Thursday, June 8, 2017

SECONDS (1966)

John Frankenheimer's chilling Seconds brings up a question: Would you scrap your life if you could start over again? Especially if a secret organization would help you do it, first by staging your death, then with plastic surgery, and then by creating a new identity for you? The redo also includes a new career in a different part of the country with new neighbors and friends. It's a bit like witness protection, as designed by Franz Kafka. We meet Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a middle-aged banker who has been receiving strange phone calls from a friend long thought to be dead. He's given instructions to visit an out of the way location where he's promptly drugged and blackmailed into going along with "the company's" plans for him. That is, to give him a new identity. No one tells him why, only that it's a good idea and that he shouldn't resist.

 He reluctantly goes along with the plan, enduring months of treatment that includes an adjustment to his vocal cords, so that even his speaking voice will be unrecognizable. The company's genial founder (Will Geer) oversees the project like he's waiting on a new Ford to come off the production line. By the time the process is over, Hamilton is  young and handsome - played now by 1950s heartthrob Rock Hudson - and will be sent to California where he'll live a lifelong dream of being an artist. The company has even created a series of paintings attributed to him and his new persona - "Antiochus Wilson" - which puts him in the position of being an established artist without ever having to master his craft.

His new life includes a mansion in Malibu, complete with a manservant to help his "transition." Wilson putters around, tries to paint, and wanders the beach in a funk. He befriends a woman, but when she brings him to a sort of faux pagan ritual involving a bunch of nature loving hippie types and a vat of grapes, he feels ridiculous. He may look young, but he's still a middle-aged fellow and not comfortable in his new surroundings.

He tries to go along with his new life, but when he gets stinking drunk at a party and starts discussing his real past, a bunch of "reborns," as the company calls their experiments, swoop in on Wilson and bring him back to the lab for more treatments, more or less.

Wilson manages to sneak back to his old home where he arranges a visit with his wife, who thinks he died in a hotel fire. Pretending to be a friend of her late husband, Wilson sits down for a chat, perhaps to find out what his old wife really thought of him. What he hears is unpleasant, as she describes their marriage as a sad, loveless thing. He now knows his entire life was a sham, and it's even more of a sham with this new face and body. Perhaps the company can help him with yet another identity? Surely, they could do it all again, couldn't they?

Seconds was not a success in 1966, though it has the trappings of many movies that were successful in that era. There is a near psychedelic style to James Wong Howe's wide angle camera work, especially during the opening montage of distorted facial features - ears, lips, eyeballs, teeth - while a sinister organ peels on the soundtrack. Howe, whose career dated back to the silent era and earned two Oscars, received an Oscar nomination for his cinematography in Seconds, and deservedly so - his camera is right up this movie's nose the entire time. The disorienting closeups of heavily perspiring faces were trademarks of another Frankenheimer film, The Manchurian Candidate, made just a few years before.

If the movie couldn't pull in customers with its eerie visual effects, it also had a strong '60s message at its core, one where Wilson/Hamilton laments the failure and emptiness of his old materialistic life, a theme in line with other anti-establishment films like The Graduate. Indeed, many of the movie's early scenes play out in the well-manicured suburbia that was getting  lashed in those days by the counter culture. Hamilton sleepwalks through his day job, endures a dull commute, is picked up at the train station by his dutiful wife, and driven past a battery of lawn sprinkler systems to get to his sterile home full of his old tennis trophies. John Cheever couldn't have done a better job of portraying middle class ennui. Where the movie probably left viewers cold is in its bummer of a climax. Wilson, you see, wouldn't comply with the company's rules;  being a pain in the ass results in a final treatment not suitable for the age of Aquarius.

Still, the movie should've been notable, at least, for putting a great romantic movie idol like  Hudson through such torment. He's very fine in Seconds, as good as he'd ever been in his career, suitably bitter in his drunk scene - he allegedly stayed drunk for three days to film it -  and harrowing in the film's climax, his hysterical shrieks bringing the movie to its nasty end. He was 40 at the time, no longer a big draw, and was about to enter the prolonged sundown of his career. Frankenheimer hadn't wanted him in the role - the original idea was to cast Kirk Douglas, who'd purchased the rights to David Ely's novel, or Laurence Olivier - but agreed only after Hudson's agent talked him into it. Frankenheimer praised Hudson's work, but admitted casting him against type contributed to the movie's commercial failure.

"People who would go see Seconds would not go because Rock Hudson was in it," he said in 1977. "And people who would go to see a Rock Hudson movie would not go see a movie like Seconds."

Frankenheimer, who began his career during the golden age of television, is one of movie history's underrated directors.  Along with The Manchurian Candidate, his oeuvre includes heavy dramas (The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, The Train, Black Sunday) crime flicks (52 Pick Up, The French Connection II). In 1998, at age 68, he could still turne out a solid action thriller, Ronin, starring Robert DeNiro. He's also responsible for  some of the loopiest horror movies you'll ever see, including Prophecy, and the '90s remake of The Island of Dr Moreau. I suppose Seconds goes into that category, too. 

Seconds is tough on a viewer because of its sadistic edge. We never really learn what "the company" is all about. I imagined it was a government operation, experimenting with ways to camouflage politicians and smuggle them in and out of the country. Who better to use as guinea pigs than sad, older men?  Perhaps the movie's most memorable scene is when Will Geer cozies up to Hamilton, who is reluctant to undergo the procedure. Geer, surprisingly creepy, grills him with questions. Who would miss you? he asks. What do you really mean to your wife anymore? Does your job mean anything? Hamilton, nicely played by Randolph, deflates a bit with each question. The scary part is that Geer probably poses these same questions to every potential client. He nods gently, confident that everyone reaches an age where they'd dump it all and let their loved ones go to hell. Maybe that's why the movie wasn't a hit. The truth of it was too ugly.

It could also be that in a country that believes strongly in second chances and reinvention, Seconds says there is no such thing as either. "Seconds," Frankenheimer said, "was an idea that I believe in very strongly, that is -  you are what you are and you can't erase your past." The irony is that Hudson couldn't erase his past as a romantic leading man, seemed out of place here, and therefore couldn't draw people to this weirdly beautiful movie.

 Still, Seconds has developed a small cult following over the years. Perhaps it took a while for audiences to catch up with its claustrophobia, its paranoia. Or maybe it took a while for new viewers to not know about Hudson's past image. At one point, Frankenheimer claimed it was "the only movie, really, that's ever gone from failure to classic without ever having been a success." Criterion re-released the film on Blu-ray in 2013, and in 2015 Seconds was selected for preservation by the National Film Industry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Not bad for a movie that once made audiences sick because of the surgery sequences. Unfortunately, Seconds was such a failure in '66 that Frankenheimer reassessed his career and decided to be more mainstream. "I've got to do something," he said, "that's not a collector's item."

Frankenheimer was shaken by the movie's poor reception. When it showed at  at the Cannes Film Festival, Frankenheimer stayed in Monte Carlo where he was shooting Grand Prix rather than attend the press conference. He sent Hudson, instead. When the movie was shown at The Palace of Fine Arts, it was booed loudly, though the boos turned to polite applause when the M.C. introduced Hudson, who was in the balcony.

Though Hudson would eventually include Seconds as a personal favorite, he could only sit dumbfounded at the conference. The critics' angry line of questioning included talk about the Faust legend, and the deeper meanings of the film, but Hudson didn't know what to say in return.

He was out of place, not comfortable in these surroundings.

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