Friday, November 1, 2013

SECONDS: Blu-ray (Paramount 1966) Criterion Home Video

Undeniably one of the most mantic, perverse and disturbing oddities ever to be produced by a mainstream film company – even in the thick of 1960’s dystopian break with the rigid precepts of postwar/Cold War America, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) takes the most implausible ‘what if?’ scenario and imbues it with a credible sense of paranoia. Seconds follows Frankenheimer’s trilogy of dark and brooding suspense/thrillers: Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964); the latter two succinctly linking conspiracy to politics.  In retrospect, Seconds is not only a departure from the aforementioned thrillers, but rather absolute in its split from conventional American cinema of the period.  Certainly, nothing like Seconds had ever been seen before. The movie’s cataclysmic flop at the box office ensured that nothing remotely resembling it would emerge for decades to follow.  Over the years, Seconds has acquired a cult following; its’ influence in American movies felt most obviously in David Fincher’s 1997 masterpiece; The Game – in many ways almost a remake of Seconds, right down to its portrait of the seemingly benign corporate entity run by an even more placid – and ominously congenial – host who turns out to be anything but.
Frankenheimer’s own suspicions about corporate America run amuck in Seconds. There really seems to be no rhyme or reason to the motivations behind ‘the company’ – an organization existing solely to exploit the personal unhappiness of the bored and the wealthy merely because they can. Yes, ‘the company’ is paid handsomely to procure new futures for these old souls. But the insidiousness of pleasure its chairman, Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey) derives from ensnaring his clientele in the loss of their natural identity (by framing them with a dramatically staged ‘snuff film’ – something Fincher also does to his harried millionaire Nicholas Van Orten, played by Michael Douglas in The Game) fosters an even more diabolical métier: to play God with the hapless and disillusioned, and, with the implicit knowledge that many – if not all – will not survive their ordeals.
From the moment our sitting duck, banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is handed a cryptic note by a nondescript man (Frank Campanella) waiting for him at Grand Central, he has already become the unwilling dupe in a plot to defraud him of the only life arguably suited to both his temperament and his needs; although complacency within it has caused Art to at least consider relieving himself of his perpetual unease.  The reality, of course, is that Art doesn’t really want to change. He’s merely looking for that benign temporary escape from his self-inflicted isolationism; thinking about becoming someone else in the same gutless way many of us do (wishing we could step into another’s shoes but without entirely surrendering our own comfort zone). It’s a rather masochistic approach to survival, because what remedies the ravages of Mother Nature arguably cannot cure that which ails the troubled mind or restless spirit.  
Seconds is based on a novel by David Ely; its’ fantastic scenario of reconstructive plastic surgery giving an aloof middle-aged fool a new lease on life tapping into the sixties’ laissez faire youth culture and the then popularized notion of remaking the self into an image of our own choosing and design. Mankind has always been drawn to these insular ‘road not taken’ setups. In daydreams – or nightmares – we can eschew the humdrum of day-to-day existence and possess the intangible; that which we think we know – or have at least imagined as more desirable. In many ways, Seconds is a grotesque cautionary tale about carrying the premise too far. Herein, an old Irving Berlin lyric may suffice: “after you get what you want you don’t want it anymore.” 
This, of course, was never truer than for careworn Manhattan banker, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) who is drowning in the ennui of his cushy, though decidedly unruffled upper middle class existence in Scarsdale.  The tedium of his job, coupled with his loveless marriage to Emily (Frances Reid) has deprived Art of his precious male initiative. Life doesn’t mean much and the thought of carrying on the charade for another twenty odd years has left Art feeling flat. But he is about to get a wake-up call – literally – when an old friend and colleague, Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton) telephones in the middle of the night with a very cryptic message. The shock of it is that everyone knows Charlie Evans is dead. Or is he? Given the opportunity to explore the strangely impossible, Arthur goes to the address as Charlie has instructed, is disguised in workman’s clothes and taken to a meat packer’s plant in an ambulance; then escorted into a posh suite of offices in an undisclosed high rise where he is drugged and made to partake in a reenactment of a warped little snuff film.
Awakening from his ordeal – and believing it to have been some sort of weird hallucination – Arthur is all set to leave. He is persuaded otherwise by Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey); the wily, if good-natured procurer for ‘the company’ – an organization that helps the wealthy escape their previous lives by first ‘disappearing’ and then resurfacing in society as entirely different people…well, sort of. At the crux of Seconds is the notion that no matter what is achieved externally (ergo, turning back the hands of time by putting on a new face – literally) one cannot escape inner demons. These haunt and erode the ‘new’ person’s (or reborn, as they’re known throughout the movie) sense of self from the inside out. Of course, Arthur will have to learn this lesson the hard way.
Now played by Rock Hudson, Arthur awakens after going under the knife to discover he has become the embodiment of a much younger man. In theory at least, he has been given the rare opportunity to turn back the hands of time by at least twenty years, and re-enter the world as  Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson; a successful Malibu artist and painter. He is provided with details, including legitimate diplomas and other professional accreditations that suggest Tony Wilson really did exist at one time. What became of him remains the real mystery.
It’s just what Art wanted…or is it? Almost from the beginning the dream fails to live up to expectations. Tony’s butler, John (Wesley Addy) assigned by ‘the company’, encourages Tony to go out into the world and start anew. But Tony remains what he was all along – an introverted recluse who cannot quite bring himself to the realization that Arthur Hudson is truly dead. There is no going back. Oddly enough, this is exactly what Tony wishes he could do…that is, until a chance meeting with a lonely young woman, Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) introduces Tony to the prospects of new love. Nora takes Tony to a bacchanal where hippie youth indulge their ‘free-love’ whims by stripping naked and jumping into a large outdoor vat to stomp grapes into wine barefoot.  Tony is initially repulsed by this spectacle, but coaxed, then forcibly dragged into shedding his clothes and his inhibitions.
Arguably, this is the moment of excess on which Tony’s ultimate downfall entirely depends. For not long after, at Nora’s behest, Tony throws a lavish house party where he gets absolutely soused and makes a complete ass and nuisance of himself; forcibly carried out and subdued in the next room by several revelers whom Nora reveals are ‘reborns’. Tony’s already fragile sense of self is destroyed by the understanding that his new life is a complete sham. Nora doesn’t love him. She’s an agent of the company assigned to ease him into this superficial and very disposable new existence. And John hasn’t been hired as his servant; rather, strategically placed by ‘the company’ to keep an eye on Tony and make sure he doesn’t get out of line. Being ‘reborn’ hasn’t led to a profound liberation of self but rather having Tony’s entire existence scrutinized under a microscope.
After awakening from his drunken stupor with renewed clarity, Tony decides to fly back to Scarsdale. Posing as one of Arthur’s former colleagues he returns to the home he once shared with Emily. His expectations of finding a grieving widow are displaced when Emily appears calm and collected, openly admitting to Tony that her late husband was a remote figure whom she neither knew nor perhaps even truly loved. Realizing that he cannot undo what’s been done, Tony departs without revealing his true identity to Emily. He is met just outside by John and another man (Frank Campanella) who has come to collect and return Tony to California. But Tony asks for the impossible; to go under the knife once more – to truly change, inside and out, for the last time. John reluctantly agrees to take Tony back to ‘the company’ for a consultation. However, Tony refuses outright to provide the company with any names of potential clientele as a contractual precondition of his new surgery.
After some consternation, Tony is sent to the waiting room where he encounters Charlie – another failed reborn. The two compare notes and reason that their botched second attempts at starting over derived from the fact that they allowed others, including ‘the company’ to dictate the terms of their new realities.  Tony decides that, having stumbled once, he now knows exactly what’s to be done to make his final transition a success. Tragically, this revelation comes too late. Told he is going into surgery, Tony is strapped to a gurney and wheeled into the operating room – a priest casually reading him his last rites. It now becomes clear to Tony that his next transition will be death; his body used by the company as a cadaver to assist some other reborn awaiting the start of his new life.
Seconds is inexorably bleak. Ably assisted by James Wong Howe’s equilibrium-challenging cinematography the film is chalked full of ill-omened precursors to the fallout of the sixties, regrettably expressed at the height of its hallucinogenic counterculture still unable to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Worse, at least from the perspective of satisfying its audience, the movie’s star, Rock Hudson, does not appear on the screen until almost forty minutes into the story – and even then, spends at least another eleven minutes looking something like a beefy Frankenstein knock-off; haggard, careworn and ravaged by wounds and aftereffects of his extensive plastic surgery. The final nail in the movie’s coffin is that it ends with the death of our star – not finely, or even dramatically, but in a flurry of abject panic; Hudson shrieking like a terrorized child unable to awaken from his nightmare while minions from the company flank on all sides and sentence him to disfigurement under the surgical scalpel of Dr. Innes (Richard Anderson).
Seconds is, by far, John Frankenheimer’s most experimental movie. It doesn’t really work, at least not completely, the premise too far-fetched. James Wong Howe’s fanciful approach to photographing this sorrowful tragedy layers the already overwhelming and bizarre grand guignol with moody aplomb that draws undue attention to itself in all its cleverly obscure angles and edits. The other hurdle facing Seconds is that, despite its best intentions to be something else – or more – it remains a ‘Rock Hudson’ movie; Hudson’s built-in movie persona as the all-American hunk de jour irreconcilable with the story and his performance. It isn’t that Hudson lacks credibility in the role. On the contrary, he’s quite good, particularly during the final moments when he lets himself go into fitful shrieks of genuine fear. But he just seems strangely apart, and not necessarily in keeping with his character who is also the ‘odd man out’ in this psychedelic trip to the other side of reality.  
Seconds is, arguably, a horror movie made for adults; its premise bone-chilling, its revelations gnawing with a queasy corrosiveness that simultaneously disquiets and repels. The film is ‘artistic’ up to a point, but crosses the threshold of good taste when Frankenheimer elected to show a real rhinoplasty as part of Arthur Hamilton’s conversion into Tony Wilson.  Frankenheimer antes up his shock level in a different way with blatant nudity during the bacchanal; a myriad of bouncing breasts and flashes of full frontal frenetically shot; the visual energy derived from these cuts more exhaustive than salacious and/or transformative. I wanted to like Seconds, but found myself slipping into the quiet anguish of seeing a good premise gradually spiral out of control. Too much of a good thing is still too much; Howe’s cinematography too clever and obvious; perpetually drawing me out of the story rather than adding another layer to it. And the revelation of Salome Jens mysterious female on a beach as just another stooge in the corporate mélange left me flat. Jens’ Nora isn’t mysterious – just odd and quirky: too available for Hudson’s awkward old man to take advantage of, yet not nearly as accessible as the cheap diversion.
In retrospect it’s easy to see why Seconds abysmally failed to satisfy in 1966 and far too easy to understand why it seems to have found renewed status with time as a cult classic; Frankenheimer’s anti-corporate sentiments echoing our present epitaphic dissatisfaction with America’s own economic downward spin, and, the even more recently popularized slant on capitalism in general as a psychotic, greed-mongering, destructive force in constant threat of dehumanizing the natural world.  Seconds plays to this warped perspective with prophetic clarity. It’s still all smoke and mirrors, however. Like the film’s Arthur Hamilton, we can’t go back to the way things used to be, much as Frankenheimer’s movie seems to suggest that the model - even back then - was severely fractured, flawed, and, in need of a complete revamp.  
Criterion gives us Seconds in a rather unremarkable 4k transfer. Despite being advertise as ‘new’ and ‘restored’ the 1.75:1 B&W image suffers from bouts of excessive graininess; the image frequently looking ‘dirty’ and/or just plain thick and heavy. Things tighten up (as they should), but again, there’s varying degrees of grain structure; close-ups looking crisp and refined, but long and medium shots frequently appearing soft around the edges with a distinct loss of fine detail. Never having seen Seconds in theatrical release I am unable to qualify whether or not this is how the movie looked on film; but it seems that the wide-variations in grain suggest some minor undue manipulations during the digital transferring process. Also, several sequences seem to have ever-so-slightly bumped up contrast levels while others appear decidedly weaker than expected. The beach scene where Hudson’s Tony first meets Jens’ Nora is rather murky, as example. It’s not terrible, and certainly these variations may attest to the fact that Seconds was heavily edited, with certain segments later reinstated from archival elements never seen in theaters. But the overall visual impression is marginally appealing at best. The mono audio sounds clean, accurate and does not suffer from hiss or pop.
Criterion pads out the extras with a comprehensive commentary from Frankenheimer, a new interview with Alec Baldwin dishing about his friendship with the director, excerpts from a 1965 TV show with interview clips from Rock Hudson, a new ‘look back’ with the director’s son, widow and Salome Jens, another archival interview with Frankenheimer from 1971, and, a visual essay by R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pornerance, as well as a thick booklet with an essay by David Steriff. Of these, the Baldwin piece is rather superfluous. The truncated excerpts are a snore too. But the reflection piece is quite good.  Bottom line: Seconds disturbed me in a way few movies (like The Exorcist) have over the years.  Is it a masterpiece? Hardly. Is it deserving of all the recent attention and renewed interest on home video? Debatable. Let’s just call it a flawed experiment, creatively stitched together by Frankenheimer, but still coming off as something of a Frankenstein monster by default. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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