Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Full Restart: John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966)

Throughout the years there have been countless legitimately good films that, despite featuring name actors and prominent directors, failed to connect with larger audiences. Some were too far ahead of their time, or dealt with issues that made people uncomfortable. Others were just plain weird. Whatever the reasons films have for falling between the cracks, John Frankenheimer's 1966 hyper-surreal nightmare Seconds probably embodies all of them. Despite featuring Rock Hudson at the height of his powers (albeit intentionally miscast) and stunning handheld photography from the great James Wong Howe, this disquieting and thought-provoking head trip only managed to garner a meager underground following after being released on DVD a few years ago. How in the interim the film never managed to achieve at least some kind of marginal success as a midnight movie or as a curiosity of the psychedelic era baffles me, but it has always remained among the most cult of cult films.

And all this despite the most intriguing of high-concept plots. How's this for a synopsis? A suburban banker named Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), dissatisfied with the pursuit of wealth and the banality of the settled life, is approached by a shadowy organization that provides him with a most bizarre service-- new life. For a fee, the company fakes his death, provides him with plastic surgery to alter his doughy face to look like Hudson's sculpted visage, and sets him up in a new life of his choosing. As one of its representatives says, they provide him with "what every middle-aged man in America wants: Freedom. Real freedom." Soon, Arthur Hamilton has become Antiochus Wilson (Hudson), a successful painter that lives in a gorgeous house on the beaches of Malibu. But Hamilton's new life as Wilson is not as idyllic as he would have hoped, and the film-- equal parts drama, science fiction and horror--soon takes a turn toward the bizarre as Wilson begins to realize that the utopian life the company has provided for him is not what it seems.

As the film plays out like a strange cocktail of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and The Twilight Zone, Frankenheimer expertly maintains a pervasive mood of dread and anxiety, aided in no small part by Jerry Goldsmith's neo-baroque score, a kind of feature-length dirge that makes heavy use of organ to inject malice into every scene. But the film's sense of unease--a 90-minute panic that could only be described as the filmic version of a bad trip-- is most constructed through its one-of-a-kind visual style. Making extensive use of handheld camera, wide-angle and fisheye lenses, and inventive camera mounts, Frankenheimer and Howe manage to portray the uncanny and surreal on screen about as effectively as any film I’ve seen. As Hamilton/Wilson plunges deeper into the world of the company, run by a sweet-talking but sinister Southern gentleman (played to perfection by Will Geer), the photography becomes increasingly off-kilter, mirroring the protagonist’s descent down the rabbit hole into an ominous world of mystery and fear. Perhaps most effective is the film’s use of cameras mounted on the actor’s bodies, a groundbreaking technique that would later be popularized by Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets. This approach, which keeps the actor’s body perfectly framed in the shot while making the background swim and spin, is the perfect metaphor for Hamilton’s world, which is becoming more distorted and out of control as the film progresses.

Such a powerful visual style allows Frankenheimer, working from a script by Lewis John Carlino, to employ an amazing economy of scenes in telling such a complex story. In a film that could have been bogged down by its complicated plot, he effectively maintains a fluid sense to the picture, letting the mood created by the photography and Goldsmith’s score speak for itself. The majority of how Hamilton morphs into Wilson is told in a few remarkable extended scenes, the first of which takes place at a Bacchanalian wine festival, where Hamilton finally sheds his old uptight personality and begins to embrace life as Tony Wilson. Meanwhile, the second scene, set at a party at Wilson’s beach front home and featuring some excellent work by Hudson, portrays his slow realization of the utter falsity of his new life and the questionable identities of those around him.

What ultimately makes Seconds such a great film is its extraordinary depth. Unlike many films of this ilk that are content to present dynamic camerawork but little plot, the story at the heart of Seconds manages to be engaging, enlightening, and devastating--aided by the fine performances of the film’s cast of largely forgotten character actors. The relationship between Hamilton and his wife, nicely played by Frances Reid, is at the story’s center, and a late scene where he revisits her anonymously as Wilson is one of the best in the film, providing some insight, as Hamilton says, into “where I went wrong,” and helping to realize the overarching theme of the film-- that choice and desire can be equally liberating and damning. At the beginning of the film, Hamilton wishes only for freedom from choices that he feels have trapped him in the kind of life that he was told to want. But the life provided for him by the company proves to be equally prefabricated-- new and shiny on its surface, but without soul. In the end, Seconds is nothing if not a cautionary tale, a twisted kind of tragedy whose moral is that man is ultimately the sum-total of his memories and experiences, and to take these away and replace them with falsehoods, however pleasant, is to leave him an empty shell.

Seconds is yet another triumph for Frankenheimer, whose early-60s run-- which saw The Manchurian Candidate and The Birdman of Alcatraz followed by Seven Days in May, The Train, and this film-- is certainly one of the more neglected creative streaks in film history. I’ve often heard him described as a bad director who managed to make a few good films, and I think that’s an unfortunate way to characterize him. If the photography and style of this film have anything to say about John Frankenheimer as a director, it’s that he possessed an undeniably singular vision that has not been truly reproduced even by his more celebrated contemporaries.


William McDonald said...

Among the cast, John Randolph as the tormented Arthur Hamilton is splendid. He captures very well the man's sense of disillusionment and emptiness in his life. I believe this was his first film in many years after having been victimized by the Hollywood blacklist. He was a wonderful character actor and his scene with Will Geer (also terrific) is a highlight of the film.

Michael Blanton said...

Four actors in prominent roles, John Randolph, Will Geer, Jeff Corey and Nedrick Young, had all been blacklisted, so Seconds can also be seen as a second chance for all these fine actors.