Monday, March 20, 2017

Second Sight

Here's an oddball for you: John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966). The title sequence by Saul Bass gives you a good idea how it will play out: close-ups of a man's face in a distorting mirror in black and white, with a disorienting Jerry Goldsmith score.

It follows John Randolph, a middle-aged banker as he takes the commuter train home. Someone is following him through Central Station, someone who seems to have the camera strapped to his back, filming over his shoulder. These kinds of odd POV shots, as well as fisheye lenses and other distortions, give the whole film an air of paranoia and unreality. It seems that Mr. Randolph has had an invitation from a dead man.

He goes to the address he's been given and gets directed from spot to spot, until he gets to a meat packing plant, where he's loaded into the back of a truck, like so much... yeah, you got it. It turns out the scheme is this: A shadowy organization, run by Will Geer, will fake your death, give you a new face, body, home, career, everything, all for a small portion of your earthly wealth. And so John Randolph becomes Rock Hudson.

Hudson's new life involves a house in Malibu, a career as a painter (with moderate commercial success already set in motion). He feels aimless at first, but he meets a cute girl on the beach, Salome Jens. She's a mature bohemian blonde, just the kind of woman for the man that he has become. She takes him to a wild beatnik bacchanal, which he is too square to dig, until he starts to enjoy it. Soon he's throwing drunken cocktail parties, but maybe he's getting a little too into it. Is this really the life he wanted?

There's so much in this movie on so many levels. The commodification of lifestyle was one that got me thinking: that the bohemian life Rock Hudson chose was just as pre-fab and inauthentic as his life as a suburban banker. I should also mention the scene where he visits his ex-wife and sees how little effect his death had on anyone. She doesn't even miss him. His death is a chance to remodel.

But the camera is the real star. It's wielded by the inestimable James Wong Howe, who is using every trick in the book. I wonder if Saul Bass had any influence beyond the credits - this reminds me a little of Bass' Phase IV. I guess the influence would have run the other way.

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