I don’t recall the specifics, but my father introduced me to this movie–perhaps he was watching it at the time, or perhaps he’d just purchased it. Either way, I recall gathering the concept and Frankenheimer’s involvement and deciding that I would wait to watch it until I had my own copy of it. I immediately discovered it was out of print–that oh-so-human impulse made it that much more alluring–even as I stepped away from movies and collecting of DVDs,¹ it was the one movie I had enough of an itch to poke for when I’d wander through shops, hoping for an unwittingly cheap copy to appear. Oddly, it was on a whim in checking on a shelf of used Criterions that I discovered not only the copy I just watched, but that there was indeed now a Criterion edition of it.
Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a man walking through life–as many protagonists seem to be–in a marriage, job, and life that has last its lustre. His wife Emily (Frances Reid) makes her attempts, but between his standing feelings and a mysterious series of notes and phone calls seeming to come from his deceased friend Charlie asking him to follow some rather vague instructions–go to an address, give his name as “Wilson”–that he finds himself following. In a strange and nondescript company, he has peculiar experiences and meets Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey), who explains the process Charlie has been encouraging Arthur into. And so Arthur becomes Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson), a successful but minimally famous painter, and meets fellow California resident Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), and works at his new life.
The most striking elements of this movie are readily apparent, and rapidly so. Cinematography from James Wong Howe was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for his work. Indeed, even more obvious, is the choice to film in black-and-white (in 1966, when even television was broadcast in colour!–also the last of Frankenheimer and Howe’s black-and-white films). But comfortably and carefully constructed frames, off-kilter camera angles, hand-held shots, and actor-mounted cameras decades before their most prominent usage are expert in creating both cinematic atmosphere and emotional description of all of the characters. There’s an uncomfortable intimacy in the shots where our protagonist is “still” Arthur: it’s fascinatingly different from the discomfort Howe and Frankenheimer manifest in the post-Wilson transformation, where there’s not a sense of a hollowness and itch to find a spark, so much as a fear and concern about the sudden oppression of fully available freedom.
It should not be suggested that the crew controls all of the quality elements of the movie: Hudson and Jens work very hard to paint in the facets of the primary characters, while Corey, Reid, Will Geer (playing the founder of the mysterious company, in a far cry from anything you’d find on The Waltons, despite the externally genial demeanour), and Tony’s live-in acclimation assistant John (Wesley Addy) all create memorable impressions. Along the same lines of the seeming supremacy of the visual choices, Jerry Goldsmith’s minimal and expressive score, which carries strong notes of tension-laden intrigue tinged with unexpectedly positive notes in an otherwise unhappy movie.
It’s unsurprising that Seconds was apparently booed (!) at its Cannes debut, and also unsurprising that it has now achieved rather firm status as cult classic. I was immediately struck with waves of familiarity in this oppressive visual and weird style–touches of Lynch (Eraserhead, anyway) and Aronofsky (or rather, Shinya Tsukamoto, from whom he blatantly stole the style for Pi if one is to watch the latter’s much earlier film, Tetsuo: the Iron Man²). It feels noticeably out of place in 1966–or, perhaps, like some sort of weird hybrid of architectural, craftsman-like, story-focused and deliberate film-making from years past and the stylism and narrative erratics of the art-house, or maybe touches of the French New Wave. Curiously, the elements that seem to drift in from past film-making are more the work of Howe and camera operators than they are the actors who were present in the sorts of dramatic films that came to mind–not that Howe didn’t work in the business for decades prior himself, but it seems a more deliberate choice as a result.
¹I’ve still failed to move on to Blu-Ray. I don’t think this will ever change.
²Why this connection has always been referenced so mildly, I’ll never know. Unless I’ve completely lost my mind, there are scenes practically stolen wholesale. Pretty sure I haven’t lost my mind–at least, not on that bit of knowledge.