Sunday, 17 August 2008

Seconds (1966, US, John Frankenheimer)

The third part of an unofficial 'paranoia' trilogy (which also comprised 'The Manchurian Candidate' and 'Seven Days of May'), 'Seconds' might well be one of the most downbeat films you're ever likely to see, but shows a remarkable insight into contemporary America through the eyes of a director that cinema history tends to ignore the achievements of; perhaps because he was never auteur material, perhaps also because of the poor films he was making at the end of his career. In my opinion, it's more satisfying and thrilling than 'The Manchurian Candidate' and is easily one of the most stunning films of its decade.

Utilising the immeasurable gifts of cinematographer James Wong Howe, who made 'The Sweet Smell of Success' look so bleak, Frankenheimer's masterpiece is dizzying and disorientating for the viewer - the constant use of fish eye lenses to create an impression of a world out its natural order, where nothing is as it seems, as well as extreme point of view filming methods, following individuals with intense close ups. The ominous use of these techniques in the film's opening scenes indicate straight away that we're being shown events where nothing will be normal and the tension never once lets up from this point.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) seemingly has the middle class American dream - a successful job, a wife and children, and a prestigious house in the suburbs. But at the same time, there are obvious cracks in the facade. His marriage is loveless and he barely communicates still with his wife, and his children have long since moved out and started out on their own adult lives. A peculiar incident in which he's given a piece of paper with an address piques his interest; it's for a company which can offer him what every middle aged American male wants - "real freedom". Hamilton is offered a chance to start over again - the company can fake his death, offer cosmetic surgery and set him up with a new life, the life he always wanted. And so he becomes Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a bohemian painter. However the cost of such a change is not just financial, but also psychological and emotional, as he struggles to adjust to his new life. Despite this freedom, Hamilton maybe starts to wonder whether it's all it's cracked up to be, and the consequences of not living this new lifestyle as it was intended are potentially dangerous.

Perhaps some aspects of 'Seconds' seem a bit quaint and dated nowadays - the party in which revellers dance around naked as if it were some cliched Summer of Love nonsense (but even this seems quite daring for a mainstream film of the mid-1960s), but that doesn't remotely undermine a stunning film that examines the frustrations and emotional lack in the white American middle class in such a frank and open fashion, certainly more insightfully than any other film of the age was prepared to do. The core values of this social class; achievement, prestige, success, the good life - these are all seen as not being enough for the individuals who reject this for the new life of freedom offered by "the company", though this freedom itself has conditions that are more than Hamilton can bear. A thriller that puts the viewer through the emotional wringer and which is constantly technically inventive, 'Seconds' is incomparable. 5/5

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