Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Seconds (1966)

Suppose you were offered a second chance at life. You find yourself middle aged, depressed, in a loveless marriage, bored, full of regret, etc. Would you take the opportunity to go back and try things differently? That's the opportunity presented to Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) in John Frankenheimer's Seconds, a work of stunning ingenuity. At times cynical, angry, strange, boring, funny, disturbing, intense, etc. I'm not sure I've really seen anything quite like's like David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, and, hell, I'll even throw in Frankenheimer since he directed the little bastard.

Arthur Hamilton lives a drab life. He works, by day, as a bank executive. At night he goes home and doesn't talk to his wife. They sleep in separate beds. Several times, he wakes up to a phone call from his friend Charlie. There's only one problem. The voice on the other end of the phone is certainy not Charlies. Also, Charlie has been dead for a while. Arthur grows increasingly paranoid. The calls make him an emotional wreck. He bottles it up, still won't talk to his wife. Charlie tells him to show up at a location, a meat packing plant. He does. A man at the plant, representing "the company", tells Arthur to get in the back of the truck. They're going to solve his problems, improve his quality of life, etc. Eventually, he finds himself at "the company" headquarters where he is interviewed. Found suitable for their "procedure", Arthur resists. They resort to blackmail. Arthur relents. Taken into surgery, he is transformed into Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a "reborn", a "second". A cadaver is procured to use in the faking of Arthur's death (he officially dies in a hotel room fire). Arthur, or Tony, is now an artist (always dreamed of being a painter), given a new home, new friends, new woman. His old life a fading memory. Forgive the cliche, but be careful what you wish for.

Shit man, I'm not really sure where to begin. If you've read the works of Philip Dick you might actually think he was behind this story. Nope, the story is actually based on a novel by David Ely. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is probably up there with his best. It starts in with lots of gothic organs and then mellows out a bit for the middle parts. Frankenheimer is a master craftsmen. I mean, in the 60s alone he directed this, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Manchurian Candidate. Amazingly, the guy was still able to crank out something as good as Ronin over 30 years later. Back in the 60s though he was pretty damned angry. There are several disorienting shots throughout the picture. Things become distorted. I was beginning to wonder if I was supposed to start questioning what was real. Nope, turns out it's all real. He does this shot which is almost a cliche today. The shot where a person stands with his/her head either facing to or away from the camera. The person is stationary. Then, a separate shot of the background is projected with the shot of the stationary head in the foreground (two separate shots, merged together). The background moves creating the illusion that the person is moving. Makes them look drunk, crazy, high, all those types of things. Shit, the first time I saw this type of shot was in Scorsese's Mean Streets which came out over half a decade later. The point is this Franenheimer guy uses the camera, almost as another character. Also, not afraid to put a little vaseline on the lens from time to time.

The performances in this thing are all pretty good. I think this is the first time I've seen Rock Hudson in anything and I was fairly impressed. His Tony begins to live the good life, a bohemian lifestyle with his new girlfriend Nora. Eventually, paranoia settles in. The life of Tony is summed up in two party scenes. One where he finally relents and accepts his new lifestyle (by mashing grapes and making wine in the nude with several men and women) and another where the horrific nature of his new life is revealed (not limited to the realization that being a bohemian kinda sucks), if you could even call it a life. These scenes start out well enough, eventually become boring, finally culminating in paranoid delusions that, unfortunately for Tony, aren't really delusions. I was equally impressed with John Randolph as Arthur (before Arthur became Tony) who, when asked what the best thing about his marriage is, simply says 'we get along". Frances Reid is pretty good as his former wife Emily who can only remember "the silences" from their marriage. Will Geer plays an old man, the head of "the company", and is one of those cheerful fellows, sinisterly trustworthy, to describe just one of his contradictions. Another being, if his program is so good why the fuck is he still an old man?

I won't get into the end of this picture. I'll describe it simply as a bit of a mindfuck to use an expression popular with the kids today. Tony is no longer happy as Tony. He wants another chance to begin again. He'd spent his life as Arthur accumulating things, not connecting with people, not being happy. As Tony, he just accumulated different things, while also unhappy (albeit, for different reasons). Ok, I guess I did get into it a little. That's it, I swear.

I don't know about you but I'm going to be seeing more from this Frankenheimer fellow. Reindeer Games sounds interesting. Maybe The French Connection II. I've seen The Prophecy which is one of the better mutant bear pictures out there. I like how his career was sorta unpredictable. I mean, how does one go from The Island of Dr. Moreau remake to Ronin and then to Reindeer Games? And this from a guy that was nearing 70 at the time. He made this picture in the 80s with Roy Scheider called 52 pick up that was pretty good. He also did the picture about the nuclear blimp flying into the super bowl. Amazingly, this guy was never even nominated for an Oscar (really, not even for Manchurian Candidate??). He was nominated for a Razzie though (Dr. Moreau). This movie Seconds deserves more recognition than it gets. It's a product of it's time, sure, but it holds up as a product for all time in my opinion. If nothing else, it may have contributed to Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) losing his mind. Story goes, he walked into the theatre late just as a guy from "the company", on screen, was saying "come in Mr. Wilson". If wikipedia is to be believed, that's a true story. The next movie Brian Wilson saw in the theatre was E.T., sixteen years later.


Sam said...

Another great post, Brian.

I just saw, on an old Youtube clip, an 80s ad for Phantasm, that horror movie about the deadly flying ball. Can I request that (or Phantasm II!) for an upcoming review?

brian said...

Absolutely. I actually own that on DVD. I recently watched phantasm II (on demand) and am going to watch parts III and IV (possibly over the weekend).