Entry from June 28, 2012

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of five films on the general theme of The Enemy Within. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson websites for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Wednesday, June 27th with a screening of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) by Don Siegel, starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates and King Donovan. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about the series in general and this movie as follows.

A friend of mine wrote me an interesting e-mail about The Third Man last week after reading my commentary — which, by the way, you can find on my website at www.jamesbowman.net, under “My Diary” for the day after each screening in the series. He wrote to point out that E.M. Forster’s line about hoping to have the guts to betray his country rather than his friends “gets it backwards, because loyalty to the personal almost always trumps loyalty to the abstract. Betraying your country, not your friend, is the default instinct.” I think that’s right, and it is because the power of loyalty and its twin, honor, to bind people together is strongest at the most intimate and personal level. Everybody cares more about being thought well of by the person standing next to him than he does about what some stranger thinks, let alone anything as big and abstract as a whole country.

The primacy of the personal over the political, or over one’s civic or patriotic duty was what Holly Martins had to face up to in The Third Man. The personal bond formed by his face-to-face relationship with Harry Lime at school, even though he hadn’t seen Harry for a decade, was much stronger and harder to break than that of any obligation to the wider community, as represented by Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway — a community which, let’s face it, wasn’t all that attractive anyway. In fact, the strength of the patriotic attachment to a community larger than the circle of one’s friends and neighbors lies in its being seen as one’s friends and neighbors writ large — which is why those who wish to break that attachment, for whatever reason, must do so by creating a mental division, by Marxist class theory for example, that allows us to treat our friends and neighbors as, somehow, “other.”

The Marxist-Leninist trick of analyzing everything in terms of power-relationships was the intellectual fad of the last century. It is still very much with us as the means by which, not only is political division created between classes, races and even sexes — to add to if not to take the place of those divisions which exist between countries — but also by which organic ties of loyalty can be dissolved almost at will. For who can be persuaded that he owes any real loyalty to someone whom he has learned to see as an oppressor?

Tonight’s film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers of 1956 by Don Siegel, based on a novel by Jack Finney, is about the horror people feel when those whom they have known all their lives and to whom they have such organic ties suddenly appear as “other” — that is, as representatives of an alien power that can steal their souls as well as their bodies and leave them as mere automata.

This movie, I think, is to the “B” picture and cheap science-fiction shocker what “The Sopranos” was later to become to the TV soap opera: namely, so perfect an adaptation of its unrespectable form to its content as not only to redeem the genre from its lowly place on the spectrum of movie artistry but also to impart a kind of mythic power to its central idea. That idea in Body Snatchers is that of mysterious seed pods from outer space which contain a simulacrum of each human character, waiting to take, almost undetectably, the place of the original in its sleep.

The imaginative force of that image lies partly in the fact that the film never makes clear what happens to the human characters when the pod people take over. It’s not like you can even see what has been discarded or destroyed anymore. Instead there is simply another person there in the place of our most intimate acquaintance and indistinguishable from it: something with the ability to masquerade as a friend and an equal while really trying to change us and control us and take away our freedom.

In 1956, that would-be tyrant and usurper would have been identified by most people in the American movie-going public as Soviet communism. Communism’s threat to “the American way of life,” as they spoke of it in those days — and as it is represented in the movie’s idyllic portrayal of the fictional town of Santa Mira, California, was enough of a given that the film-makers could have taken it for granted, though they never spell this out. We now know, especially since some of the old Soviet archives have been opened to researchers, that lots of communists whose first loyalty was to the Soviet Union really were working for our government, many of them right where Senator McCarthy had said they were a few years earlier, though nobody has yet thought to offer a posthumous apology to the Senator for representing him as a fabulist and a demagogue, as he has been ever since.

The star of tonight’s movie, Kevin McCarthy, was no relation to Senator Joe but he was a distant one of Senator Eugene McCarthy, hero of the Vietnam War resisters a dozen years later, and the younger brother of Mary McCarthy, the novelist and polemicist who was one of the left-wing participants in the ideological wars of the era. He, Kevin that is, went on to spend a number of years playing President Harry Truman, the man whom many on the left believed had started the Cold War, in a one-man show called “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.” He only died a couple of years ago, at the age of 96. In the movie he plays Dr. Miles Bennell, a General Practitioner whose patients suddenly start telling him that near loved ones aren’t who they seem to be.

In interviews later in life he seemed to take the view that the pod-people who were taking their places were not communists but those who had so lately been assiduous in seeking out the communists lurking in, among other places, the movie industry. In this, he reflected the strong counter-tendency among the liberals, communist sympathizers and civil libertarians who have been in the ascendency in Hollywood for most of the time since the 1950s. Both Jack Finney and Don Siegel claimed that their dead-eyed aliens had no political or allegorical intention at all, and, by the time the public took any interest in the question, it would probably have been impolitic to have admitted what seemed to most people at the time the obvious, namely that it was anti-communist in its meaning.

It’s true that the writer of the screenplay, Daniel Mainwaring, had left-wing sympathies and fronted for at least one of those on the Hollywood blacklist. He also inserted into the film a speech, not to be found in Finney’s original, that is often cited as evidence that its allegory tended left rather than right. Spoken by Dr Bennell, it goes like this: “In my practice, 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.”

This hardly seems conclusive to me, as evidence of either political tendency. And against it you have to put the fact that Dr Bennell, the film’s hero is a conservative who wants things not to change and who rejects the utopian promise of the pod-people when it is put to him by Santa Mira’s one psychiatrist, Dr Dan Kauffman (played by Larry Gates), a man whose bodily takeover by aliens is the least noticeable of anyone in town. His old friend Dan pleads with Miles as a “scientific” man himself to come over with him to the other side where he will be, he says,”reborn into an untroubled world.”

“Where everyone’s the same?” says Miles.

“Exactly,” says Dr. Kauffman.

But what about love? Miles wants to know as he clings to his childhood sweetheart, Becky Driscoll, played by Dana Wynter, who is now, like him, divorced. “You can’t love or be loved, am I right?”

“You say it as if it were terrible,” says the shrink. “It isn’t. You’ve been in love before. It didn’t last. It never does. Love, desire, ambition, faith — without them, life”s so simple, believe me.” In proclaiming that they don’t want any part of such a world, both Miles and Becky are not only rejecting the utopianism the pod-people are now supposed to represent, they are asserting the primacy of the personal over the political, which is in defiance of communist doctrine — at least officially. “I want to love, and be loved!” cries Becky to Miles. “I want your children. I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty. I’d rather die.” Dr. Kauffman also speaks as the voice of historical determinism when he tells them that they have no choice.

Yet the ambiguity of the film’s reflection of real life in the 1950s is what has given it the power and the prominence it has since assumed in the popular imagination, a power much greater than that of any of the avowedly anti-communist films of the brief period during which Hollywood made anti-communist films. It suggests to us that maybe what people are afraid of when they are afraid of communism is the same thing they are afraid of when they are afraid of anti-communism — a world where “everyone’s the same.” Maybe both fears are for the loss of community and the sense of what we share with our neighbors, which is in turn the foundation of loyalty itself. It must have been rather the same in the Reformation, when Europe went almost overnight from having a common Christian identity to finding all of a sudden that one’s neighbors had subtly changed in ways almost unnoticeable but so absolutely as to be mortal in their difference from us.

Whether the instrument was communism or anti-communism or something else entirely, the fear to which The Invasion of the Body Snatchers gave expression was a similar fear of the loss of identity and community which the argument about what constituted real Americanism was already bringing about. Maybe there is also something of the fear of getting what we want. The idyllic small town community of Santa Mira is made to look, perhaps, a little too typical of American suburban life in the 1950s with its good neighbors who all know and like each other, its barbecues, its martinis, its belief in love and marriage — and that they go together like a horse and carriage, in the words of Sammy Kahn’s and Jimmy Van Heusen’s song of that name, recorded by Frank Sinatra in the year before Body Snatchers came out. The worst horror the movie hints at is that this idyll might be indistinguishable from the nightmare world that is replacing it. Heaven becomes hell overnight, and escape from hell becomes almost as impossible as it is from the hell of Vienna in The Third Man.

Divorce, too, which was now for the first time common in the middle classes and in small towns like Santa Mira, was another way in which the most personal and seemingly most permanent of human ties were being broken and a basic component of traditional identity was being taken away. As the context in which Miles and Becky fall in love, family breakup cannot but be present to our minds as the real-world transformer of traditional relationships into something scarily new. Equally scary is the feeling that the things we fear will not be taken seriously by others. The movie begins with a wild-eyed, disheveled man who looks insane repeatedly crying out: “I’m not insane!” — just to remind us of how easy and natural it is to see the fear the movie is going to give expression to as a manifestation of paranoia or, as the town psychiatrist, Dr. Kauffman puts it, “mass hysteria.”

The only reference in Body Snatchers to events outside it comes in Dr. Kauffman’s reply to the question of what causes this hysteria. “Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably,” he says, implying to a contemporary audience things like communism or the atom bomb. The idea that our fear can itself help to bring about the thing we fear thus becomes something else to fear — as well as further evidence that it is all in our heads. Originally the film ended with the culmination of the chase, when Dr Bennell is running from the whole town of Santa Mira and they break off as one of the pursuers says: “Let him go. Nobody will ever believe him.” Then we see Miles on reaching the highway, which is the film’s symbol of liberation from the suburban hell he has left behind, standing in the midst of the busy traffic shouting: “You fools, you’re in danger! They’re here already. You’re next; you’re next; you’re next.” The studio thought that that made for too bleak an ending, so they wrote in the framing device of the hospital where the movie begins and ends to provide at least a glimmer of hope.

Yet the image that sticks with us is that of the paranoid nightmare in which we know something terrible is happening but no one will believe us. If The Third Man introduces the post-war world to the fundamental conflict of loyalties that was to become characteristic of the Cold War for many Americans, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a low-budget B-movie that went almost unnoticed by the mainstream culture at the time of its release, embodied the popular fears that inspired both the anti-communist fervor of the post-war era and the backlash against it, which continues to dominate the media and the popular culture to this day. Now, rather than pod-people it’s zombies, introduced in their present form by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead twelve years later (though he didn’t call them that) or robots, as in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner of 1982. It all starts here.

And there’s another thing that starts here — I mean the Hollywood and pop cultural convention by which the paranoiac is always right. In the real world, of course, paranoiacs are almost never right. They suffer from a mental illness involving delusions of persecution and imaginary threats, but, as someone once said, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. This is the second and the last film in the series to treat the conflict of loyalty in general terms. Henceforth, we shall see it applied to the specific historical circumstances of American life between the 1950s and the present day — in particular to the Cold War which, increasingly, divided us from each other as well as from the putative communist enemy. But the power of the movies to give form and reality to the inchoate and perhaps irrational fears of the mind would ever after this have its own role to play in keeping such fears alive.

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