Thursday, April 26, 2012

Easier To Go Forward

The street I grew up on back in Scarsdale feels like a dream now. I haven’t been back in a long time—the house was sold years ago. The last time I was there, before the end of the 20th century, I found myself walking on the street past the house right around dusk. There clearly wasn’t anyone inside so I didn’t go knock on the door—I doubt I would have anyway—but the eerie nature of the light at the hour on that late fall day is there the instant I close my eyes and maybe it makes sense to me that it almost feels like I’m remembering a dream that I had. Maybe remembering years past in that way is just what I need to do.
From long ago memories of Scarsdale to the present events of Hollywood where the Third Annual TCM Classic Film Festival was recently held and I was able to pull myself away from watching TCM to actually go there to see a number of movies, presented both digitally and on actual 35mm film. The way events are scheduled in multiple places all at once it would be impossible for any one person to see everything they would want to see but my weekend included TWO FOR THE ROAD which featured a talk with director Stanley Donen (celebrating his 88th birthday!) beforehand, CHINATOWN which featured a talk with Robert Evans and Robert Towne, an early Saturday morning screening of WHO DONE IT?, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR with an appearance by director Norman Jewison, the great noir GUN CRAZY with star Peggy Cummins in person, the very nasty Anthony Mann noir RAW DEAL as well as a screening of a beautiful 35mm print of ANNIE HALL in Grauman’s Chinese which was practically a religious experience for me. Just about the biggest surprise of the weekend for me was the stunningly good 1933 William Wyler film COUNCILLOR AT LAW starring John Barrymore. Clearly based on a play (by Elmer Rice) and yet totally cinematic in every single shot, with rat-a-tat dialogue coming at such a fast clip it made my mouth drop open in awe. Part of the pleasure came from how I decided to check this one out almost on impulse. You should do that, you should be willing to try a film you know nothing about at a festival like this. Of course, you also go to see films that you’ve seen many times in the past and that was one of the reasons why I passed up what sounded like a pretty fascinating rare Clara Bow film that several people I knew were going to in favor of a late Saturday night screening of a 35mm print of John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS. For me, there wasn’t very much choice in the matter.
A film that has moved from obscurity and odd footnote in Rock Hudson’s career to genuine cult item SECONDS is unrelenting, unapologetic and one that can never be shaken off easily (“One of the most depressing science fiction films ever made” said Danny Peary in “Guide for the Film Fanatic” and the argument could be made that you don’t even need the ‘science fiction’ part of that statement) no matter how hard you try. Originally released in 1966, SECONDS is an enormously powerful work for any number of reasons but I’ve always felt a slight connection to it since a key location in the film, the house where the character played by John Randolph lives, is located in Scarsdale right around the corner from that house where I grew up. This is one case where I don’t have to use my dreams to see my old neighborhood since it’s right there in black & white a number of years before I was even born. When I met and interviewed John Frankenheimer soon before his death in 2002 (which I’ve written about here if you’re curious) I tried to get across how much this particular film, about someone from Scarsdale who winds up in California, means to me. I probably didn’t do a very good job, but it’s difficult to put into words everything about SECONDS anyway.
Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a nondescript bank vice-president who lives in Scarsdale with his wife, has a slip of paper shoved in his hand with an address on it. For several nights Hamilton has been getting phone calls from an old friend who he knows to be dead, directing him to “The Company”. Hamilton soon learns the secret, that The Company is an organization devoted to helping people restart their lives, faking their death and through an extensive series of surgeries providing them with a new identity. Hamilton is now Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson (Rock Hudson), a painter who lives in Malibu and soon begins a relationship with a woman named Nora (Salome Jens), a free spirit he meets on the beach who also has left an old life behind. But Wilson/Hamilton finds it difficult to adjust to this new life and soon realizes he needs some answers about his old identity, no matter what the cost.
At times terrifying, surprisingly emotional and startlingly experimental for any period in Hollywood history, it strikes me that SECONDS could have been presented in a somewhat blatantly satirical style that wouldn’t necessarily have drained away its larger points—it was certainly an approach taken when Frankenheimer made THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and the Jeff Corey scenes here certainly flirt with that tone—but there’s an undercurrent of searing desperation coming from its main character, searching for something that can possibly never be achieved, making it clear that within the material (screenplay by Lewis John Carlino, based on the novel by David Ely) this was certainly something that Frankenheimer responded to in a way that went beyond looking to play the material for arch social commentary and I suspect it was the same for others involved, particularly Rock Hudson. For that matter, along with the unforgettable imagery of the Saul Bass opening credits (seriously, all hail Saul Bass now and forever) is the title that declares it as “THE JOHN FRANKENHEIMER FILM” an unusual piece of phrasing that makes it stand out all the more. I guess it’s the same for me too, even if it really is a response that only I have--even watching it now after repeated viewings in the past I still find myself slightly distracted during the opening scenes in Scarsdale, wondering if my old house might be spotted in the corner of the frame as John Randolph’s wife drives him home (extreme nitpick: the house is close enough to the village that he really could just walk home from the train station but never mind) and the giant close-up of the phone that he is waiting to hear ring even has the correct prefix for the town. The way the house is photographed feels a little like a prison in itself, closing in on the empty lives of the couple who live there, strangers to each other, with the desperation of that deadness in John Randolph’s eyes telling us all we need to know about why he makes the choice he does--the scene in the bank at his job is brief enough that the staging doesn’t make a big thing of it, but I can imagine Arthur Hamilton driven to a state of near-catatonia based on hearing the sound from that security buzzer all day long alone.
Along with the film being proof that few directors have ever been as good as John Frankenheimer at depicting increasing paranoia even when surrounded by what appears to be a crowd of friendly faces, the black & white cinematography by the great James Wong Howe is also key to that feeling of absolute unease there right from the beginning in an unnerving sequence set among the bustle of Grand Central along with this company and its mysterious room of men just sitting there, waiting, that uses somewhat nefarious means to procure their clients. Even when Hamilton is reborn as Tony Wilson in the figure of Rock Hudson what you’d imagine as the eternal serenity of Malibu instead feels isolated, dead, no life anywhere, pouring rain instead of enveloping sunlight. It’s hard to imagine any type of artist, real or fake, getting any inspiration by that environment and Wesley Addy’s continual drone as his manservant John seems to make it even worse. There’s nothing there for him, any more than there is in Scarsdale, because there’s nothing in Hamilton/Wilson that has any idea how to find that life anyway. Aided by the eerie desolation of the score by Jerry Goldsmith, the mood holds and never fully goes away as if any chance Hamilton/Wilson ever had to achieve his dreams was left in the dust with other youthful delusions long ago before the film ever started, the time when he really needed to have a dream of something, anything, in the first place.
As devastating as it ultimately is, I do wish the middle section of SECONDS were a little stronger to live up to what surrounds it, as well as the powerful work as Wilson by Rock Hudson whose face is never even seen until close to the forty minute mark. It’s more a problem of what isn’t there than what is—dramatizing a void isn’t easy, after all—and maybe placing two extended sequences involving the lead character getting intoxicated back to back needed to be separated by something more to balance them out, something we never see that might help to inform the character of his place in all this. But even these sections display Hudson in a way that he was probably never seen in his career otherwise—the actor’s innate buttoned down persona clashes in just the right way with the free love environment of the Santa Barbara wine festival making him seem all the more out of place (a sequence expanded on the DVD version to include nudity, giving this 1966 film an R rating) and, as someone who has an odd interest in party scenes, watching him get progressively drunker during the gathering at his house gives me a true feeling of unease that I rarely ever get from such sequences (maybe I’ve been this way myself once or twice, even if they weren’t parties in Malibu) and by a certain point the desperation he shows feels absolutely genuine as if ‘acting’ had nothing to do with this. It really is as if both Frankenheimer and Hudson joined forces in their own heads to portray any momentous feelings of self-loathing they ever got from catching themselves in the mirror after a few too many drinks at some Malibu soiree which is in some ways what the film becomes about as much as anything.
SECONDS is about what you never find, never achieve and the longing for what you can never quite put into words. Maybe if you do find the words, you know that you can never possibly share them with anyone. The haunting final image is never explained—it doesn’t need to be, of course, since I would imagine anyone seeing the film could understand a sliver of what it represents. Apparently there was a scene where Wilson encounters a small child on the beach which would have corresponded to it and maybe was in fact the moment I wonder is missing there in the middle. Another sequence where Wilson visits Hamilton’s daughter and husband who actually get mentioned several times, played by Frankenheimer’s wife Evans Evans and Leonard Nimoy, was cut from the film and the footage is now sadly lost. Some of these gaps do make it feel like there were concerns over the bleak tone during the editing stage but regardless the impact it ultimately achieves is never lost.
As an added bonus for the TCM screening the introduction included an appearance by actor Richard Anderson who plays Dr. Innes during which he touched on how the director had told him at the time how much he related to the concept of starting over with a new life, indicated by his recent marriage to third wife Evans Evans who he remained with until his death. On the DVD audio commentary (highly recommended, as is “The Films of Frankenheimer” by Gerald Pratley for more thoughts from him on the film) the director also reveals that Wilson’s beach house was also his own beach house and though he doesn’t really get into it more than that says a great deal of the personal connection he must have felt to the material, whatever his own personal demons may have been. You could take SECONDS as simple science fiction cautionary tale, a parable for Hollywood turning someone into a movie star, Rock Hudson sublimating his true self for that stardom—when Wilson goes to visit Hamilton’s wife I can’t help but think that it has a tinge of secrecy to it, what Hudson himself was keeping secret at the time. Or you could take it as simply a statement as saying you can’t simply turn your back on your identity. This is all just one life. You can’t suddenly change course via smoke and mirrors. You are what you’ve been. You are who you are. When Rock Hudson and Wesley Addy drive away from the Hamilton house late in the film I find myself searching the corners of the frame again to see if I can tell what street they’re on. I’m fairly certain that at one point they actually do pass my house but the camera is facing in the wrong direction, towards the other side of the street. It’s frustrating to think of how close the film comes to showing what I want to see. Kind of like life.
When I first encountered SECONDS way back in college on a 16mm print I hadn’t really seen much of the other work Rock Hudson is famous for, whether the comedies with Doris Day or the dramas with Douglas Sirk. Now that I have, his work here only improves for me as time goes on with the desperation you can feel he’s holding deep down, always there, the need to care for something that he can never fully get a hold on. He’s just amazing. As is John Randolph as the Hamilton half with those ‘silences’, as Hamilton’s wife describes it, a huge part of both their work here and even if they never quite seem like the same person that is after all the point. The eyes of both men, the desperation to jolt some life into themselves is undeniable and the extended take as Randolph is asked about what he really has in his life as he makes the decision to go forward with the procedure is a truly great piece of work. Salome Jens exudes a great deal of sensuality as Nora, a figure who might be almost too ideal for Wilson and when she turns and shrieks “Just who the hell do you think you are?” at this man who, after all, doesn’t really know anymore it feel like about as devastating a moment as I can imagine. The very strong case also includes Frances Reid is also extremely affecting as Hamilton’s wife, still unsure of whatever happened to this man she married long ago, Wesley Addy’s uneasy calm as John frankly scares the hell out of me at times, Murray Hamilton is Charlie Evans and Khigh Dhiegh, also in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, is a Company employee helping to indoctrinate Wilson into his new identity as a painter. Jeff Corey is Mr. Ruby and Will Geer (repeating “Anything…at all?” as he convinces Hamilton) is the Old Man, both there to talk Hamilton into what they already know he’s going to do—interestingly, Randolph, Corey and Geer were all blacklisted, yet another real-life parallel to read into this story of a person forced into another identity.
I’ve seen SECONDS a number of times over the years and after one viewing several years ago it occurred to me that there was no way I could ever fully identify with being part of a married couple in Scarsdale moving into a disgruntled middle age. But I could certainly recognize at least a little of what that concept meant, having spent more years in that town than I would care to admit. But I now know that I will never fully grasp it because, after all, it was another life. For all I know, I’ll never be there again. But even on a Saturday Night in Hollywood at the TCM Festival during a weekend where I didn’t feel quite as alone as I often do, I got the chance to once again see SECONDS, understanding it just a little bit more and what it says about the things we desire in this life. The film already meant a great deal to me on that day I met Frankenheimer but deep down I can feel it mean increasingly more to me as time goes on. Maybe that’s what it’s supposed to do. Remind you of the hope you still need to have, of those things in life that you always need to wish for. Even if they are always just out of reach.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Heard rumor of Criterion maybe getting their hands on SECONDS for home release. Any word on a bluray? I know the Paramount DVD is out of print.

le0pard13 said...

Another absolutely splendid look at a film, Mr Peel. And as usual, the final lines in your piece nailed it like nothing before I've read. Well done, my friend.

MovieNut14 said...

When I saw this last summer, I had a feeling in my gut I was going to like it just from the opening moments alone. Turns out I was right. This is a film unlike any other. And if that Criterion rumor is true, I will be a very, very happy girl.

mmcpher said...

Thanks as always for your keen eye and taste. "Seconds" aught by now to feel like a period piece but it somehow doesn't. Maybe alienation and dislocation have become universal and timeless. It is one of Hudson's best performances. The subtext of the actor's private life adds to his portrayal of a man pondering the meaning of identity.

J.D. said...

Excellent review on an under-appreciated film. I caught this one night on TCM and it really put the zap on me. What an odd, deliciously off-kilter film. It's one that stays with you long after the credits end and indeed haunted me for days after.

Mr. Peel said...

Many thanks for the great comments. I know nothing about a Criterion Blu-ray but it sounds like a terrific idea. Here's hoping it happens and more people will get to see it.