Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Camp and Cult Blogathon: Seconds (1966)

This essay is the first of several of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contributions to The Camp & Cult Blogathon, an event being hosted at my BBFF Stacia’s blog She Blogged by Night from September 17-28.  For a list of participants and the camp classics/cult films discussed, you’ll find “the usual suspects” here.  (Note: I have tried to include adequate space for a spoiler warning for those of you who have not yet seen this one-of-a-kind film.)

Fifty-year-old banker Arthur Hamilton is experiencing middle-aged malaise.  He’s achieved success in his chosen profession, fulfilled the American Dream of a wife, home, etc., and yet lives a life with no purpose.  His only daughter, which he rarely sees, is married to a medical intern and resides out West.  His wife Emily (Frances Reid) is a wonderful woman, and is clearly in love and devoted to her husband.  But the spark of their marriage dissipated sometime ago (there is a heart-wrenching scene where Emily’s overtures of lovemaking are met with painful indifference from Arthur) during Arthur’s drive to get to the top.  Emily will later observe after her husband’s death that they both lived their lives “in a polite, celibate truce.”  “You see, Arthur had been dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room,” she remarks sadly.

Arthur Hamilton, despite what newspaper accounts reported, did not die in a hotel room fire.  His best friend Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton)—also reportedly deceased—has brought Arthur to the attention of an organization known only as “the Company.”  Hamilton is invited to their offices one afternoon and he has a chat with a Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey), who offers Arthur the opportunity to be “reborn”—he will be given a new life and a new identity in order that he may start over.  Hamilton, disoriented by the proposition of getting a second chance, is also on the fence about the Company’s proposal—but when Ruby shows him film footage of Arthur apparently raping a young girl (he doesn't really; a cup of tea he drank was laced with both a sedative and a drug that removes inhibitions), Hamilton realizes there’s no going back.  A chat with the “Old Man” (Will Geer), the founder of the Company, is also persuasive in Arthur’s final decision.

John Frankenheimer cast Khigh Deigh in the role of the Company's vocational counselor as an in-joke (Deigh played a small but pivotal role in the director's The Manchurian Candidate).  The actor would already qualify as a badass due to his long-running role as Steve McGarrett's arch enemy Wo Fat on Hawaii Five-O...but whenever a joke of mine fails to make my mother laugh I use one of his Candidate lines: "You must learn to cultivate a sense of humor, Comrade."

Arthur is subjected to extensive plastic surgery and rigorous mental and physical conditioning by the Company.  His new identity is that of Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson), a resident of Malibu, California (he lives in a sweet beach house) who makes a living as a professional artist.  His manservant John (Wesley Addy), an employee of the Company, is there to help him make a smooth transition into his new life but John isn’t having much success in helping Tony adapt.  That all changes when Tony makes the acquaintance of free-spirited Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), with whom he develops a romantic relationship—he even accompanies her to a wine festival in Santa Barbara, where he is encouraged to cut loose and release the inhibitions of his former life.  With the loving support of Nora, Tony has finally found happiness.


A cocktail party Tony throws for a few friends at his beach house goes completely south, however.  Under the influence of too much alcohol, Tony leaks details about his former life of Arthur Hamilton, prompting John and several other male guests to hustle Tony into the bedroom.  Tony learns that the guests, are all like himself—“reborns”—but the betrayal that stings the most is that Nora is also not what she seems…like John, she is a Company employee.

Confused and miserable in his new life, Tony pays Emily Hamilton a visit in direct violation of Company policy.  Though Emily still believes her late husband was “a good man,” their marriage deteriorated because of Hamilton’s ambition and pursuit of material possessions.  “He lived as if he were a stranger here,” Emily tells Tony.  “I mean, he never let anything touch him.”  Tony is determined not to repeat the same mistake, and so he contacts the Company about starting over for a third time—a life in which he will make the decisions, not the organization.

The negotiations between Tony and the Company reach a small impasse when the organization tries to prod him into suggesting other candidates who might be interested in their services…as his friend Charlie Evans did with him.  It is, in fact, while waiting for reassignment that Tony runs into Charlie—who like him also had difficulty adjusting to the “reborn” process.  Their reunion is interrupted when the Company’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Innes (Richard Anderson), informs Charlie that he needs to prepare for surgery.  Meanwhile, Tony and several other men spend their time in a “waiting area” until they are called.

Tony is awakened in the middle of the night by the Old Man, who before informing him that it is now time for his surgery, explains that the Company sometimes makes mistakes with “reborns”…but that the Company tries to learn from its mistakes, and “keep plugging away at the dream.”  Several orderlies come to collect Tony and strap him to a gurney…but the presence of a Protestant minister (Karl Swenson) administering the last rites reveals to a horrified Tony that he will not be undergoing plastic surgery—that failed “reborns” are instead used as cadavers in the faking of new clients’ deaths.  As Innes administers a cranial drill to Tony’s skull, the last thing he remembers is a vision of a man with a young girl on his shoulders, running along a beach.


Seconds (1966), a horrifying suspense thriller directed by John Frankenheimer, was chosen by Paramount Pictures to be an entry at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966.  The result?  European critics panned the work; the reaction was so hostile that Frankenheimer, who was nearby in Monte Carlo filming Grand Prix (1966), refused to attend the festival’s press conference.  The box office for the film also stank to high heaven, and for many years after its initial release it was a difficult film to see, which is why Seconds acquired the cult reputation it did.  Never released to VHS, the first time I saw the movie was on a local Savannah TV station, where it was edited to shreds for commercials and also because of some nudity (more on that in a sec).  American Movie Classics aired the film uncut in the 1990s, allowing many film buffs to see a truly underrated film, and Seconds’ release to DVD in 2002 (unfortunately, the disc is now OOP) and subsequent showings on Turner Classic Movies have given Frankenheimer’s neglected masterpiece a bit more exposure.  (The director has noted in many interviews that the movie went from being a “failure to a classic…without ever being a success.”)

Seconds is considered by many film fans and critics to be the third entry in what is half-jokingly described as Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy”—which also includes the earlier The Manchurian Candidate (1962; also a film that was difficult to see for many years after its initial release) and Seven Days in May (1964).  Though there are those who take the auteur theory with a grain of salt (and probably should), it is one of the director’s most personal films.  “In life, you are the result of your experiences, the result of your past…your past makes you what you are today,” Frankenheimer notes in the commentary for the DVD.  “If you take away your past—you don’t exist as a person.”  John’s stamp is all over the finished product:  the beach house in which “Tony Wilson” lives actually belonged to the director at one time, as did Arthur Hamilton’s tennis trophy and the mounted fish over the mantle in Arthur’s study.  (The house in which Nora resides was also rented and lived in by Frankenheimer.)

Borrowing Brent McKee's Applied Theory of Toupees, this role must have been pretty serious for veteran character actor Richard Anderson (on the right) to leave the rug at home.
Frankenheimer’s original intention was to have one actor play both roles of Arthur Hamilton and Tony Wilson (using makeup to make said thespian look like two different characters), but his first choice of Kirk Douglas (with whom he had worked on May) was scotched because he wasn’t convinced Kirk’s well-known features could be disguised in such a fashion (John apparently missed The List of Adrian Messenger when it was in his neighborhood).  The director then wanted Laurence Olivier for the part, but Paramount balked because Sir Larry was not a box office “name.”  The studio insisted on Rock Hudson for the lead, prompting Frankenheimer to balk—Hudson had a reputation as a lightweight performer, known at the time as Doris Day’s love interest in several frothy sex comedies.

The reason for Seconds' poor showing at the box office: Rock Hudson fans wouldn't go to see the film, and the people who would go didn't want to see Rock Hudson.  That left, according to Frankenheimer, "five or six people" who would call the local theater to ask when the movie was playing and the theater people would more than likely respond: "What time can you come down?"

But Frankenheimer was talked into signing on Hudson by the actor’s agent, who made the pitch for his client at a cocktail party…and years after the film, Frankenheimer had nothing but praise for Hudson’s performance.  To Rock’s credit, he suggested to the director that the Arthur Hamilton role be played by a different actor, which is how John Randolph entered the picture.  Randolph, an impeccable character actor (you’ve seen him in Pretty Poison and as Jack Nicholson’s pop in Prizzi’s Honor), had been blacklisted for many years due to his political affiliations and only recently had started to work again on such television shows as The Defenders and Slattery’s People, so Frankenheimer gave him the opportunity to be “reborn” (John mentions in the DVD commentary that he would have used Randolph when making The Young Savages but United Artists vetoed that idea)  (There’s a bit of wry irony in the whole “reborn” context because a number of other once-blacklisted actors—Corey, Geer and Nedrick Young, who plays a guest at the cocktail party—also appear in the cast.)

It’s interesting to note that Randolph could be considered the star of Seconds since Hudson (as the new incarnation of John’s character) doesn’t turn up until about an hour into the movie.  Hudson spent a great deal of time with Randolph before the film went into production in order to copy the actor’s mannerisms…though he had a little difficulty hiding the high differential in the two thespians (Hudson was five inches taller), and some tricky camera work was utilized to mask that (which really never completely succeeds, to be honest).  One could argue that the camerawork in the film (courtesy of cinematography great James Wong Howe) is also a major character; Wong Howe was most innovative in creating a disturbing, unsettling atmosphere that included using a wide-angle lens on a wheeled suitcase carrier for the sequences of Randolph walking through Grand Central Station and a fish-eye lens for the unforgettable final shot.  (The camera also takes center stage in the memorable title sequence of Seconds, which was designed by Saul Bass and filmed through a distorted metal mirror.)  Despite grabbing an Academy Award nomination for his work on the movie, it’s rumored that Wong Howe did not like working with Frankenheimer (the director insisted on using hand-held and zoom shots without rhyme or reason throughout the shoot, which is kind of typical of his work).

Playwright Lewis John Carlino adapted David Ely’s novel (and made many improvements, including the idea of having a love interest for Tony Wilson) and though many have described it as a science-fiction movie the events that take place are almost a little too real for the “fiction” part.  To me, Seconds is one of the bleakest cinematic documents to emerge from the vibrant filmmaking period known as the 1960s; it presents a nihilistic world where people’s existences can be manipulated by sinister forces (the Company) if they don’t take charge of their lives and dictate the direction of where those lives are to go.  Though made outside what many consider the “cycle” of film noir, it’s every bit as pessimistic as those classic movies, with a protagonist who ends up in over his head whether due to fate or simply making bad choices.  The title is also susceptible to multiple interpretations.  One would assume it’s a reference to Arthur Hamilton/Tony Wilson’s “do-over,” but it could also symbolize how precious the moments of all our lives really are, and how they ebb away with the simple ticking of a clock.  (It could also refer to length of the film’s final image, mentioned in the spoiler alert above.  And as to that final image—how do we interpret it?  Is Tony Wilson flashing back to an earlier time, with the man and daughter representing himself and his own child?  Or is it a wistful vision of a life he knows he’ll never have?)

I’ve often joked on the blog in the past when talking about films with pessimistic subject matter than such vehicles aren’t “date movies,” and I think Seconds is the yardstick to which that applies.  Those with whom I’ve discussed the film either love it or hate it to pieces; rarely have I found anyone with a middle-of-the-road opinion.  It’s a film I often revisit simply because it fascinates the hell out of me; the striking monochromatic cinematography of Jimmy Howe, masterful editing by David Newhouse and disconcerting score by Jerry Goldsmith (with that eerie organ) are three of the film’s draws, not to mention the first-rate script by Carlino, who would also pen another neglected cult fave, Resurrection (1980) (as well as helming 1979’s The Great Santini).

One of the subtleties in Seconds: Will Geer's character is The Company's founder, who wants to give men a chance to be "reborn."  So why does he remain an old man?

But Seconds is also one of my personal favorites because of the acting talent involved: Randolph, Geer and Corey are among my pet performers in movies, TV and in the case of Geer and Corey, radio.  Randolph is sublime as a tortured individual who is anxious to grab for a lifeline despite all the warning signs; Geer, familiar to so many people as Grandpa Walton on (what else) The Waltons, is a courtly, avuncular soul whose cheerfulness hides a dark, diabolical purpose; Corey achieves the same sinister effect, particularly in that wonderful scene where he helps himself to a meal of roast chicken that Randolph’s Hamilton has refused (“They have a wonderful way of baking cheese on it so that it gets very crispy”) while discussing the plans for Hamilton’s “death” (a touch of black humor that Hitchcock would have, if you’ll pardon the pun, relished).  Many moviegoers consider this to be one of Rock Hudson’s finest moments onscreen (and I wouldn’t argue one whit, though Rock also had fine showcases in Giant and The Tarnished Angels), and it would eventually become a movie of which the actor was most proud.  All of the major performances in the film—Salome Jens, Frances Reid, Richard Anderson, Murray Hamilton, Khigh Deigh, Wesley Addy—are cast and played to perfection.

Murray Hamilton learns that Roy Scheider wants to close the beaches.

The man not wearing white (with the glasses and beard) is character great Karl Swenson, and though he's probably best known as lumber mill owner Lars Hanson on TV's Little House on the Prairie, his old-time radio work is what gets toasted regularly here at Rancho Yestertyear; he worked tons of soap operas like Lorenzo Jones and Our Gal Sunday...and his talent for dialects was used in the detective drama Mr. Chameleon.

The now OOP DVD of Seconds features footage of the Santa Barbara bacchanal that contains a hefty portion of female nudity, which is why the film was slapped with an R rating when it finally made its way to disc (it was snipped from the original US theatrical version at the insistence of the renowned film critics society known as the Catholic Church; Frankenheimer jokes in the DVD commentary that the edited version looked more like an orgy than the director’s cut).  Frankenheimer had also wanted to include some scenes that he originally shot of Tony Wilson paying Hamilton’s daughter (played by actress Evans Evans, aka Mrs. John Frankenheimer) a visit…but sadly, the footage of that could not be located.  I vaguely remember someone several years ago (it may very well have been Stacia, if I think hard enough about it) mentioning to me that tracking down a copy of the DVD release had become difficult because of its discontinued status…and while I certainly can understand someone being adverse to shelling out sixty bucks for a new copy on Amazon, I could see myself unfolding the billage from my wallet if I didn’t already have a copy.  But it’s probably best to wait until it makes the rounds on TCM again…John Frankenheimer’s birthday is in February, so keep your fingers crossed.



Only tonite this found itself in my inbox as we grabbed Seconds with both hands:
"I remember reading Brian Wilson's autobiography some years back....he went to see was when he was paranoid and freaking out, thought Phil Spector was trying to kill him (who knows? maybe he was!!), so he entered the theatre and the movie had already started and the first thing he heard on screen was "Good evening, Mr Wilson" upon which he totally freaked and ran out of the cinema!"

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Ivan, this is one of the few films that has achieved cult status that I like. It is an interesting story, and contrary to what I think you said about the 60s being vibrant filmmaking period, it fits into the pessimism that was creeping into Hollywood in the mid to late 1960s. This is by far Hudson's best dramatic role.

Stacia said...

This is one of my favorite films, and such a terrific post on it, too, Ivan. Seriously, this is fantastic.

The commenter above is right, Seconds was long known by pop music fans as the movie that threw Brian Wilson into quite an attack of paranoia. In retrospect, his thoughts on Phil Spector may not have been as far off as people thought a few decades ago.

This movie really is character actor heaven. It's always surprised me how cruel the critics were to it, though like I always say, critics (of which I consider myself one) are jerks and often seek to destroy that which they do not understand.

Maybe I am the person you were talking to about the DVD, because I was in a panic a couple years ago, finally finding it on a website just as they sold out, paying $29.99 but knowing it would cost more soon. And it does. Yeesh.

I have got to work the Applied Theory of Toupees into my posts more often.

Mike Doran said...

I know I've mentioned this on some other blogs I visit, but I can't recall if I've said it here:

Fun Fact about Khigh Dhiegh -
- although he spent his whole career playing Asian characters, he was actually Kenneth Dickerson, born in New Jersey of Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese parentage.

My earliest memories of Khigh Dhiegh are in TV commercials for a now-defunct brand of sour-fruit-flavored candy; he was playing a Dr.No-type opposite a spiffy British spy (played by - if memory serves - King Donovan).
I was also able to see Manchurian Candidate in an early CBS-network showing circa 1965 (I'm certain of the date because I was in high school at the time; how this lines up with the Sinatra embargo is something I'm still trying to figure out.).
I also saw Seconds first on TV; the waxed mustache made Dhiegh look even weirder than usual.
And all this was before Hawaii Five-O.
And all of that was before I found out about Kenneth Dickerson.

But in the wise words of Dr. Yen Lo:
"A good laugh helps to lighten the boidens of the day."

ClassicBecky said...

One of your very best reviews, Ivan, of a movie I have always thought was just fantastic. I must have first seen it when it was on AMC (when AMC was still a decent station), and I fell in love with it. Chilling, dark, lots of pathos, paranoia -- right up my alley. Your analysis of the title is really an excellent piece of writing: "The title is also susceptible to multiple could also symbolize how precious the moments of all our lives really are, and how they ebb away with the simple ticking of a clock." Good stuff!

I must really like Carlino's work because both Resurrection and The Great Santini are at the top of my great movie list. And as for the music, well, when I first saw Anthony Hopkins' "Magic" and was hypnotized by that music, I thought this guy is really special at putting music to eerie, disturbing stories.

Really one of the best reviews I've read, Ivan ... as Lily Tomlin used to say "and that's the truth ... pthhh."