What’s Mark Borchardt watching? John Frankenheimer’s Seconds
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Every now and then, The A.V. Club wonders “What’s Mark Borchardt watching?” So, we asked the Milwaukee filmmaker and he told us about John Frankenheimer’s “foray into the fantastic,” Seconds.
When you think ’60s films, you generally conjure up a gamut of images from hippie hair blowin’ in the wind a la Easy Rider; young, impetuous love on the run via Bonnie And Clyde; or, if you’re of the pre-revolutionary cultural persuasion, harmless fun in the sun courtesy of Beach Blanket Bingo and other like-minded incarnations. But dig deeper below the surface of thickly laid populist offerings, and you‘ll find John Frankenheimer’s weird foray into the fantastic, Seconds.
Frankenheimer, who brought us the psychologically chilling cold war thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as well as The French Connection II (1975) and Black Sunday (1977), gives us an unnerving portrait of loss of identity as well as radical re-emergence in this 1966 offering. In the opening credits, the tone is immediately set as we are confronted with a nightmarish montage of eerily distorted close-ups of facial features that fill the screen, metaphorically foreshadowing both the freaky hallways of narrative soon to commence, as well as a portrayal of individual identity warped by forces out of one’s control.
The protagonist, played by John Randolph, falls right into the role of everyman Arthur Hamilton, a homely, middle-aged automaton firmly entrenched within the deep confines of his pedestrian life (a stagnant marriage, a life-sucking job, a house in the suburbs, you get it). His fate is seemingly sealed forevermore—that is, until the phone starts ringing. Out of the blue, these persistent, unnerving calls haunt our bewildered man. Uncanny as it seems, one of his dead friends appears to be somehow oddly alive and would like to meet. At least that’s what the phantom claims.
This cryptic directive fulfilled, Hamilton finds himself in the mysterious labyrinth of “The Company,” and at the behest of its elderly but insistent leader (Will Geer). Escape from the mundane grind of bourgeoisie life is guaranteed and a fresh identity is offered. And it’s not just a new ID card. In a foreboding heart-to-heart with the firm’s persuasive president and a little hint of blackmail thrown in, Hamilton is brought on board. With an intensive amount of reconstructive surgery he’s about to say goodbye to it all. And what does he really have to lose other than a life unlived?
Once the surgical bandages are off, Hamilton is now transmogrified into the eventually (it takes time to heal and strengthen) handsome Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson, of all people), and is relocated to Malibu, California and set up in a swank beach house as a respected artist. It’s not long before he meets an intense but sympathetic woman, Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), and they soon discover the commonality of having left former lives behind. But as with many twists in this narrative, she too is not who she appears to be.
In his new artistic disposition, Wilson shortly finds himself surrounded by a convivial coterie of freewheeling friends, and the drinks and the good times flow. But even this newly appealing societal ring begins to show its cracks, as these people still only want “things.” Horrifically, he’s come full circle and is again besieged by inbred plastic archetypes of the system. His only maddening option is to escape once more.
A cornucopia of innovative camerawork abounds, breaking the stagnant conventions of prosaic filmdom: Kubrickian-style wide-angles come to life, pivoting, tracking, on the move, breathing even more sinister cinematic fervor into this nightmarish world. Famed cinematographer James Wong Howe (Algiers, Picnic) provides the provocative compositions, utilizing unnerving close-ups and revelatory wide shots in jarring juxtapositions of observed spatiality. The fact that Seconds is shot in black and white in an era of prevailing color lends to it a further otherworldly feel, and the hauntingly effective score by Jerry Goldsmith seals the deal.
It’s a film you might be inclined to see more than once in an attempt to decipher its prism of intrigues, so for the initial screening, let the phantasmagoric tides wash over you, sink in and digest, then make further heads or tails of it.