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As originally filmed, the picture opens with Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returning from a medical convention to the little town of Santa Mira after receiving a frantic call from his nurse, Sally Withers (Jean Willes). She reports that growing numbers of townspeople are in the grip of a weird hysteria that makes them believe that their relatives and friends are imposters. Miles and his former sweetheart, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), along with their friends Dr. Dan Kaufman (Larry Gates) and Jack and Theodora Belicec (King Donovan, Carolyn Jones), gradually realize that more and more of the townspeople are losing their emotional and spiritual identities, retaining only the passion for mere survival. Although their outward appearances remain unchanged, family and friends perceive them as strangers. As the mystery progresses, the friends confront a horrific development in the Belicec greenhouse, where a huge seed pod is gradually changing into Jack's likeness. It becomes evident that the pods came from outer space; after one assumes the form of a person, it then takes over the victim completely while he or she sleeps.

Only Becky and Miles elude pod-control, by staying awake and pretending to be converts. Their ruse is discovered, however, when Becky cries out as a dog barely escapes road-kill status. Pursued by a pod-controlled mob, they flee to a mine tunnel and hide all night, and most of the next day, under boards covering a shallow excavation.

During their ordeal, Miles hears the sounds of angelic music and goes to investigate. He sees the townspeople harvesting pods from a large greenhouse and loading them into trucks. When he returns to Becky, he discovers that she has fallen asleep. He picks her up and carries her to a different exit. When Becky awakens he kisses her, but Miles realizes that she is a lost cause once he stares deep into her glazed gaze. "Stop acting like a fool and accept us," she says before screaming, "He's in here!" Closely pursued, Miles flees until at last he reaches a freeway crowded with cars. Running blindly through the headlights, he tries to warn the drivers. He then climbs aboard a truck bound for Los Angeles and San Francisco, only to find that it's filled with pods. The picture originally concluded with Miles staggering crazily among the cars and then up to the camera, screaming, "They're here already! You're next! You're next! You're next!"

Mainwaring's skill at mastering dialogue was most conspicuously illustrated in his story and script for RKO's great 1947 film noir, Out of the Past. He and Collins brought a definite noir quality to Body Snatchers, as well as plenty of crackling talk. They let the converted Dr. Kaufman explain the hideous situation in a bone-chillingly bland manner: "Think of the marvelous thing that has happened. Seeds drifting through space for years, ... took root by chance in a farmer's field, to offer us an untroubled world ... There's no need for love."

Miles responds, "No emotions? Then you have no feelings, only the instinct to survive? You can't love or be loved, right?"

Kaufman explains patiently, "You say it as if it were terrible. Believe me, 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."

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