It’s no surprise that John Frankenheimer’s Seconds wasn’t a hit when it was released in 1966. What’s surprising—shocking, really—is that it was made at all. Coming off The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days In May (as well as the great if financially unsuccessful The Train), Frankenheimer was a hot commodity with a gift for taut action and conspiratorial thrills, but Seconds attempts neither. In a sense, it’s a psychological thriller, but the story of a middle-aged bank manager (Arthur Hamilton, played by John Randolph) who fakes his own death and is reborn as a bohemian painter with the body of Rock Hudson is too unsettling to allow for vicarious thrills. In spirit, it’s closer to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, released the same year, than any product of the Hollywood system.
In 1966, that system was dying, and so was Hudson’s career. Past 40, though hardly looking it, he’d come to the end of his life as a romantic lead, and with the gay liberation movement on the historical horizon, his closeted double life must have weighed even more heavily on his muscular shoulders. (Hudson was still in the closet when he died, of AIDS-related illnesses, in 1985; that an icon of American masculinity could succumb to the “gay plague” still came as a shock to much of the country.) It’s not hard to read the story as a parable of gay existence pre-Stonewall—note the scowling disapproval rained down on Hudson’s character by his fellow “reborns” when he’s tempted to reveal his secret—but like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Seconds’ central allegory is too fluid, too audacious to be pinned to any particular meaning. In the commentary track attached to Criterion’s Blu-ray, Frankenheimer keeps a running tab on how many of the film’s actors had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. And the film’s dual worlds—one composed solely of stern-faced men in hats, the other governed by the libertinage of the surging counterculture—mirror the battle between Organization Man conformity and hippie indulgence.
Seconds’ new transfer beautifully captures the grainy, high-contrast black and white of James Wong Howe’s photography, which steals numerous tricks from the budding direct-cinema movement. That’s not to say the film makes any pretense to realism, stylistically or otherwise. It opens with an expressionistic sequence which tracks a man following Hamilton through a crowded train station; sometimes the camera seems bolted to his body; at others, both it and he seem to float through the crowd. (It’s easy to imagine Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky taking notes.) Frankenheimer’s agitated style approaches a pitch of sustained hysteria—after Randolph boards the train, the film rapidly cuts between opposing angles looking out at the platform, as if Randolph was trying to look over both shoulders at once—which peaks when Hudson follows Salome Jens to a bacchanalian orgy in the Santa Barbara hills. As the revelers march through the woods to the accompaniment of screechingly off-key recorder, Hudson grows more and more uncomfortable, his unease peaking once they start to strip down and climb into a vat of grapes. His panicked shrieks as they drag him in, compounded by the film’s use of post-synchronized sound, give the sequence the feel of a waking nightmare, though it’s not clear whose nightmare it really is.
Douglas Sirk used Hudson as a men’s-store mannequin, but Frankenheimer draws a genuine great performance out of him, pushing Hudson out on a limb and using his evident panic to feed the character’s. When he gazes into a mirror after his transformative surgery, his million-dollar face marred by Frankenstein scars, the mixture of loss and liberation is palpable, even though for Hudson’s character it’s the new face the liberates him, and for Hudson, it’s the scars.
Also this week (and last):
Aspect-ratio purists rejoice: After a social-media outcry over plans to release Shane in an “approved” 1.66 transfer, George Stevens’ classic Western hits Blu-ray in its original 1.37. The movie lacks the moral complexity of the genre’s high points; when a young boy yells for Alan Ladd’s upright gunfighter to “Come back!” he might as well be expressing nostalgia for a simpler time that never really existed. But it’s beautifully photographed, and Jack Palance’s turn as a sneering black-hat is perfectly balanced between malice and camp.
Explaining the greatness of The Muppet Movie seems like arguing that chocolate is delicious or breathable air is nice, but it’s great in a way the almost 35 years (!) since its release haven’t dimmed even slightly. In the CGI era, it’s a pure marvel how lifelike, how moving, the interaction between ping-pong ball and felt puppets can be.
Brian De Palma’s Body Double, out on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, demonstrates by contrast how human beings can be as lifeless as a pile of cloth. Though it’s intriguing as De Palma’s most explicit commentary on the subject of voyeurism, when Melanie Griffith’s is only the second-lousiest performance in a movie, that’s trouble. Even the director’s worst films have a few memorable setpieces, though, and this is no exception. (De Palma completists should note that his supremely ill-advised Wise Guys, with Danny De Vito and Joe Piscopo, is now out from Warner Archive.) Also available from Twilight Time: The Disappearance, Stuart Cooper’s follow-up to the Criterionized Overlord, which stars Donald Sutherland as a hitman whose wife goes missing, and Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer’s stylish Brit noir, with a shiny Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley yelling “Yes! Grosvenor!”
In new releases, there’s A Band Called Death, a documentary about the greatest black proto-punk Detroit trio that (almost) no one had heard of. Matteo Garrone’s Reality charts a man’s, and a culture’s, obsession with the faux stardom of reality TV with a scalding blend of humor and anger. Star-studded flops abound: Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton in The Big Wedding, Robert Redford in The Company You Keep, Tommy Lee Jones in Emperor, and Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore in What Maisie Knew (which could alternately have been titled The Continuing Adventures Of The Worst Parents In The World.) Luc Besson adapts the great cartoonist Jacques Tardi with less-than-great results in The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adèle Blanc-Sec, and Gerard Butler fends off terrorists and box-office dollars as a White House guard in Olympus Has Fallen. Two bright spots: Wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s first feature, I Killed My Mother, the undisciplined but inspired story of a gay teen who falsely tells classmates his mother has died, and, two weeks before the Blu-ray release, the digital debut of Pain & Gain, Michael Bay’s surprisingly unterrible satire about Floridian bodybuilders-turned-criminals.