Wednesday, June 18, 2008

John Frankenheimer: Seconds

John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate is one of the best and certainly the strangest political thrillers to have ever come out of Hollywood. The remake starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep which came a few years ago was excellent too but still the original remains unsurpassed, even by the great paranoia classics of the 70s like The Parallax View or The Conversation, of which it was definitely a precursor.

Seconds is not really a paranoia thriller though it definitely has some elements of that genre too. The story reminded me of Vanilla Sky and its original Spanish film Open Your Eyes though it must be said that use of plastic surgery to gain a new identity isn't really a unique or uncommon idea for a plot. It is not just the idea but what you do with it and how that matters and the film really scores in that department. The film begins with a sad and nervous looking man, approaching his old age named Arthur Hamilton being followed by a mysterious person and getting calls from a friend long thought of as dead. After a while we learn that he is being offered a chance to change his identity by faking his death and transform himself to a different and younger person, that is to have a "Second" go at life. The outfit making the offer identifies itself simply as "The Company." He is initially skeptical but after reflecting on it and giving a truly unsettling and disturbing monologue, reflecting on the usual stuff - how life is wasted in the pursuit of the trivial and the realization of the essential phoniness of human relations in modern society - he accepts the offer. As expected he gets a new life with the personality of Rock Hudson and an apartment in california but soon enough he realizes once again that the life of a "Second" is not what he had really expected it to be. What follows is really too shocking to reveal here and you must see it for yourself. Suffice to say that the ending is really downbeat and frightening.

As I said, the plastic surgery plot is quite cliched even when it is mixed with a sharp and biting social critique but what makes the film so powerful is its visual style and the atmosphere Frankenheimer creates with his extraordinary set-design and some of the most bizarre camera-angles and scene compositions ever. (It was the work of pioneering cinematographer James Wong Howe.) Like in The Manchurian Candidate one of his signature style is having a face in an extreme closeup in one corner of the frame with the background still in deep focus. He also uses the architectural interiors in a very evocative manner. The film also uses lot of really strange point-of-view and hand held shots all in effect create a nightmarish ambience which gives the story its power. It is a great classic, surprisingly little known even among the fans of sci-fi and horror.

There is a great essay on the film on the senses of cinema website, though I must say that the claim that it is the most depressing movie ever is obviously a hyperbole. That living a "normal" life (that is materialistic and acquisitive) is the same as wasting a life isn't really a revolutionary idea after all, however unsettling it might be to introspect on it.


puccinio said...

''Seconds'' is good but the best horror/thriller about plastic surgery is Georges Franju's ''Eyes Without A Face'' also photographed by a genius DP artist, Eugan Schufftan.

Alok said...

I agree, it is one of my favourites too. One of the saddest and most "poetic" of all horror films.

What makes Seconds so interesting is the way it suggests a social problem (the need for a second chance and the feeling that life has been a waste) rather than an isolated individual story. There is a whole corporation devoted to fulfilling the need, with their own processes and departments and there is a whole society of "Seconds"!

puccinio said...

You see shades of ''Safe'' there? I have to admit that although I was lukewarm to it at the time you gave a post to it, it's grown a lot on me. And that film deals with the theme of a society of "seconds" as well.

i think ''Seconds'' is Frankenheimer's best. Not much competetion though. Frankenheimer was a talented craftsman but essentially unambitious save for this film. ''The Manchurian Candidate'' is alright but the film's ending is too rational and much of the fine aspects comes from the screenplay by the great George Axelrod.

Alok said...

yes, thats a valid and very insightful comparison. In our societies too, as they are now, it may not be plastic surgery but this idea of taking on a new identity to get a second chance is definitely there. The Brilliant second half of "Safe" for example with that "Guru" and his wisdom... it has become so commonplace. The problem is people don't question their basic assumptions and are more interested in appearances. Going on a spiritual vacation will not help one gain a new identity if the basic life-assumptions remain the same.

About the Manchurian Candidate, I think I like it much more than you do. It is of course a brilliant screenplay but it also has a visual panache very rarely seen in mainstream Hollwood films, specially in political thrillers. Like that "garden party" scene in the beginning of the film or even the assassination sequence in the end. Too bad, he seemed to have lost his way after such a fantastic start. His Seven Days in May is also great... comparatively conventional but very well made and well acted with a nice star cast (Kirk Douglas & Burt Lancaster)