Nether Regions 07.06.10: Seconds
Posted by Chad Webb on 07.06.2010
John Frankenheimer presents....The Ultimate Mid-Life Crisis movie! In this story, Rock Hudson dances in a tub of grapes. That should sound interesting enough that you now want to read this...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, and John Randolph Directed By: John Frankenheimer Written By: Lewis John Carlino Running Time: 107 minutes Release Date: October 5, 1966 Missing Since: 2002 Existing Formats:Region 1 DVD, VHS, and Amazon VOD Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Rare
Not many films get under my skin and stay there. After the closing scenes for Director John Frankenheimer's Seconds were through, the images lingered in my head and quite literally made me uncomfortable. It is about real-life dream that quickly turns into a nightmare. Describing its genre has not been very easy for anyone as the decades have passed. Most seem to classify it as a science-fiction thriller, but you can also find elements of neo-noir and drama. I would venture to say that Seconds is more horror than any of those other terms. If Frankenheimer was not striving for that, his ending would be somewhat perplexing and uneven. But it succeeds in making the viewer shuffle in their seat, and having the hair on the back of their neck stand up.
I was reminded of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby during Seconds, but that would not reach theaters for two more years in 1968. Satanic cults and the spawn of Satan are one thing, and as a whole, that picture is better, but Seconds reaches deeper. Certain aspects of it are far-fetched, but the idea of faking your own death and changing your appearance is not. Neither is the theme that "the grass is always greener on the other side." Seconds performed poorly in its initial release, and like so many films, has acquire a "cult following" or "cult classic" status. The difference between them can be blurry, but Seconds remains supremely overlooked to this day, and deserves higher praise.
John Randolph's Arthur Hamilton suffers the effects of the drugged food and drink.
The story is about Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a middle-aged banker who has lost the enthusiasm for his life. It has little purpose. Although a promotion is not out of the question, his daily routine at work and at home has taken its toll, and is getting old. The relationship with his wife has lost its spark, and his daughter has moved out long ago. One day Arthur is contacted by a friend he knows to be dead. He recommends an organization, simply known as "The Company", which offers people a second chance at life. He is reluctant, but meets with their chief salesman, Mr. Ruby, about the opportunity. From the moment Arthur steps foot in the building, his plan is set in motion. He is blackmailed, but is persuaded that this decision will be beneficial nonetheless.
Hamilton's death is staged to look like he perished in a hotel fire. A body is left disguised as him. After enduring extensive plastic surgery and psychoanalysis, Arthur Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). He is provided with a new home in Malibu, a new career, a devoted servant (Wesley Addy), and much more. The new freedom that was boasted about finally arrives, but it turns out Tony's new existence is not the perfect second chance he expected. He soon realizes that keeping this secret the Company holds is very important.
Seconds requires the audience to suspend disbelief at least once for sure. Can a middle-aged, gray-haired John Randolph transform into a strapping, dark-haired Rock Hudson? Once you get past that, the set-up and execution have a great deal to offer. A lot of questions are raised. What happens to the individual inside of you when the person on the outside has changed completely? Is it possible to truly start over from scratch? The beauty of Seconds is not only examining these questions, but the fact that it is impossible to avoid thinking about your own life. Once that occurs, the premise and the conclusion strikes right to the bone.
Perhaps the way I explained the plot does not totally entice you to seek this out. Maybe it does not sound so scary. Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson was intensely affected by Seconds. He viewed it during its initial theatrical release, at a time when he was heavily influenced by drugs, at the early stages of schizophrenia, and of course under the pressure to complete the album Smile. One of the first pieces of dialogue is "Come in Mr. Wilson", and it startled him. His state of mind drastically altered in the following months. He thought of escaping his life in a similar fashion, and thought rival Producer Phil Spector told Columbia Pictures to make the movie to mess with his mind. He abandoned the Smile sessions and did not go see another film until 1982, and that would be E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Wilson had many demons at this point, but the fact that a movie affected anyone to such a degree is indeed chilling. This should serve as a warning. Do not take drugs and watch Seconds.
The spectacular fake Criterion cover we hope is in our future.
Putting photos of John Randolph and Rock Hudson beside each other and the convincing someone that they were the same man would make anyone chuckle, but the reason this facet of the story did not bother me greatly is because the performances sync up brilliantly. In his few scenes as Arthur Hamlilton, John Randolph is mesmerizing, wonderfully portraying a middle-aged banker that is fed up with his daily cycle. He conveys the ennui with extraordinary authenticity, but one can clearly see the expression of fear on his face as he dives headfirst into the Company's ploy. Randolph's finest moment is an intimate embrace with his wife that is cut short by the realization that their love has diminished over the years.
The strengths of Randolph and his handsome do-over Rock Hudson are in silently expressing the essential emotions. This is about isolation. Arthur Hamilton feels empty in living with his wife, but once the slate is wiped clean, he is all alone. Tony Wilson is wealthy, and even meets an attractive free-spirited blonde on the beach. No lasting connection was formed between the two, and the motivational challenges of life have evaporated. Hudson superbly exudes the trepidation and confusion on Hamilton/Wilson's new situation with hints of yearning for the past. Readers should remember that Rock Hudson was associated more with bedroom comedies alongside Doris Day at this time than anything else, so this role was a rather intriguing change of pace.
Any story dealing with isolation requires an extremely talented actor that can strike all the appropriate chords on their own. Hudson accomplishes this, and makes the transition from banker to rich bachelor believable. It takes Tony Wilson some time before he opens up, and Hudson communicates the internal struggle of what his choice ultimately means with realism and restraint. As a matter of fact, even though Hudson was a full 5 inches taller than Randolph, they spend a healthy amount of time together so Hudson could develop his counterparts mannerisms. The height difference was manipulated quite well by cinematographer James Wong Howe through various camera angles so it would be difficult to notice.
The impressive supporting cast features wickedly pleasant and conniving turns from Jeff Corey as the chief salesman of the Company and Will Geer as the owner. Geer could sway the mindset of just about anyone to take part in this with his affable nature. Frances Reid is also excellent as Arthur Hamilton's wife Emily. She has an important moment later in the picture. Salome Jens contrasts the former wife as the wild and rebellious Nora commendably.
Sadly, many of the key sequences in Seconds require spoiling plot twists, so I cannot elaborate where I would like. However, the surgery itself is notable, and if shot correctly, as it is here, the result can be very unsettling. The whole process of signing Hamilton up, interviewing him, and going forward with the operation is unrelenting and haunting. Observing him in the bandages is indeed creepy, and the film includes several shots of an actual rhinoplasty operation, which John Frankenheimer had to shoot after the cameraman fainted.
A great behind the scenes image of actor Rock Hudson, cinematographer James Wong Howe, and Director John Frankenheimer.
Director of Photography James Wong Howe, a legend in his field, was widely recognized for his techniques in black & white cinematography. His approach in Seconds acts a masterwork of deliberate lighting, odd angles, and sporadically frenzied cuts. David Webster's editing compliments Howe's methods, but combine that with the genuinely eerie score from Jerry Goldsmith (a variation on Faust) and Seconds catches the viewer off-guard, feeling vulnerable, and forces us to re-assess our own priorities. Based off a novel by David Ely, screenwriter Lewis John Carlino juggles the many tones magnificently to mold this into a subversive parable of indisputable dread.
One of the goals had to rest on the audience experiencing discomfort and sheer terror. This angered people at the time, hence the reason why it took a gradual build-up over the years for Seconds to produce a respectable fanbase. John Frankeheimer was enjoying the peak of his career upon the release of Seconds. It landed in theaters after Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate, two of his most prominent titles. The latter, along with Seven Days in May and Seconds, are called his "Paranoia Trilogy". He delivered films for five decades, but there was a definite determination, confidence, and precision during this period that was harder to spot at the end of his run.
Seconds was released on DVD, and it includes a DVD commentary I'm dying to hear, but unfortunately copies of this are pricey and difficult to find. I caught this on TCM, so my advice is to keep an eye on their schedule. Of course I think this would be the perfect type of film to receive the Criterion facelift, but who knows what will happen. It deserves some sort of double dip. All I can say about Seconds is that I did not stop watching it once I started, and after it was all set and done I found it impossible to shake from my head. This is brutal material, not because it's graphic necessarily, but in the way it touches you. There are a lot of underrated qualities about it, and if you catch a showing of it, or spot the DVD somewhere, it will be worth the time and money.
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--I'm not sure what I'll have for you next week. Perhaps I'll finally watch that Shakespeare DVD that has been collecting dust on my shelf for awhile.