Wednesday, 29 April 2015

A Tribute To Morris Ankrum

Morris Ankrum:

A dependable and familiar character actor

Morris Ankrum (Morris Nussbaum) was born in Danville, Vermilion County, eastern Illinois on 28 August 1896. Ankrum graduated from The University of Southern California with a law degree and went on to an associate professorship in economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

The road toward a career in acting began at Berkeley when Ankrum became involved in the drama department and went on to teach drama and directing at the Pasadena Playhouse. Between 1923 and 1939, he acted in various Broadway stage productions such as “The Big Blow” and “Within the Gates.”

After signing with Paramount Pictures, Ankrum used the name "Stephen Morris" before changing it to Morris Ankrum in 1939.

Ankrum had the kind of presence and appearance that led him to be cast in supporting roles as an authority figure, more often than not as an army general or other military officer.

During Ankrum’s thirty year career that included some seventy mostly B-grade films, he had some notable roles. One such role was in Tennessee Johnson (1942) as Senator Jefferson Davis addressing the United States Senate upon his resignation to lead the Confederate States of America as its president.

Ankrum had numerous roles in western films and series such as Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942), Apache (1954), The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Bronco, Maverick, Tales of the Texas Rangers, Cimarron City, Rawhide and The Rifleman.

He is also well-remembered for his performances in science fiction genre films as a gruff, no-nonsense authoritative military officer assisting scientists as they fight off alien menaces to our planet. Most of these films have been and will be featured in this blog such as;

Rocketship X-M (1950), Flight to Mars (1951), Red Planet Mars (1952), Invaders From Mars (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Kronos (1957), Beginning of the End (1957), The Giant Claw (1957), From Earth to the Moon (1958) and X—The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963).

From 1957 until his death in 1964, Ankram made frequent appearances in Perry Mason playing the role of a judge presiding over murder trials.

On September 2, 1964, Ankrum died of trichinosis. His final appearance in a TV series was on the Perry Mason, episode, "The Case of the Sleepy Slayer," and his last film appearance was in Guns of Diablo (1965), released after his death. 

Morris Ankrum in The Giant Claw (1957)
Big Bird Battle Scene (OMG!)

©Chris Christopoulos 2015

Sunday, 26 April 2015

A Tribute To Whit Bissell

Whit Bissell: 

A solid supporting foundation for film & TV Sci-Fi

Whit Bissell was born in New York on 25 October. 1909. He died on 5 March, 1996 in Woodland Hills, California at the age of 86.

Whit Bissell began his career in the theatre where he appeared on Broadway in a production of "Hamlet" (1936), "Star-Wagon" (1937), "The American Way" (1939), "Cue for Passion" (1940), "Cafe Crown" (1942) and "Winged Victory" (1943).

In Hollywood, Whit Bissell acted in thrillers, Westerns and science-fiction films. In his many supporting roles, he came to be that familiar face of credible authority, invariably appearing in the role of a doctor, scientist, or general in some science fiction B-movie or TV series.

His many science fiction, horror and other film credits include;

  • That Lady in Ermine (1948)
  • For Heaven's Sake (1950)
  • Lost Continent (1951)
  • Target Earth (1954)
  • The Atomic Kid (1954)
  • Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  • I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
  • I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)
  • Monster on the Campus (1958)
  • The Time Machine (1960)
  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  • Seven Days in May (1964)
  • Fluffy (1965)
  • Soylent Green (1973)
  • Psychic Killer (1975)

He also appeared in various episodes of such popular TV series as;
  • Out There (1951) 
  • The 20th-Century Fox Hour (1955)
  • Science Fiction Theatre (1956) 
  • One Step Beyond (1959) 
  • Men into Space (1959) 
  • The Outer Limits (1963)
  • The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963)
  • Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1965)
  • The Time Tunnel Series (1966-1967) 
  • Star Trek (1967)
  • The Invaders (1967)
  • Land of the Giants (1970)

Whit Bissell managed to convey a sense of maturity, integrity, consistency and reliability as an actor who seemed to never tire of essentially playing the same part again and again.

There were, however, some memorable stand out roles for Whit Bissell. The other day I saw a solid but brief performance of his in the film, Brute Force (1949) starring Burt Lancaster. In this film, Whit Bissell played the part of one of Lancaster's cell-mates who was forced into taking his own life due to the cruel pressure placed on him by the sociopath prison guard captain.

Whit Bissell managed to leave behind a legacy that included some 300 film and television appearances. In 1994, he received a Life Career Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films for his work with those genres.

Whit Bissell in Creature from the Black Lagoon

©Chris  Christopoulos 2015

Friday, 17 April 2015

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

A mix of superb Sci-Fi adventure and imaginative, intense and suspenseful thriller!

Directed by Don Siegel
Produced by Walter Wanger
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring
Based on The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
Music by Carmen Dragon
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Edited by Robert S. Eisen
Production company: Walter Wanger Pictures, Inc.
Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation
Running time: 80 minutes
Box office: $3,000,000


Kevin McCarthy as Miles Bennell
Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll
Larry Gates as Dan Kauffman
King Donovan as Jack Belicec
Carolyn Jones as Theodora "Teddy" Belicec
Virginia Christine as Wilma Lentz
Jean Willes as Sally Withers
Whit Bissell (uncredited) as Dr Hills
Richard Deacon as ER doctor

The film you are about to be acquainted with is called Invasion of the Body Snatchers which was adapted from the screenplay from Jack Finney's 1954 science fiction novel, The Body Snatchers.


Spoilers Follow.....

Picture a small fictional Californian town by the name of Santa Mira. Like many other towns, Santa Mira moves at its own leisurely pace and folks travel well-worn paths through life governed by the predictable surety of routine… That is… until one day when the neat folds Santa Mira’s routine were torn asunder by an extra-terrestrial invasion that began with spores from space that grew into large seed pods, which were capable of reproducing duplicate replacement copies of the good folks of Santa Mira. Each pod, as it reached full development, could assimilate the physical characteristics, memories, and personalities of any sleeping person placed in close proximity.

What emerged from this duplication process were mere husks from which all human emotion had been snatched away from the sleeping citizens of a sleepy little town in a slumbering nation. 

Join us as we follow a local doctor, Dr Miles Bennell who attempts to uncover this invasion and hopefully stop it from spreading….

The introduction to Invasion of the Body Snatchers with its forceful and strident music heavy with brass instruments and drum roll suggests the approach of something ominous. The direction from which the danger is approaching is suggested by the sky-ward direction of the camera shot and the clouds rolling rapidly across the view.

A dishevelled and seemingly delusional Dr Miles Bennell has been arrested on a California highway and taken to the local hospital's psychiatric ward. There he pleads with a psychiatrist, Dr Hill and the attending physician, Dr Bassett, “You must listen! You must understand me! I’m not insane!” He then relates to them a story that “started last Thursday”…..


“Something evil had taken possession of the town.”

Miles had been called home to Santa Mira from a medical convention by his nurse, Sally Withers who told him that several patients had called in insisting that their relatives and friends were not who they seemed to be.

Jean Willes as Sally Withers

While driving to the office, Miles and Sally almost ran over young Jimmy Grimaldi who was fleeing from his mother. According to Mrs. Grimaldi, “It’s nothing, he just don’t wanna go to school.” Rather an understatement considering the level of Jimmy’s panic! Added to this, the Grimaldis had unexpectedly and uncharacteristically shut down their vegetable stand, apparently because it was too much work.

The mystery deepened when Miles learned that many of the patients no longer needed his services even though he was told by Sally that previously “they couldn’t wait to see you!”

Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll

A fabulous vision of fifties femininity in the form of former girlfriend, Becky Driscoll wafts into the office. Becky informs Miles that her cousin, Wilma “has a…delusion” and believes that her uncle, Ira “is an imposter.” Miles assures her that he’ll visit Wilma later.

Later on, a terrified Jimmy Grimaldi is dragged kicking and screaming to Miles's office by his grandmother. He cries out “don’t let her get me!” and declares that his mother is not really his mother. For Miles, the suspicions grow as more dots are joined.

“There’s something missing.” 

Miles and Becky pay a visit to Ira and Wilma. Wilma’s highly expressive face tells the story and adds force to her belief that as far as she is concerned “that special look is missing” from Ira and that “there’s no emotion…just the pretence of it.” Miles explains away her concerns by suggesting that “the trouble is inside of you.” He also suggests that Wilma agrees to see a psychiatrist friend of his.

"Epidemic of mass hysteria?" 

Later that night on their way to dinner, Becky and Miles encounter the town psychiatrist, Dan Kauffman who mentions that he had seen many unusual cases of people claiming that their loved ones had somehow changed. He puts it down to it being a “strange neurosis” stemming from people “worrying about what’s going on in the world.”

The next scene reveals an empty restaurant, where Miles and Becky learn that it has “been this way for two weeks.” Suddenly Miles is called to the house of Jack and Teddy Belicec where they discover a seemingly lifeless and featureless parody of a human being on the pool table. Their jangled nerves (and ours) are given a further jarring when the cuckoo clock’s sudden clashing cacophony erupts into the tense breath-holding stillness of the scene.

The inert body has “all the features” of a man “but no detail.” Added to this mystery is its lack of finger prints. In answer to Jack’s wife’s question, “whose face…tell me that?” it slowly becomes obvious that the body is taking on Jack's features. We know the answer to the question posed, “How much does it weigh?” when it is discovered that It bleeds from a hand as did Jack when he cut his own on a piece of glass. As Miles tends to Jack’s cut, he almost ironically comments, “I’m afraid you may live.”

For the audience, Miles’s words to Jack now begin to take on new meaning when he takes Becky home to her father's house. Her father seems normal but notice as he emerges from his basement, stating that he was working in his workshop, the sinister sounding music suggests something far less innocuous.


Now switch scenes to Jack’s place to hear his wife hysterically scream out to her husband, “It’s you! It’s you!” Suddenly she sees the body’s eyes snap open causing her to shriek out in a manner akin to Dr Frankenstein from a classic horror movie, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Carolyn Jones as Theodora "Teddy" Belicec

While Jack and his wife are at Miles’ place, Miles suddenly “had the feeling that Becky was in danger.” He quickly decides to rush over to the Driscoll place where he felt that “something was wrong in this house.” He then breaks into the basement and discovers another humanoid creature transforming itself into Becky. He soon discovers Becky asleep upstairs and carries her away from the house and danger.

“Reality becomes unreality”

Miles and Jack enlist the help of Dan Kauffman but both the bodies at the Belicecs' and Driscolls' are missing. Dan suggests that “what you saw was the body of a murdered man” in Jack's poolroom and that the lack of finger prints could be explained by the fact that the dead man “took them off with acid.” In addition, according to Dan, the cause of death had been too small for Miles to notice in his initial examination. He also explains that Miles thought he saw Becky's double because he had been so unnerved by the presence of the body at the Belicecs'. The conclusion: “The mind is a strange and wonderful thing!”

When Police Chief Grivett arrives at the Drisscoll house after being called by an indignant and outraged Mr Drisscoll, he informs the shame-faced gathering in the basement that a burning body matching the description of the mystery body at the Belicecs’ was found burning outside of town.

Everything seems to be back to normal until our hearts start to pump furiously when Miles hears a sound in the basement which turns out to be…….the gasman! Miles’ comment, “I guess I’m a little jittery” sums up the lingering pervasive fear that is generated by an event such as the one they experienced-real or not! Can even the gasman be trusted?

The next day things seem to be going well, perhaps too well. At “Le Grifon” antique shop, Wilma tells Miles that she feels better about Ira and doesn’t need to see Dan. Next, Miles sees Jimmy sitting happily next to his mother in his office waiting room! Sally makes the pertinent comment, “he certainly made a quick recovery.” If something seems too good to be true, it usually is….

“Something or someone wants this duplication to take place”

Later that night, at a barbeque with Becky and the Belicecs, Miles stumbles upon seed pods in his greenhouse. The pods open and disgorge unformed humanoids that begin to take on the form of those at the barbecue.

It is the pitchfork held by Jack that guides the camera and us to each of the bodies in turn. Miles hurriedly tries to call the FBI in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington D.C. but is not surprisingly told by the operator that “all circuits and dead or busy.” We don’t need three guesses as to why that is so!

Miles surmises that the pods may be the result of “atomic radiation” or they are some kind of “weird alien organism.” At any rate Miles destroys the creatures, but understandably struggles and hesitates when it comes to destroying the body that resembles Becky.

Miles and Becky and the Belicecs decide to split up and get help from outside of town. While Miles and Becky stop at a petrol station, Miles tries to reach the FBI again. As he does so, the gas station attendant places two pods in the boot of his car. Fortunately Miles was aware of what happened and he incinerates the pods further down the road.

The full horror of the alien invasion becomes apparent when at Sally's house Miles witnesses through a window that not only has Sally been transformed, but that she calmly acquiesces to having a seed pod placed in the crib of her newborn baby!

Suddenly Miles is discovered by a police officer and the chase is on as Miles and Becky are pursued by the police and numerous pod people.

In a marvellous piece of film noir, we have the couple being pursued through the dark shadows of streets made slick by a recent shower of rain.The suspense is heightened as Miles and Becky hide out in Miles's office. As they take cover behind a storage cupboard door, a guard or police officer peers through a grill set in the door. All the while their faces are lit from above by the light from the room outside coming in from the grill. Adding to the suspense and sense of danger, the scene is played out to the accompaniment of an ominous drum roll.

“It’s a malignant disease spreading through the whole country.”

Miles and Becky understand that the pods’ ability to function effectively depends upon people being blissfully asleep and therefore….unaware. Realizing that they can’t close their eyes all night, Becky and Miles take amphetamines to stay awake. Meanwhile, Miles ponders on how it is possible that we can “let humanity drain away,” and how we can “harden our hearts” and grow callous.”

The next morning could almost be “just like any Saturday morning.” Except on this day Miles and Becky witness through a window an almost (I will not use the word surreal!) bizarre scene from a slow-motion movie or dream as people from all around move as one toward at a large traffic island where they gather.

Miles sees people that he has known all his life and knows by name now obviously transformed accepting pods to distribute to their relatives in nearby cities. “Newtown – third truck!” While this is going on the suspense is ramped up by the incessant ringing of the telephone.

Suddenly Jack, Dan and Chief Grivett enter the office and it soon becomes apparent that they have all been transformed. Jack and Dan inform Miles and Becky they can’t let them go as “you’re dangerous to us.” They go on to explain that “out of the sky came a solution,” that the transformation was painless and that soon everyone will be reborn into a better way of life “where everyone is the same.” In this new form of existence, “there’s no need for love…only the instinct to live.” Any attempt to contradict or argue with this proposition is curtailed with the comment, “You’re forgetting something Miles. You have no choice.” Becky retorts with a burst of emotion, “I want to love and be loved” and seals this with a passionate kiss with Miles.

Jack and Dan have brought pods into Miles's waiting room. While locked in the office with Becky, Miles fills three syringes with a sedative. He then creates a diversion that brings Dan and Jack into the office allowing Miles to overpower and drug them with Becky’s help.

Becky and Miles leave the office and pretend to have been transformed by appearing emotionless, Becky, however, betrays her emotions when she witnesses a truck almost hit a dog and cries out in concern.

To the accompaniment of the harsh blaring of the town’s siren, the chase is on again as the pod people pursue Becky and Miles into the hills surrounding Santa Mira. They try to evade capture by hiding out in an abandoned mine. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the sound of beautiful singing is heard. Becky declares, “I’ve never heard anything so beautiful.”

Miles leaves Becky to investigate and try to find help. In a bizarre and unexpected twist, Miles soon discovers that the music is coming from radio station KLCAA’s “platter parade” and is emanating from a truck radio and that the truck is being loaded with pods!

Miles returns to the mine and calls for Becky. We know she has fallen asleep and our fears are confirmed by her tone of voice when she replies, “I’m here, Miles.” Miles tries to carry her to safety but when he kisses her it is obvious from the look of horror etched on his face that she had been transformed. Pod-Becky tells him to “stop acting like a fool….and accept us.” As Miles begins to run away, Pod-Becky screams out, He’s in here! He’s in here! Get him!”

“You fools. You’re in danger!”

Miles’ narration informs us that his only hope is to get away from Santa Mira, “to warn others of what was happening.” With pod people in pursuit, Miles makes for the highway where he becomes a lone solitary voice pleading with motorists to stop. However, the tide of cars moves inexorably on in the same direction heading for the same fate as intimated by a truck full of pods making its way towards Los Angeles. Like a mad-man Miles is left to wander the highway, ranting and raving, "They're already here! You're next!"

And so the flashback ends and we return to the point from which our story started. Dr Hill and Dr Basset conclude that Miles is insane and must undergo treatment. Suddenly an ambulance stretcher is brought in containing a truck driver who has been involved in an accident. As fate would have it, his truck was carrying a load of unusual pods, and had also been on the road from Santa Mira. It appears that Miles is telling the truth and Dr. Hill immediately arranges to call the police, every law enforcement agency and the FBI.

Points Of Interest

In 1994 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

One difference between the original novel by Jack Finney and the film’s screenplay is that the novel ends with the alien invader eventually leaving Earth in the face of strong resistance from the humans. In addition, the "pod people" have a limited life span of no more than five years.

It was originally intended to have Invasion of the Body Snatchers shot over a 24-day period on a budget of US$454,864. It was later proposed to reduce this to 20 days of shooting on a budget of $350,000. However, the film did eventually go three days over schedule.

Sierra Madre, Chatsworth, Glendale, the area around Los Feliz, Bronson and Beachwood Canyons, were locations used to make up the town of "Santa Mira" for the film. Much of the film was also shot in the Allied Artists studio on the east side of Hollywood.
It was also originally intended for the film to be called The Body Snatchers, but it too closely resembled the title of the 1945 Val Lewton film, The Body Snatcher. They Come from Another World was selected followed by Better Off Dead, Sleep No More, Evil in the Night and World in Danger. Finally, the studio settled on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in late 1955.

The film was originally meant to end with Miles frantically screaming as truckloads of pods pass him by but the studio insisted on a less pessimistic conclusion by adding a prologue and epilogue to the movie suggesting a more optimistic outcome to the story. And so we begin with a ranting and raving Miles Bennell in custody in a hospital emergency ward. He then via flashback tells his story. In the closing at a highway accident, Miles’ warning is confirmed by the presence of pods. Finally, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is notified, suggesting that there is a chance to save the Earth.

The film made more than $1 million in the first month, and in 1956 made more than $2.5 million in the U.S.

Director Don Siegel started off at Warner Bros. doing special effects on such films as Casablanca (1942) and Edge of Darkness (1943). His first feature as director was the Sidney Greenstreet classic, The Verdict in 1946 and then in 1954 he directed Walter Wanger's classic prison drama, Riot In Cell Block 11.

Don Post and Milt Rice's special make-up effects and props produce the required menacing and threatening effect without overdoing things with too much detail.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of those films that should not be tampered with by having it colourized. The black and white photography, specific use of shadow and editing all combine to add to the menacing mood, claustrophobic atmosphere and frantic pace of the film. Added to this is Kevin McCarthy’s skill at conveying his character’s mental, emotional and physical struggles to uncover the mystery and take the audience along with him.

The film has many facets leading viewers to see it as presenting different or conflicting messages and ideas. For some people. it can be seen as being a commentary on the dangers facing America for being blind to the danger posed by McCarthyism and its associated anti-communist paranoia involving fear of communist infiltration of America of the time.

For others, Invasion of the Body Snatchers can also be seen as highlighting the trend towards conformity and the loss of personal autonomy and freedom, then seen as being part and parcel of life under a Soviet or communist system.

Even in our own times in the early part of the 21st Century, the film has resonance for us as we grapple with forces that seek to dehumanize and rob the individual of his / her identity. We worry about people’s ability these days to feel pain, sorrow and empathy for their fellow human beings.

In our modern world, what is it that defines our individual personal identity? Just who is each of us really? Is it determined by how we look or act? Is it indicated by what we say or think? Or is it truly reflected in our capacity to love, to feel compassion and express emotion?

Now more than ever we need to heed Miles Bennell’s warning; 


Each of us needs to be aware that there is a fine line between having one’s identity and individually influenced by other people, institutions and social, historical and political forces and having one’s identity and individuality subsumed, crushed and replaced by such forces with something that suits their interests. While we slumber, it can be all too easy for us to sleepwalk and be led into ways of looking, saying, thinking, believing, acting and relating by political parties, systems, ideologies and entities; media; religious / sectarian groups; military; corporations; gangs; family, tribal and peer groups and so on.

And so, how do we reclaim any sense of our true personal identity and individuality, if there is such a thing? Possibly part of the answer may lie in our understanding that,

“Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realise how precious it is to us, how dear.”

©Chris Christopoulos 2015