Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Trailer Tuesday:
Seconds (1966)

SECONDS (1966)

Director: John Frankenheimer.
Writer: Lewis John Carlino (THE MECHANIC, THE GREAT SANTINI, RESURRECTION) based on a novel by David Ely.
Starring: Rock Hudson, Will Geer, Salome Jens, Jeff Corey, Murray Hamilton.
Cinematography: James Wong Howe.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Producer: Edward Lewis.


I was going to run this last week, but hadn’t snagged the screen grabs yet, so I put it off until this week... and danged if the great Cinephelia website didn’t run an article of SECONDS last week! Hey, it’s a great movie, and if you know about it you want to share it with others.



SECONDS is a thriller about getting a second chance at life and realizing that you take all of your emotional problems with you. This is a slow burn story, but like MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, it deals with constant paranoia. It is *always* creepy. Where MANCHURIAN deals with the idea that you may not be in control of your own life (mind control), SECONDS deals with having to constantly pretend to be someone you are not... and the fear that people may discover who you really are. Areal man with fake memories or a fake man with real memories. So they are two sides of the same coin, and it’s interesting that Frankenheimer made them back to back. This was kind of his paranoia period, and we will look at SEVEN DAYS IN MAY sometime in the near future.

The film is based on a novel by David Ely (who wrote some great TWILIGHT ZONE type science fiction novels) and I not only have the paperback somewhere in a box, I have the movie poster on my office wall! This is one of my favorite films, and a great example of paranoid thrillers, and we’ll look at that genre a little bit here. Rock Hudson gives the performance of a lifetime - he was a light comedy pretty boy actor before this film... and here he does dark, deep, drama. Some silly online review thought that Hudson was the weak point of the film, but I think it’s the opposite - he’s what makes the film work. A story about bringing your past baggage to a new life is improved by an actor who brings his light frothy fun past film baggage to a story about a man with a severely screwed up life.

One of the things that has to be mentioned upfront is the wild ass cinematography. Almost every shot in this film is strange, and that adds to the general feeling that something is wrong. Most of it is shot with wide angle lenses or extreme wide angles (fish eyes) and the film uses a lot of experimental shots and hand held photography and camera rigs that are similar to steadycam - which would not be invented for another ten years. Who did all of this wild camerawork? Some new kid? Nope! James Wong Howe... who was born in the 1800s. His first credit as director of photography was in 1923, and you may know his work as director of photography on THE THIN MAN or (“Come with me to the Casbah”) ALGIERS or KINGS ROW or YANKEE DOODLE DANDY or a whole bunch of Bogart films or the noir western PURSUED or MR BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE or THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or HUD or... well, the guy had 141 credits as cinematographer. He was 67 years old when he shot this film, and it’s one of the most innovative films you will ever see.

Lots of places list this film as science fiction, which is strange because there is nothing in this film that couldn’t have been done in 1966... but the concept just seems crazy. It’s a simple idea that we have all thought of, but nobody seems to have written it before David Ely. Haven’t we all wished we could hit the “do over button” on our lives and start all over again? Not make all of those stupid mistakes? Do the things we wanted to do instead of the things we thought we had to do? *Everyone* has wished that. And one of the basics of thrillers is the secret wish that comes true, but not exactly as the protagonist planned.

The Saul Bass title sequence is twisted fun house mirror shot of a human eye, a human ear, a human face... setting us up for weird. Jerry Goldsmith gives us creepy organ music reminiscent of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue D Minor. For the director’s title card - a face completely bandaged except for eyes and screaming mouth, an image that can also be seen in SUTURE (1993) and TIMECRIMES (2007). The crazy warped image of the face warps into... New York’s Grand Central Station.

A Man In A Hat watches middle aged Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) as he buys a newspaper, then follows him through the station. Paranoia - someone actually is following our protagonist. Some amazing freaky shots here - the camera is attached to the Man In A Hat so that we get a hand held style moving over the shoulder shot and a moving face shot as he follows Hamilton... which makes us feel as if there is something weird about the Man In A Hat. When Hamilton steps onto a train, the Man In The Hat says his name, and when Hamilton turns he hands him a note. Then the train doors close and the train starts moving. Who was that guy?

Hamilton is on a train full of commuters headed home - all in suits, all reading newspapers, all exactly the same. He pulls out the note: just an address: 34 Lafayette Street. What does it mean?

In suburbia, with his middle aged wife Emily (Francis Reid) in his typical suburban home. His marriage is stale, he is no longer excited by his job or his life. The phone rings LOUDLY. On the other end is a man claiming to be his dead friend Charlie Evans. Impossible. But the voice on the phone knows things that only Charlie Evans could know. Things from their college days that no one else knows - a message scratched on the felt covered base of an old tennis trophy they won long long ago. How is this possible? Evans says, “I’m alive! More alive than I’ve been in the past 25 years!” and tells him to go to the address he was given tomorrow at noon. WTF? This story will give us a series of WTF? moments in the middle of a completely mundane setting, and that adds to our paranoia. If a strange thing happens in a strange world, that’s expected. But when some really strange thing happens in our boring real world? Unsettling.

The next day on his lunch hour Hamilton goes to the address... a dry cleaners. What? He asks the Old Man using the steam press if he’s in the right place... and the Old Man ignores him and continues to work. This can’t be the right place, it’s a dry cleaners. Hamilton turns to leave and the Old Man tells him there’s a new address...

A meat packing house. Another completely mundane location - though this one is filled with sides of bloody beef. Also can’t be the right place... but one of the Butchers calls him by the code name and says, “Come with me.” They give Hamilton a butcher’s uniform to put on, walk him through the plant past hundreds of sides of beef, and put him in the back of a refrigerated truck. WTF? When the door is closed, Hamilton is riding in complete darkness to his destination...

A run down industrial building on the outside, a modern office building on the inside. This adds to the strangeness, and makes us wonder how many of those run down buildings we see every day are hiding some secret high tech interior? He’s ushered into an executive office and given a cup of coffee while he waits. He gets sleepy while waiting, closes his eyes and drifts off... exhaustion or drugged coffee? He has this weird dream where he floats into a room, and there is a beautiful young woman in a bed, and he has sex with her, and she screams... and then he wakes up, still waiting in the executive’s office.

He decides to leave, goes to the elevator - but there are no up or down buttons on the wall next to the elevator doors. Weird. He searches the building for a way out, stumbling on a room full of young businessmen at desks. None will tell him where the exit doors are. He is sent back to the executive’s office where Mr. Ruby (the great Jeff Corey) is waiting for him, “I’ve been assigned to go over the circumstances of your death.” WTF? Then Ruby begins talking about cost factors as if he’s an insurance salesman or something. Boring and mundane... Except the conversation is about finding a corpse that is a perfect match for Hamilton and obliterating the teeth and fingerprints and any other form of identification and then creating a realistic accident - they will need an accident because the service costs $30,000 (in 1966 money) and will be paid for with an insurance policy, so there can be no question of suicide or foul play. And Ruby is eating chicken the entire time. “Your death selection is the most important decision of your life.” WTF? Hamilton looks confused, and when Ruby hands him a pen and says, “If you’ll sign right here”, Hamilton doesn’t take the pen from him. So Ruby pulls down a screen in the office and shows Hamilton a little film... where he is having sex with the young woman from his dream and she is fighting him. Blackmail. Ruby leaves the room, and Hamilton is alone...

Until a voice from behind him says there’s a message from Charlie.

Hamilton turns and kindly Old Man (Will Geer) has been sitting on the sofa behind him. WTF? He wasn’t there in an earlier shot, and now he is. He just appeared. Charlie wanted Hamilton to know that rebirth is painful, and the blackmail movie is just to help him make the decision to go forward, he doesn’t really want to go back, does he?

And here, 30 minutes into the film, we discover what all of this is about (though we’ve probably figured much of it out already) - this secret company allows you a second chance at life. You’re a middle aged man who once had dreams of being an artist, but took that day job in a bank to pay the rent. Then you got married, and the rent became a mortgage, and you had children and there was less time for art, and now that the kids have left the nest... you have lost your dreams. You are a banker, not an artist. You are dissatisfied with the way your life turned out, but this company will give you a second life. You die, and are reborn (after extensive plastic surgery to make you look like a young virile Rock Hudson) and can now pursue that youthful dream of being an artist. Much better than buying a sports car and having an affair with a younger woman!

“This is what happens to the dreams of youth,” kindly Old Man says after Hamilton talks about all of the things that are “good” about his life now. When the Old Man hands him the pen, he signs the contract...

35 minutes in, we see the plastic surgery procedure. Very graphic for its time... almost procedural. What sells the transformation are diagrams that show John Randolph’s face and Rock Hudson’s face with notations.

Then we see an obituary for Hamilton - died in a hotel room fire...

And Hamilton recovering, his face completely covered in bandages, his hands and fingers completely covered (fingerprint reassignment). He can’t talk because he’s been given dental implants (dental records) and his vocal cords have been altered to create new vocal chords - he will sound different. His doctor, Innes (Richard Anderson, who would do the same for the 6 Million Dollar Man years later), tells him he will need to hit the gym so that his body matches his new youthful face.

39 minutes in, the bandages come off and Hamilton is swiveled around in his chair to look in the mirror - a great reveal. Hamilton now looks like Rock Hudson, but with gray hair and dozens of stitches on his face... and he cries at the sight. He’s beautiful.

At 40 minutes the exercise montage begins - he’s a middle aged man who must retrieve his 30 year old body from years of neglect.

Guidance Adviser Davalo (Khigh Dhiegh from MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) talks to him about his future career - they have drugged and hypnotized him to discover what his career dreams used to be before he gave them up. Davalo plays a tape where Hamilton says he wanted to be a tennis pro and a painter. There’s a great shot here where the new Hamilton is reflected in a mirror while listening to the tape of the old Hamilton. Davalo has a whole new bio for him as a artist, complete with past gallery shows. They will supply him with fresh paintings for a while as he develops his own work. “You see, you don’t have to prove anything anymore. You are accepted.” People will believe his new identity until he grows into it.

At the 45 minute mark, Hamilton is now Tony Wilson - Rock Hudson’s face and body and hair - on a plane to Malibu... where he lives. At the airport, a total stranger calls the name Tony Wilson and has a conversation as if he knows him. WTF? This is a great flip of the undercover cop recognized by someone from his real life scene. He has no idea who this guy is. How to talk to him. How to react to him. He may look like Wilson, but he’s still Hamilton on the inside.

Malibu: Tony Wilson has a house in the Colony overlooking the beach and a butler named John (Wesley Addy) who knows his secret and is here to help. Wilson looks at the art in his gallery, the bedroom, the books on the shelf... he’s living a stranger’s life. Will he be discovered? The *concept* creates the paranoia.

Wilson tries to become that person who belongs in this house... begins a painting. Walks along the beach. There’s a great moment where he’s trying to fall asleep and looks at the empty side of the bed... lonely. On the beach he meets Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) and there’s a character based suspense moment when he introduces himself... will he use his old name? Nora is in her early thirties and hot and a little wild. Four years ago she was a typical suburban housewife, and wondered “Is this it?” So she left that life and came here.

We have now escalated the suspense, because he might slip in front of this woman. Now he *must* act like Wilson instead of Hamilton.

At 59 minutes in, Wilson and Nora go on a date to a wild bacchanal at a vineyard where everyone gets drunk on wine, takes off their clothes and crushes grapes naked in a big wood tub. A big turning point for Hamilton/Wilson - this is about as far from middle age, middle class banker as you can get! “Now the season ends, and the old vines are buried deep. Now in dying, Bacchus gives us his blood so that we may be born again!” (Note the thematic dialogue! This film is filled with thematic dialogue and scenes.) Wilson freaks - still Hamilton under his skin - and when Nora takes off her clothes and jumps into the tub naked, he remains an outsider...

Until the crowd strips him naked and tosses him into the tub with all of the other naked men and women. After fighting for a moment, he gives in to his new life... and dances naked with Nora in the crushed grapes surrounded by naked men and women. “Yes! Yes!”

(This is a 1966 movie with full frontal nudity... though that was cut out for theatrical release so you just get backal nudity, the DVD version has restored the rest of the scene, and it’s very much required for the story - imagine being one of those stuffy people in 1966 who was watching this movie and suddenly there were completely naked people on screen. You would react exactly as Hamilton/Wilson does.)

At 67 minutes in, Wilson and Nora are a couple, kissing on the beach as the sun sets.

Now that Hamilton is comfortable as Wilson, he throws a housewarming party for the others in the Colony. John helps introduce him to his neighbors. Wilson has had a couple of drinks too many and we get a great woozy shot with the camera strapped to his body (which will be used in another of my favorite films, MEAN STREETS). The problem is, the more Wilson drinks the more he is liable to slip and expose himself as Hamilton. To ratchet up the suspense, one of his neighbors is a lawyer who went to Harvard... where Hamilton went to collage.

There’s a great moment at the party where Wilson sees a group of men discussing something in the corner and drunkenly goes over to talk to them... and they basically ignore him. At his own party and he’s still an outsider. When he tells the lawyer neighbor that he used to be a Harvard alumnus, but not anymore, Nora tries to pull him away. Soon everyone at the party is surrounding him... and he blows it big time. He reveals himself as Arthur Hamilton, and all of the men at the party grab him and drag him into his bedroom and hold him down...

John comes to the front of the pack and tells Hamilton/Wilson that he hasn’t just blown his cover, he may have blown the covers of all of these men - they are all “reborns”. He screams...

And Nora comes in. Is she one, too? Remember what she said about starting her life all over again?

This is the ultimate paranoia scene, because if Nora and all of these people are part of the “conspiracy” of reborns, how many other people are part of the conspiracy? Can he trust *anyone*? If he goes to the police, will the Desk Sargent be part of the conspiracy? There’s a great Cornell Woolrich short story about a cult that buries its members alive, and the protagonist goes to the police... and the cop is part of the cult! Movie like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR use the idea that anyone can be part of the conspiracy in scenes like the one after the massacre at the beginning of the movie when Condor looks from one pedestrian to another and they all seem to be acting strange. Are they all potential assassins? Here we get the same feeling that *anyone* could be a reborn. How can you tell that they aren’t? It’s as if everyone in the world might be out to get you...

At 78:30 into the film, it’s the morning after the party and his dead friend Charlie calls. Hamilton/Wilson tells him he wants out of this pretend life, Charlie says that’s impossible. Charlie also tells him Nora *isn’t* a reborn, but she is a company employee who was paid to become his girlfriend and sleep with him. That doesn’t go over well. Charlie explains that the company knows in the beginning of your new life you might make mistakes, so they provided Nora just in case that happened. And that he and Charlie are tied together, so Hamilton/Wilson has to get his shit together, stay in the Colony until he becomes 100% Wilson.

So at the 80 minute mark, Hamilton/Wilson sneaks out and takes a plane back to Scarsdale. His old home, his old life... and his old wife. Awesome shot while he’s waiting to see his old wife, and looks at a photo of Hamilton and Wilson is reflected over it... and we pull back to see him reflected in a mirror. Mirror shots throughout the film show the duel life he’s living.

When Emily comes in, they have an awkward conversation where he realizes that you can’t go home again. This is a great scene, and you have seen versions of it in films like ROBOCOP (the original) and even a variation of it in THE PUNISHER on Netflix with the Micro character and his family. The great thing about this scene is that Wilson gets Emily’s view of Hamilton... and it’s not what he expected. “He lived as if he were a stranger, here, he never let anything touch hm. He was absorbed in *things* - his job, mostly. He worked hard, but became more detached. We lived our lives in a polite, celibate, truce. Arthur had been dead a long long time before they found him in that hotel room.” Do we create our own hells? Our own traps? Do we always have the choice to live a new life, but just choose not to? One of the great things about this scene is how Rock Hudson *ages* while listening to her - he reverts back to Hamilton. This is a great performance.

I forgot to mention that behind all of the things going on in the scene with his old wife from his old life is an undercurrent of suspense. Will she recognize him? Will he blow it and do something stupid like tell her who he really is? The *situation* creates this suspense. The concept of a thriller often creates suspense.

When he leaves, Emily gives him a wrapped object - the only thing she has left of Hamilton’s - and when he unwraps it on the street outside... it’s the tennis trophy with the message scratch on the base that began this whole story. Then a car pulls up, and John steps out to take him back...

But not to Malibu, to the company. Hamilton/Wilson wants to try again - a new life. Not Hamilton or Wilson, but someone else. John says that may be possible... and we’ve hit the 89 minute mark. Can you hit reset more than once? How many do overs do you get?

At the company Mr. Ruby tells him that in order to go through the process again, he will have to recommend a new client - who will go all of the way through the process as he did. The business is all word of mouth, they can’t exactly advertize in newspapers, can they? Wilson can’t think of anyone off the top of his head, and Ruby says that’s okay, and they escort Wilson to that room full of young businessmen at desks from the beginning of the movie. His job is to cold call anyone he knows who might be interest in a second chance at life. All of these young businessmen? The same as him - people whose second lives didn’t work out. Who carried all of the baggage of their first life with them. This is a frightening scene - more frightening than many horror movies. What if we are the biggest problem in our lives. How do fix that?

The businessman who refused to tell him the way out in the scene at the beginning? His college buddy Charlie (the awesome Murray Hamilton). Wilson has a great speech here about how his life as Hamilton was all about what society said was important - things, not people or meaning. And his life as Wilson was also “things” oriented. But this third time? He’s going to look for meaning...

Then they call Charlie’s name - he finally gets to be reborn again!

Or will he? Because this story has a very dark twist at the end.

But first we get a swell pep talk from the kindly Old Man about how the company keeps plugging away despite it’s failure rate, which is a very cynical look at our lives and our society... and it’s failure rate.

And then we get an awesome fish eye lense sequence and that twist end.

SECONDS is one of those great unknown films that builds real suspense in a realistic setting through its wild concept and even wilder cinematography. It’s a great example of paranoid thrillers that don’t involve spies or political conspiracies or any of the other “action genre” oriented elements, just a man filled with regret over the way his life turned out who gets a chance to start over again. To have a second chance at life. It’s one of John Frankenheimer’s best films, and the kind of movie that you want to tell everyone about after you’d seen it... and now I’ve told you.

- Bill





The Novel:



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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love the Manchurian Candidate! One of my favorite films. The editing in that brainwashing scene is fantastic. The whole film feels very ahead of its time.

I could never bear to see the remake.

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