Thursday, July 22, 2010

Seconds


John Frankenheimer's Seconds is a strange, unsettling film that concerns itself with a primal desire: the fantasy of starting over, getting a second chance to do what one wants in one's life, to take on a new identity. However, the film only slowly reveals that this is its true subject. For much of its first act, its purpose is slipperier and harder to divine. The opening minutes of the film, after the trippy opening credits in which various facial features are warped and doubled, are dialogue-free and inscrutable, following an older man, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), through a train station where he receives a mysterious message. Frankenheimer employs intentionally destabilizing and self-consciously off-kilter camera angles that infuse a sense of mystery and suspense to these otherwise prosaic scenes. The camera reels drunkenly, and tracks fluidly in pursuit of men who seem to be floating above the ground rather than walking. At other times, the camera seems to be skittering along the ground from the point of view of a subway rat, darting beneath the legs of the crowd. This camera trickery creates a sense of mystery throughout the opening sequences, but not necessarily the right kind of mystery: one is left wondering why the camera is careening around so bizarrely, and what these dizzying perspectives could possibly mean.

Unfortunately, these are questions that Frankenheimer is never able to answer, but there's still something unsettlingly compelling about his showy aesthetics. Throughout the opening sequences, as Arthur gets mysterious calls from a supposedly dead friend and gets sucked into conversations with a strange underground company offering unsavory services, the film slips easily from reality to dreamlike states. At one point, Arthur, drugged and dazed, has a frightening dream of sexually assaulting a young woman, as the room warps and twists around him, perspective lines stretching like taffy until he seems to be trapped within a Daliesque landscape. When he wakes up, though, he only encounters some equally surreal, equally baffling touches, like an elevator that seems to be missing its call buttons and an inexplicable room full of silent men who steadfastly refuse to answer his questions.


The film doesn't quite settle down after this, but it does at least cohere into a plot whose contours can be grasped, at least broadly, and whose themes resonate with anyone who has ever regretted a choice or had ambitions that weren't fulfilled. Arthur, it seems, has been contacted by a company that offers middle-aged men a second chance at youth, and therefore at life: a new, younger face, a new life, a new career, a life without responsibilities or ties. Arthur undergoes surgery and awakes as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a painter who is already established in his career thanks to the company that performed the procedure. The company pitches it to Tony in an irresistible way: he doesn't have to prove himself, doesn't have to go through the hard, potentially dream-killing work of apprenticeship or early struggles. He is reborn into a fully established life, as a modestly successful painter with a nice flat in Miami, free to develop his skills — he'd always wanted to be a painter and now he was, at least in theory, free to be one.

The film's themes are compelling, and in several key scenes Frankenheimer probes these themes in emotionally resonant ways. The film's best scene is undoubtedly the one in which Tony returns to visit his old wife, Emily (Frances Reid), who believes Arthur to be dead. Posing as a friend of Arthur's, Tony asks Emily about her dead husband, and learns that she viewed her husband as something of a mystery, a blank and remote man who never opened up, who never emotionally connected to anyone around him, instead pouring himself into empty pursuits that she sensed didn't even mean anything to him. It is a devastating moment, and Frankenheimer shoots the scene with Emily in the background, facing a mirror and her husband's portrait on the mantel, while in the foreground Tony looks towards the camera, his eyes haunted by the realization of how badly he'd wasted his previous life, how completely he'd missed the point.


The film is at its best in moments like this, moments where Tony comes face to face with his wasted life, with the troubling question of what he could do differently when given a second chance. Equally affecting is Tony's reunion with his old friend Charlie (Murray Evans), who had also undergone the process, and like Tony had failed to really make a go of his second life. The two men meet and talk wistfully about what they'll do when offered a third chance, a third life and a third identity. This time, they say, they'll get it right, this time they'll be able to keep their priorities straight. There's something so poignant about the idea that even two chances aren't enough, that life is so difficult to navigate for these men that they've squandered their opportunities not just once but twice. It's a potent commentary on how difficult it can be to determine what one wants out of life, and it's especially moving when Charlie is called for what he believes to be his second operation, his third chance. There are tears in his eyes and a smile on his face as he looks at his friend, and walks off to be remade yet again, to finally get it right this time around. This moment becomes even more emotionally devastating when considered against the ending's recontextualization of what's actually going on in the waiting room where Charlie and Tony are reunited.

This is the core of Frankenheimer's film, but there's something unbalanced in the execution, perhaps because the film was compromised by studio interference, preventing Frankenheimer from completely communicating his vision. But the film as it exists now squanders too much time on oddball detours like the whole subplot involving Nora (Salome Jens), an exaggerated hippie "free spirit" who Tony meets in his new life, and who engages in such self-consciously arty behaviors as yelling at the ocean and attending a bacchanalian orgy complete with pan pipes and naked hippies. The orgy sequence, lengthy and raucous and over-the-top, is seemingly a frenzied attempt at demonstrating the empty indulgences and pleasures that Tony had been missing in his staid former life as Arthur, but it's overlong to make its point, and increasingly it's just grating, like so much involving Nora. In fact, the film too often seems to be meandering along like this, offering up strange diversions and sidetracks rather than cutting to the heart of the matter. What should be subplots or individual scenes at best wind up consuming the film for whole stretches of time, overshadowing the more compelling ideas that dance around the periphery.

Whether it's because of studio tinkering or Frankenheimer's simple inability to stay focused on his story's essence, Seconds remains a flawed but, at least sporadically, quite powerful film. Much of its power is certainly attributable to Rock Hudson's turn as the young, remade Tony. He occasionally goes over the top, as with everything else in this film, particularly in an exaggerated and loud drunk scene. More often, though, he delivers a nuanced, understated performance, suggesting with his sad eyes and pensive expressions the turmoil of a man who finds that even two chances aren't enough to achieve the life he wants — and that, in fact, the problem is perhaps that he doesn't really have any idea what he does want. It's this feeling of perpetual dissatisfaction and confusion that drives Seconds, even during those stretches when it threatens to go off the rails into self-consciously "arty" indulgence.

19 comments:

Scare Sarah said...

This sounds amazing. I can't believe I've not seen this! Great review.

Ed Howard said...

It's definitely an odd, interesting film and very much worth seeing. Thanks, Sarah!

J.D. said...

Yeah, I'm ashamed to say that I've never seen this either but your review certainly has me intrigued. I've been working on a post for a B&W neo noir from the '90s called SUTURE and the filmmakers cite Frankenheimer's widescreen B&W compositions as a big influence on their own film. I really need to check this one out.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It'sne of Frankenheimer's best films, but it's easy to see why the public didn't like it. It contains the very bad news that you can't "start over" -- and you're going to die.

Hudson was hoping this film would turn his career around -- get him away from comedy and back to seriosu work again on a new level. It's failure greatly upset him. He went back to "playing it safe" -- at least on a professional level.

Seconds also marks the return of the once-blacklisted Will Geer. In his youth Geer was a communist. The party was very much against his gayness and insisted that Geer and his boyfriend Harry Hay break up and marry women. They did, but Harry's "conversion" didn't take. He left the wife and the party and founded the gay rights movement.

He showed up at Will Geer's funeral. Gree's wife approached him and said "Well Harry, I had him at the last."

Harry's reply? "Yeah but I had him FIRST!"

Hokahey said...

Great review of a little-know film that definitely contains some powerful moments as you state here. Even though I've seen it twice on TV a long time ago, I remember it clearly: the eerie waiting room: the woman on the beach; the hippie orgy. Hudson's performance is strong, and there's an intense sadness to his character.

SPOILER - I guess.

I can't think of more disturbing, gut-wrenching ending than the ending of this movie. Just that image of someone who is totally helpless to stop what he knows is going to happen to him is a very powerful one. What a powerful ending - and the length of the scene is merciless.

Ed Howard said...

J.D., I wouldn't be too ashamed - I just saw it too. It's one of those classics that's eluded me for too long.

David, you're right, it's pretty unrelenting in its negativity, presenting a very bleak image and suggesting that it's extraordinarily difficult for people to change even when they know they have to.

Hokahey, agreed about the final scene, which really is brutal. It's just terrifying.

Tony Dayoub said...

SECONDS is a favorite of mine. I attribute its potency and poignancy to Hudson's vulnerability here, in a story which could serve as a metaphor of sorts for the double life he had to lead as a closeted actor.

I agree that the bacchanal goes on too long. But if I'm not mistaken, the lengthier cut now on DVD had the scene restored at Frankenheimer's request. I believe the studio originally had required the scene be cut down to just a short montage, because I'm pretty sure the studio cut was the one I first saw years ago. Is this accurate Mr. Ehrenstein?

DavidEhrenstein said...

I'm not sure about the length of the bacchinale. My impression was that it was designed to be seen as unsatisfying. He's looking for sexual freedom with Salome Jens and doesn't get it.

Ed Howard said...

Tony, I've only seen the DVD director's cut, but I think you're right that Frankenheimer restored his original extended version of that scene for the DVD; I'm not sure what it was like in theaters but I suspect that for once the studio meddlers had the right instinct in wanting to trim it down, at least a little. It made its point and then just went on, and on, and on. I think it was supposed to be shrill and annoying, since as David says it represents Arthur feeling unsatisfied by this wild orgy - but a little of that goes a long way.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I think that Frankenheimer was in this scene trying to push the envelope of sex in the cinema. This is 1966, after all, therefore pre-Last Tango Being that it was a hippie wine bacchinale Frankeheimer proably was looking to slip one past the goalie here.

Tony Dayoub said...

I agree. This scene would have played much different then. It also probably helped in marketing the DVD a bit better once it was restored. A visit to IMDB confirms the original cut was 100 mins and as of 1996, the new cut was 107 mins. This new one is rated R, which I don't remember being so for the original.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The "R" rating didn't exist back then.

Jamie said...

I've never felt that this film clicked with me, perhaps because I saw it on a double bill with 'A Face of Another' and was (and am still) blown away by that Japanese New Wave classic. 'Seconds' labors too hard in plot lines that lack any intrigue to the central plot (as Ed notes beautifully here). I've always though that it should have tackled where American men were at in the mid to late 1960s (specifically one in this economic class), it starts to in the end (again, as Ed notes) but by this point Frankenheimer has obscured the point to almost irrelevance. In short, Kazan's 1969 'The Arrangement' mixed with identity swapping seems to be the film this should have been, and strangely, the film Frankenheimer intended to make (at least when considering several key scenes). I'm not sure what happened.

But still, the photography is great, and so is Hudson so these alone make it worth seeking out. Also, it contains one of the more expressive title sequences in mainstream American cinema from that era.

John said...

"Seconds" was the third film in a loose trilogy of paranoid films Frankehemier made (the others are The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May), for me, it is also one of his best though not perfect. The film died a quick death in 1966 mainly because of the star Rock Hudson who was still huge at the time, however his fans were not interested in seeing him in such a serious film and cinephines did not take Hudson seriously. That said this is one of his best performances.

James Wong Howe's use of fish eye lens and hand held camera work was extremely innovative for the times. Actually much of the dialogue during the hand held camera scenes had to be dubbed due to the use of the Arriflex camera which was still new at the time and rather noisy.

david said...

Frankenheimer states in the DVD commentary that we're seeing the European cut of Seconds. The bacchanale nudity is mild by our standards but not those of Hollywood 1966.

Thanks for posting about this little seen American studio art film.

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Murderous Ink said...

Great post!
"Seconds".. I watched it many years ago on late night TV. What an eerie feeling I had. Since then, I don't like looking at fluorescent bulbs on ceilings while on stretcher. And about the scene with his former wife, yes, that was devastating. You nailed it.
I loved the cinematography by James Wong Howe. Very innovative work throughout.
Your review renewed my interest in this film again. Thanks for a good review.

Stephen said...

Ed, you do make the film sound intriguing, disturbing and a little baffling.

To me it seems (I haven't seen all of it) like the sort of film that may be too rich in its visual style. By that I mean that the story may get swamped and the impact of the compositions may become dulled.

Dean Treadway said...

Really great post, reminding me of all I loved and disliked about the film (really, the wine party is the only thing I thought deserved a little judicious cutting, but I understand the story behind that scene now I've read these comments). You pointed out all the strengths save for three: James Wong Howe's stunning photography (which seems to take Frankenheimer's wide-angle lens look to the extreme), Jerry Goldsmith's creep-o score, and the name of the man who concocted that very odd credits sequence: Saul Bass.