Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Seconds (1966)

Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: Lewis John Carlino
Cast: Rock Hudson (as Antiochus "Tony" Wilson); Salome Jens (as Nora Marcus); John Randolph (as Arthur Hamilton); Will Geer (as Old Man); Jeff Corey (as Mr. Ruby)

Synopsis: In a train station bank employee Arthur Hamilton (Randolph) is handed a card by an unknown individual. A man claiming to be a friend of his, who Arthur believes died years before, has been calling him in the night trying to encourage him to go to an organisation where he will have a rebirth and a second life. When Arthur finally gives in, he starts a journey where his transformation into Antiochus Wilson (Hudson) will not mean the complete happiness he is told it will lead to.

Seconds is possibly one of the bleakest sci-fi films ever made, one which warns you of its tone immediately with Saul Bass' evocative opening credit visuals of a face fragmented over the droning music of Jerry Goldsmith. A face that is representative of the choice forced upon mild mannered Arthur Hamilton for his own good in a Kafkaesque tale where he will live a new life as a painter in luxury, in a beach home with the face of Rock Hudson. That the method of getting clients includes blackmail and strange calls at night doesn't help the organisation win any favours even if it offers men in their midlife crises the perfect new one, the chance of a new life with what they want, only for it to be spoiled by the control forced upon them and the fact many still feel unsatisfied when they are offered the privileges on a silver platter. The theme of Seconds is still important, as Antiochus Wilson utters much later on how he felt he was escaping being told what he wanted, as a depressed plump faced man in a loveless marriage, only to find himself being told what he wanted again in a bohemian atmosphere.

Rock Hudson's performance is a wonderful centerpiece in this film with Wilson's flawed charisma, playing a man having to adjust to his matinee looks, having the sense of a realness from Hudson within it; professional film critics have talked about the blurring between the lines with Hudson as a closeted gay man whose name wasn't his birth one and was moulded into a matinee star, but I can add that this kind of humble, awkward character in Wilson, who can be charming when encouraged out of his shell, works as a performance when you'd gladly want to know this person in real life. But the cast in general is impressive alongside Hudson, everyone a vital part to why Seconds works as a drama. John Randolph as the original Arthur Hamilton is as humane in his performance as Hudson, whilst Salome Jens makes a striking love interest, a free spirit who isn't a trite figure as that term could suggest in bad cinematic depictions but whose affability makes the plot's events all the more tragic when it comes to her. That Frankenheimer also cast a lot of blacklisted actors was a noble goal but the bigger virtue in this act was that these aforementioned blacklisted actors from the House Committee on Un-American Activities-era trials are all memorable characters onscreen. Particularly they show how a lot more humorous the film is than it may appear, there only to show some life before it reaches its bleak ending, a general sense of the abuse that adds to this bleakness by first having funny moments such as the scene with a roast chicken dinner.

Technical Detail:
James Wong Howe is legendary as a cinematographer, and between this and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) his talent is fully visible, a realism that is incredibly detailed and allows the concept of the film to have a grounded depth to it through the rich monochrome cinematography. It also takes on bold experiments for the time such as hand held cameras from the perspective of characters, following on into how Howe is just as capable of tackling the more unconventional moments. Whilst they're brief, scenes such as a hallucination of Arthur's assaulting a woman are depicted through a distorted world through techniques such as fish-eyed lenses, even the more innocuous sequences becoming sinister, such as the horrible end of a cocktail party, through these same techniques alongside the performances.

Abstract Spectrum: Mindbender
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Most of Seconds is very grounded, where it's the premise of the film - the offer of a new life by drastic facial reconstruction right down to cutting ligaments in the wrist to change one's signature, and providing a corpse as an improvised dead version of the customer's original appearance - that brings up an uneasy air, the pockets of paranoid fear springing out of the more haunting moments of the film but as much through the casual nature of the "seconds" organisation.

Kafka is an apt comparison but by way of the stark, efficient reality of John Frankenheimer's type of cinema, where through a trip to an abattoir, and a trip in the back of a meat truck, a person can reach an organisation that can give you a new life. That the company at many points is an utter failure, unable to find any success in its gift of new life where clients end up returning to them, is both the ultimate metaphor of listlessness but also adds the finite oddness of the film, ennui as even the chance of wish fulfilment fails because, as Arthur as Wilson realises, they had no real dream going into the scheme, the attempt to commercialise the desires of a person failing. There's a comic patheticness in a room of men with new faces and lives who become immediately disenfranchised, at desks like a classroom with only playing cards or a book to occupy their new lives. Then this turns to sadness when Wilson visits Arthur's wife, then to horror when you learn of how the organisation works in more detail in the finale.

Personal Opinion:
The real testament to Seconds' legacy is that, as of 2016, the film joins Gone With The Wind (1939) to the JFK Zapruder film as being preserved by the National Film Registry of the US as a vital cultural artefact. A strange, still-to-today unnerving film that hasn't lost its lustre despite the premise being riffed on in later movies, not loved at all back on its release and incredibly bold for its time - including a prolonged Bacchanal orgy with nude figures in a giant wine barrel that was originally censored - alien to the films made in Hollywood just at the start of the sixties in its bleakness. Not the least conventional film of the blog to be covered, its nonetheless one that rattled me on the first viewing and still did covering it.

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