Nov 24, 2013
As far as I am concerned, McJew auteur John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Island of Dr. Moreau) reached the height of his artistic prowess as a filmmaker with his psych-out semi-psychedelic flick Seconds (1966), the final chapter in the director’s ‘Paranoia Trilogy’ (following The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964)). Based on the lesser known 1963 novel of the same name written by David Ely and featuring luscious black-and-white cinematography by Academy Award winning Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe (Hangmen Also Die, Sweet Smell of Success), Seconds is a sort of de-teutonized, Hollywoodized counter-culture taken on Goethe’s Faust with an anti-bourgeois leftist twist about a somewhat past middle-aged banker who gets hooked up with a dubious ‘word-of-mouth’ company that helps him fake his own death and gives him a new identity, including a new face via state-of-the-art plastic surgery. In keeping with the film’s theme of ‘rebirth,’ Seconds quite notably features a number of communist blacklisted actors whose careers had been destroyed in the 1950s in primary roles, including Jeff Corey, Will Geer, and John Randolph, thus demonstrating director Frankenheimer’s solidarity with the left and his cold war anti-anti-communist sentiments, which he previously made quite clear with his most popular flick The Manchurian Candidate, but especially with Seven Days in May. Of course, being an idiosyncratic and phantasmagoric dystopian flick of sorts that is equal doses psychological thriller, horror, and science fiction, Seconds may be a work of passive leftist counter-culture agitation, but it is also a patently pessimistic, unwaveringly nightmarish, and even somewhat nihilistic work that offers no answers to the questions it asks, ultimately ending on a rather negative note that is bound to haunt viewers, myself included. In fact, Seconds had such a deleterious effect on Brian Wilson, the manic-depressive schizo master songwriter of the Beach Boys, that he thought the film was talking directly to him (to his credit, the character is named ‘Mr. Wilson’) and it caused the songwriter to abort his concept album Smile, which went unfinished for almost four decades (though he released various forms of the album in 2004 and 2011). Indeed, as far as films go, Seconds is a high-strung schizophrenic's worst celluloid nightmare as a sort of eerie expressionist piece of pernicious cinematic paranoia that is bound to ruin even the most stoic of optimists’ days, yet it is also an aesthetically pleasing and atmospheric work that demands ritualistic re-viewings. Starring masculine old school Hollywood homo heartthrob Rock Hudson in an unconventional lead role where the actor does not appear onscreen until around 40 minutes into the film, Seconds is a rare work from Tinseltown with a degree of artistic merit that is rightfully now regarded as a cult classic.
Miserable middle-aged bourgeois banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) may be a Harvard graduate who makes a decent living and has done financially well for himself, as well as his wife and grown daughter, but he is a walking corpse of sorts whose soul seems to have died a slow death long ago. Finding next to nil love nor solace in his faithful wife and rarely seeing his married adult daughter, Arthur just walks through life like a nameless and faceless ghost who is rarely noticed by anyone, so after receiving a phone call from a college friend, Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton), that he thought died long ago regarding a underground corporation that offers the possibility of a ‘rebirth’ with a new identity, the banker considers his options. Through Charlie, Arthur is hooked up with the word-of-mouth company simply known as “The Company” that offers to provide customers a new life and identity for the measly sum of $30,000, which includes the faking of one's death and plastic surgery. Eventually, Arthur is brought to the secret location of the Company, whose secretary drugs the banker’s tea. When Arthur wakes up, a fried-chicken-licking executive of the company, Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey), shows the banker footage of himself seemingly raping a young nubile girl, which is used as blackmail were the rather reluctant customer to pass on the identity-changing operation. After realizing he might go to jail for rape, as well as talking to the seemingly nice owner of the company, ‘The Old Man’ (Will Geer), Arthur reluctantly decides to go through with the procedure and wakes up as a very haggard looking yet much more youthful Rock Hudson. Rechristened ‘Antiochus 'Tony' Wilson’ (Rock Hudson), the lapsed banker, whose death has been staged by the Company in a hotel fire using a cadaver resembling his own body, has now taken on the identity of a successful degenerate artist with a lavish home in Malibu, California and a groveling personal manservant, so life seems to be looking up for the protagonist, or so he hopes. Eventually, ‘Tony Wilson’ starts a relationship with a somewhat ominous blonde babe named Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), who takes the reborn ‘artist’ to a neo-pagan bacchanalian grape-stomping/winemaking orgy where the ex-banker loses his ‘beatnik virginity’ and gets wild and naked, but all good things must come to an end, especially after being reborn as someone you're innately not (have you ever heard of an artistic banker or a true artist that is good with managing money?!).
Unfortunately, things soon get ugly for Arthur-turned-Tony when he hosts a happening party at his new swinging pad and gets so plastered on some fine firewater that he reveals to his guests about his former identity as bourgeois boob Arthur Hamilton. Unbeknownst to Tony, many of his guests/neighbors are also ‘reborns’ who utilized the secretive services of the Company and they don’t take kindly to a newcomer going around revealing such sensitive esoteric information in such a reckless manner. Worst of all, Tony learns that his sensual sweetheart Nora is not a sweetheart at all, but a manipulative wench who has been employed by the company to be his full-time quasi-callgirl girlfriend. Unsurprisingly upset upon learning of these rather regrettable revelations, Tony decides to revisit his former wife (Frances Reid) from his previous life under his new persona (pretending he is a friend of the ostensibly deceased Arthur Hamilton) and discovers from the widow that their marriage failed because he was a soulless and vapid workaholic who put social prestige and material possessions before love and family matters. Determined to start all over again and be reborn for a second time, Arthur-as-Tony asks the Company for a new identity/body, but to do so he must provide them with a new name of an individual he knows that might also want to be reborn. As Tony/Arthur learns, his friend Charlie Evans was required to ‘sponsor’ a friend to get a new identity, hence why he contacted the banker in the first place. Rather unfortunately for him, Tony/Arthur cannot think of a friend/acquaintance who might want to be ‘reborn,’ thus leading to his nefarious and nightmarish downfall via Mengele-esque surgergy. After failing to provide the name of a potential person to be ‘reborn,’ Tony/Arthur is awakened by the kindly Old Man who owns the Company who tells him that he is being immediately taken for identity-changing surgery. Unbeknownst to him, Tony/Arthur is been taken to surgery to be euthanized where his corpse will be used to fake a new reborn client's deaths. In the end, Tony/Arthur, who is strapped to a surgery table, suffers a hysterical fit as he realizes he is about to die and is read his last rites by a charlatan priest/rabbi/minister. Luckily for him, before being euthanized, Tony/Arthur seems to fall into a catatonic state.
Although doing poorly on its initial release and hated by European critics when it was originally screened at the Cannes Film Festival (Frankenheimer was even afraid to attend the press conference and had Rock Hudson do it instead), Seconds has rightfully earned its place as a cinematic cult classic. Luckily, some realized the aesthetic majesty of Seconds upon its release, as cinematographer James Wong Howe, who should be credited as largely responsible for the film’s foreboding atmospheric and fierce phantasmagorical essence, was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film. Indeed, as much as I loathe auteur Frankenheimer political persuasion and sympathy for kosher commies like John Randolph (real name Emanuel Hirsch Cohen), few films capture the particular zeitgeist so potently, perturbingly, and penetratingly than Seconds; a nearly immaculate work that shows the failure of the ‘American Dream’ to truly bring happiness to its citizens/consumers. A sort of post-industrial take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) meets a delicately deconstructed take on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (1808) meets the Hebraic paranoia of Orson Welles' 1962 cinematic adaption of Franz Kafka's The Trial (1925) aka Der Prozess, Seconds is essentially modernist Gothic horror in suburbia in the age of the atom bomb and cold war paranoia. Additionally, Seconds is a spiritually pessimistic work of metaphysical sci-fi horror that asks the difficult question: What good is being reborn when the soul is already dead? Directed by a man who may or not be the father of bastard Hollywood hack Michael Bay (Frankenheimer denied it, claiming he took a paternity to prove otherwise when said DNA tests did not then exist), Seconds is a work that makes one question whether or not, quite unlike Europe, cinematographers are the true ‘auteurs’ in Hollywood as it is hard for me to believe the film would be nearly as effective without James Wong Howe's signature cinematography. The closest thing to a mainstream 1960s Eraserhead, Seconds is the perfect thing to watch all alone while suffering a bout of insomnia. Forget the now somewhat outmoded and less aesthetically prestigious The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds is forever Frankenheimer's most artistically ambitious, strangely beauteous, and most memorable film.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:26 PM
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