mira, where he had a medical practice. According to his nurse, there has been a lot of patients asking to see him with strange symptoms, nothing physical, but mental. Miles decides he would rather get back to his house first than see them all at once, and on the way he meets Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), his childhood sweetheart who has just arrived from five years in England. As they drive along a quiet street, a little boy runs out in front of the car, screaming: he doesn't believe his mother is who she says she is...
In the majority of the alien invasion and science fiction monster movies of the fifties, an era which was in many ways the boom time for such entertainment, the expert was a hero, someone you could rely on and could come up with the right answers to the seemingly insurmountable problems afflicting the world. In this adaptation of Jack Finney's classic chiller, there are no such comforts and the doctor who should, by the conventions of such things, be capable enough to handle the situation, ends up a raving madman with no one believing his warnings.
Of course, this was a bit much for the studio which made Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and they insisted that director Don Siegel film an introduction featuring Whit Bissell as a psychiatrist who listens to Miles' tale and eventually gets something done about it, but the implication from what we have seen is that he could just as easily be in Miles' place if his concerns are dismissed by those up above. From Kevin McCarthy's expression, we cannot tell if he is relieved or despairing. And that's the powerful vein of paranoia that Siegel and his team, including scriptwriter Daniel Mainwaring, tapped into: who can yout trust when their deception is perfect?
It's indicative of this film's success that it can be seen as a red alert against both the anti-Communist and anti-McCarthy political stances, as it, like in The Manchurian Candidate of the next decade, illustrates the similarities of both the hard right and the hard left points of view. When the people who have been replaced explain to Miles and Becky in reasonable tones how easy it is to be utterly conformist, unquestioning and unempathetic, it is more a manner of highlighting the dangers of yielding to any social erasure of individuality, no matter what side of the political spectrum you endorse.
These themes and undertones are all very well, but they would make for a pretty dry movie if that's all there was here. Fortunately Siegel tightens the screws of tension with every scene, making this one of the most exciting sci-fi thrillers of its era, from Miles and Becky cottoning on to the fact that the townsfolk are claiming that their loved ones are being replaced with exact doubles because that is indeed what is happening, to their flight from the pod people. With the claustrophobic camera angles and the menacing shadows, and each twist making the protagonists increasingly isolated as they are forced to flee from one apparently safe haven to another, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an ideal example of not only suspecting "they" are out to get you, but the feeling that the ones who are not will fail to accept your fears which no words of comfort can assuage. Music by Carmen Dragon.