Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Short Take: Seconds

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Seconds (1966) is often considered the third film in director John Frankenheimer’s so-called “paranoia” trilogy, after The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). It tells of a New York banker (John Randolph) who, dissatisfied with his life, falls into the clutches of an underground business that offers him the opportunity to start again in a new identity. Coerced into accepting, he is subjected to radical plastic surgery and, played from that point on by Rock Hudson, takes over the life of a California-based painter. But he has trouble adjusting, and he ultimately runs afoul of the company that gave him his new life. The script by Lewis John Carlino, based on the novel by David Ely, is a macabre suspenser that satirizes the unfulfilling conformity of America’s success-driven culture. Frankenheimer, working with the superb cinematographer James Wong Howe, comes up with a visual style that serves it brilliantly. The Hudson character is told at one point, “You are in your own dimension.” Frankenheimer and Howe seem to apply that idea to every visual element: everyone and everything seems to exist on its own plane of reality. Everybody seems isolated from everyone else, and interaction invariably feels as if the participants’ space is being invaded. It’s a superb visual analogue for anxiety and alienation. These effects are most dazzling in the non-studio location shooting; the characters often seem imposed onto the footage of the activity around them. The technique reaches its crescendo in a bacchanal sequence where Frankenheimer turns the meaning in on itself; the usual tack is followed of emphasizing the Hudson character’s discomfort at what’s going on, but the character is then elegantly integrated into the action when he gives over to the celebration. The camera angles occasionally get needlessly hyperbolic, but those are hiccups. The story could use some more snap, and Hudson's performance is flatter than stale soda, but this is still one of most impressive Hollywood films of the 1960s.

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