Saturday, March 28, 2009

"Somewhere in the man, there is still a key unturned."

***Due to recent physical problems I am still unable to write for the time being. It seemed a good time to post a couple of things that I wrote for some other sites that hadn't appeared here yet. This piece originally appeared at The Amplifier last year.***

Sometime during the recording of the legendary Smile album, Beach Boy Brian Wilson took a break from the studio and stepped out to see an afternoon movie at a local Los Angeles theater. It was just around Halloween of 1966, and the fractured Wilson was entering into one of the most confused and traumatizing periods of his life, when he sat down to catch what he hoped would be a film to take his mind off the pressures that were pulverizing him emotionally on a daily basis.

The film Brian Wilson saw that day in a relatively empty theater was a critically and commercially unsuccessful work starring Rock Hudson and directed by John Frankenheimer called Seconds. Rather than providing Wilson with the escapism he craved, Frankenheimer’s film disturbed him greatly and within weeks the Smile sessions were cancelled and Wilson slipped deep into a state of schizophrenia and harrowing paranoia. He reportedly wouldn’t be able to go see another movie for another fifteen years.

While it has undergone a critical reevaluation in the past decade or so, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds has still never gotten the amount of acclaim it deserves. Shot just a few years after his legendary The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seconds is one of the key works of the sixties... a harrowing and poignant look at a man offered a second chance only to find out that he ultimately doesn't want it.

Adapted from a novel by David Ely and financed by Paramount Pictures, Frankenheimer’s Seconds is one of the most resonate and expressionistic works of his career. Shot with some of the most oppressive Black and White photography imaginable (by influential cinematographer James Wong Howe), Seconds is an unnerving American Art Film that has much more in common with many of the demanding European productions that were coming out of the mid sixties rather than much of the traditional major studio rubbish it was forced to play against.

The storyline for Seconds sounds like a routine Science Fiction thriller. An aging and unhappy businessman named Arthur Hamilton (played by the extraordinary character actor John Randolph) is approached one day by a man who claims to be a friend of friend who died a year or so before. The mysterious man puts Hamilton in contact with a rather sinister operation that promises him a whole new life if he agrees to let go of his old one... a new young body, a new face, a new name, a new career, a new beginning. Hamilton agrees and he is reconstructed into young up and coming painter Tony Wilson. Hamilton soon finds out though that there are serious consequences in what he has agreed to, and his fresh new life starts to slide into a harrowing slipstream of isolation, paranoia and sadness.

Watching the very experimental and overwhelmingly dark Seconds today, one has to be surprised that it was indeed funded by a major studio. Paramount had agreed to the production on one condition, namely that Frankenheimer allow mega-star Rock Hudson to play the key role of the tormented Tony Wilson. Frankenheimer initially balked but soon discovered Hudson to the ideal choice, as it became apparent that the actor was in the midst of his most extraordinary performance... a weary and tragic turn that feels more and more brilliant and masterful with every passing year.

The eternally undervalued Rock Hudson was still considered one of the biggest box office stars in the world in 1966. While his career had slipped slightly in the mid sixties, Seconds was still an incredibly brave, and some considered baffling, role for the one time matinee idol to take. Gone was the confidence and sexual swagger that had occupied many of his earlier romantic performances, and in its place was a damaged man... a man given a total second chance, but one who can’t for the life of him figure out what to do with it.

Working from a script by future Oscar nominee Lewis John Carlino, Frankenheimer and crew shot the film with very little interference from Paramount in the early part of 1966 in various New York and California locations. Joining Frankenheimer behind the camera were many of his regular collaborators including editor Ferris Webster, co-producer Edward Lewis and award winning composer Jerry Goldsmith (who contributes one of his simultaneously lovely and most menacing scores). Hudson would be joined on-screen by a cast made up of several notable character actors as well as Salome Jens as his tragic love interest.

Frankenheimer delivered Seconds to Paramount in mid 66 rightly confident that he made something spectacularly different and downright masterful. The heads of Paramount were horrified though by the paranoid thriller with its ominous score, unrecognizable leading man, tilted angles, distorted shots, and considered shelving it. Realizing that wasn’t an option after the money they had invested, they oversaw the cutting of over seven minutes out of the film (including what would have been some trailblazing nude scenes) and released it in October of 66 with as little promotion as possible.

The film was slammed by the critics who bothered reviewing it that Halloween season and few filmgoers turned out for it. Ironically the best performance of his life would become his biggest bomb and Rock Hudson’s career tragically never recovered. Watching Seconds today, it is clear that Rock Hudson was never given his due as an actor as he shows a shockingly wide range in his portrayal of the lost Tony Wilson. It remains one of the key performances in an often overlooked and fascinating career.

Frankenheimer was already totally invested in his next production, Grand Prix (1966), when Seconds came and vanished so quickly that fall. It would creep its way around Europe in 1967 and that’s where the rumblings began that there was something indeed very special about this strange and haunting film from one of America’s key post-war filmmakers.

Out of circulation for years, by the early nineties more and more people began to talk and wonder about the seemingly lost Seconds. Finally Paramount answered many prayers in the mid nineties and re-released the film to handful of theaters before it finally landed on home video shortly after. Quickly becoming a critical darling and a genuine cult film, Seconds became a hit of sorts nearly thirty years after its failed initial release.
Today the film, which can be found uncut on a special edition DVD with a terrific commentary from the late and much missed Frankenheimer, still has its fair share of critics but for the most part it has finally began to attain the classic status it deserved all those many years ago.

Seconds remains one of the most powerful, paranoid and downbeat American Science Fiction films in history, as well as one of the key works from one of our most important filmmakers. Its unsettling portrayal of a man very much lost in a life that he thought he wanted feels today less like a product of its time, and more like an eerie premonition of things to come.


Brandon Colvin said...

I cannot overstate how absolutely phenomenal this film is. It floored me. And I would not have seen it without reading your piece in Amplifier.

An example of your writing at work! Thanks, Jeremy!

I hope others take you up on this recommendation.

The Vicar of VHS said...

I watched this one for the first time just a week or so back (synchronicity!) and was also shocked by how modern and experimental it *still* feels, after forty years! Anybody looking for something fascinating and unusual from the age of grooviness should definitely check this out.

fate said...

Great write up. there are movies& there are films.Seconds was a great film.I saw Seconds some years ago by coincidence & I was amazed it was not more recognized.The end was unforgettable.hopefully Rock´s 1980s will fade into history &this film does not.

Anonymous said...

I'm seeing this for the first time this quarter in my American Cinema of the 70s class. We started the term with Jaws and Deep Throat is on the syllabus. This is going to be the best class ever.

John said...

“Seconds” was way ahead of it time, an overused term but appropriate. The cinematography by James Wong Howe was revolutionary for its time. Like your say, it is unimagineable that a film like this would get funded by a major studio today. For anyone who is interested, here is a review I wrote a while back about this film at

Excellent Jeremy