What does it say about me, the state of moviemaking, or both, that the most exciting film I have seen in a very long time is almost 50 years old?
A blog I enjoy reading very much is Domani Dave. He communicates ideas with wit and haiku-like brevity that I might spend 10 paragraphs trying to explore before admitting defeat and giving up completely. In a recent post he recommended the 1966 John Frankenheimer film, Seconds. His description included; “This hardcore Faustian tale has been described as ‘sci-fi meets horror meets film noir’, and has the bleakest final five minutes of any in Hollywood history.”
How could I resist that?
A visually stunning black & white film, cinematographer James Wong Howe received an Academy Award nomination for Seconds. It contains images one associates more with European ‘art’ films than with a major American studio release. Most of the film appears to have been shot with a hand-held camera. Stark, extreme close-ups, visual distortions, and reflected images give the film a look that is at once journalistic and otherworldly. Those familiar with Frankenheimer’s earlier, and more famous film, The Manchurian Candidate will see clear visual references.
The score of the film is similarly remarkable. Long passages have no underlying music leading to startlingly dramatic injections of sound.
In his book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Steven Jay Schneider writes;
“Thomas Wolfe once said “You can’t go home again,” and anyone familiar with John Frankenheimer’s Faustian vision of alienation in suburban America would understand this only too well.”
There is an interesting element to the film’s back story. Frankenheimer needed a large number of character actors. He cast actors who had been blacklisted in the previous decade; most notably Will Geer, Jeff Corey, and John Randolph in featured roles.
But the story here is… the story. Arthur Hamilton, a Harvard educated banker leads an empty life commuting from his office in Manhattan to the Scarsdale home he shares with a wife with whom he has a polite but celibate marriage.
Arthur is contacted by an old friend from college, one Arthur thought long dead, who leads him to meet representatives of “The Company”; a business that, for a hefty fee, arranges for it’s clients to appear to be dead while providing plastic surgery and complete new identities. It is life with a restart button; a second chance.
Feeling he has nothing to lose, Arthur leaves his old life behind and starts a new life as Tony Wilson, an moderately successful artist leading a single, Bohemian life in Malibu.
Tony struggles to adapt to his new identity and a new life which, while different in every conceivable way, is as empty as his former existence. In one of the most revealing, and visually beautiful, scenes in the film, Tony, pretending to be a friend of Arthur’s, goes back to his former home and meets the wife he left behind as a widow. What he finds is a home with virtually no evidence that he’d ever been there. His widow tells Tony that she hadn’t felt connected to Arthur. He was detached. He’d spent his life pursuing the things he’d been taught to want but, in his eyes, she could see the “protest again what he’d surrendered his life to”. “He’d been dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room.”
Tony goes back to The Company asking for another surgery, another new life, in the hopes he might be successful in finding a life that will mean something to him. The resolution he finds there is not what he’s hoping for.
In his essay in the book Cult Movies 3, Henry Blinder explains why the film was so dramatically unsuccessful while, at the same time, so well respected. Paraphrasing, the film was booed at its opening at the Cannes Film Festival but well received by critics and film students. The opinion that mattered most, however, was the box office and there Seconds was a disaster. Part psychological thriller, part horror film, and part science fiction, the film was difficult to categorize and, therefore, hard to make appealing to the fans of any particular genre. The only ‘star’ in the film is Rock Hudson and, as Frankenheimer was quoted as saying; “Those people that go to see Rock Hudson movies didn’t want to his this one.”
Mr Blinder sums up the he thinks is the challenge in marketing the film;
“Seconds is quite possibly the most depressing film ever made – it is a film of unrelieved despair”.
The film’s screenwriter, Lewis John Carlino, seems to agree. He has been quoted as saying it is ; “almost too painful to watch“. He’s right.
What I think makes the film so bleak is the realization that the emptiness of life springs from choosing to live it without ones own dreams. Arthur’s existence is empty because his life neither gives him what he wants nor presents any way to move toward something he wants. By every external measure Tony’s life is completely different from Arthur’s; yet with the same result. Both lives could be ideal if they were the dream of the person who lived them. That is not the case here.
In commenting on this film’s cult status, Frankenheimer said; “It’s the only film I know that has gone from failure to classic – without ever being a success“. The film is dark, it could be depressing and it is certainly “almost too painful to watch”.
It is absolutely riveting.