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Seconds and John Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy”: An exploration of genre, style and significance
In this dissertation I will examine the film Seconds (Frankenheimer, 1966) using genre theory and textual analysis to explain how and why director John Frankenheimer set up specific kinds of shots, how Frankenheimer tells the story, Frankenheimer’s casting choices, and the cultural significance of the film.
I will include comparisons with the other two films in Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy,” Seven Days in May (1964) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), with particular attention to how these films explore themes of paranoia and identity, and compare them to a variety of other films in the thriller/political thriller genres and other genres, i.e. horror, science fiction, and the mid-life crisis film, that have similar themes but may look at them in different ways.
Cook and Bernink (1999) define genre as “creative conventions in film language” that form the basis of “a specific aesthetic system” (p. 81), and link it closely to concepts of individual authorship in cinema and auteur theory. Hayward (2000) and others expand on this by discussing how genres are constituted and how this includes specific elements of visual language, dialogue style and other creative conventions. Seconds is remarkable because it uses genre conventions in unconventional ways. I will argue that it does so deliberately, along with choices made by cinematographer James Wong Howe, Frankenheimer’s director of photography on Seconds, to unsettle audiences and so convey the film’s core themes of uncertain identity and paranoia.
Chapter 1: The story and themes of Seconds.
Seconds was one of two films made by John Frankenheimer in 1966, the other being Grand Prix, as different from Seconds as could be. Grand Prix was better-known and financially successful, and unlike Seconds is still in print. However, Seconds was the more interesting and influential film.
Seconds is based on a pulp novel by David Ely (1963), in which Arthur Hamilton (played in the film by John Randolph) is told by a friend that a secret organization referred to as “The Company” can help unhappy wealthy people create new lives for themselves. He goes through the process and his death is staged. It is successful, with his family believing the corpse found is his, and he is transformed into a different person: Tony Wilson, played by Rock Hudson. Once a straight-laced businessman, he becomes a pseudo-bohemian painter (in the book this aspect of his identity is elaborated upon, with Wilson stating he always wanted to be a painter but lacked confidence.) He gets a beach house in Malibu, and begins a relationship with a young woman called Nora, played by Salome Jens.
However, everything starts to go wrong when he gets drunk at a dinner party and starts talking about his former life. He learns that his new neighbours and girlfriend are also all “reborns” or “seconds” like himself, sent to spy on him during his adjustment to his new life. He then breaks the rules by visiting his ex-wife, who of course doesn’t know it is him, learning that the marriage failure had been his own fault. He wants another new identity, and discusses this with the person who talked him into contacting The Company, Charlie Evans. Evans is played by Murray Hamilton, an actor well known for his work on The Twilight Zone, to which Seconds can be compared. They both say they have found themselves stuck in a purgatory-like existence, using hobbies to occupy their time while they wait to find out what will happen to them next. Wilson finds out at the end when he thinks he will get a new identity but as he is wheeled towards the “operating theatre,” a priest arrives to give him his last rites and he realizes that he is instead going to be killed to make the next person’s faked death look realistic.
Seconds is a film about 1960s paranoia. It explores aspects of the mid-life crisis such as the wish people often have to start their lives over, feelings of having made the wrong choices in life, and the stability of individual identity. In Seconds a sinister corporation gives people the chance to start over. This seems to be a comment on consumerism and how a lot of products are sold because people are discontented with their lives, being sold a whole new life is sort of the ultimate purchase but since The Company is the one really making the choices it’s all somewhat fake, and the consequences are negative. Frankenheimer has said about the film’s themes:
“The movie says you are the result of your experiences, the result of your past. The past makes you what you are today. If you take away your past, you don’t exist as a person. And that’s what [Hamilton] tried to do and that’s why it didn’t work.” (Frankenheimer, in Armstrong, 2007: p. 114)
Armstrong (ibid.) points out that like other big businesses The Company uses manipulation and sales pitches to get clients to sign up, even making a blackmail film to force Hamilton to agree.
Consumerism was a very important theme of films in the 1960s and 1970s, with some films very positive and others having an anti-consumerist warning tone, for example Zabriskie Point (Antonioni, 1970), or The Stepford Wives (Forbes, 1975), which shares some themes with Seconds. There was also a lot of social comment at the time about empty consumer lifestyles. Seconds would have tapped into this anxiety.
Identity is another issue that was coming to the surface during the 1960s: Derry (2002) writes that “the acquired identity in Seconds reflects on the identity crisis of an entire age” (p. 179). Seconds addresses this generally on the theme of the mid-life crisis, as do other films, such as Save the Tiger (Avildsen, 1973) and The Swimmer (Perry, 1968), and this is later echoed in The Game (Fincher, 1997).
These films imply that at mid-life people realize they have made the wrong choices in life and they don’t have that long to do what they really wanted to do. As a result they go mad, get divorced and react in other ways. Usually in films it all ends badly.
Seconds also in a less direct way talks about political and sexual identity. A good example of this is Frankenheimer’s choices about his cast and crew. Rock Hudson has stated Seconds was one of only two films he made that he was proud of (Hudson and Davidson, 1986). Hudson’s sexual orientation was well-known in Hollywood even though it was kept a secret from everyone else until he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, and he had been forced into fake dates and a fake marriage to cover it up (Yarbrough, 1985). There is a strong subtext in the film about closeted gay life. For example, in the party scene most of the people Hudson makes contact with are men, and the one woman he speaks with is talking about how she changed her sects, which he mistakes for how she changed her sex. Hudson pursued the role himself rather than being Frankenheimer’s first choice, but the director agreed he turned out to be a very good one. Frankenheimer is quoted as saying:
“If you look at it, he (Hudson) was kind of an invented personality, wasn’t he? And he identified with this guy, the fact if you destroy your past then you’re nothing, you can’t function. And he had to, to become Rock Hudson, had to really destroy his past.” (Frankenheimer, in Ecksel, 2008)
Hudson was better known for romantic comedies, and although today he can be seen as a really inspired casting choice because placing him in this role must have been very unsettling for the audience, at the time his fans were not ready to see him in a dramatic role of this kind, leading to the film doing poorly at the box office. Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier were among the director’s original selections for the lead role in Seconds.
The Hollywood blacklist also is part of the background of Seconds. In the 1950s certain actors and directors were accused of communist sympathies and then were blacklisted (not hired) by the film industry, and some were asked to testify against others. Many members of the cast were previously-blacklisted actors, including John Randolph, Jeff Korey and Nedrick Young (Internet Movie Database, 2013). This fact leads to another way of reading the film, as exploring 1950s and 1960s paranoia about secret communist infiltrators in America. Another film in Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy,” The Manchurian Candidate, explores this as well, with its character Senator John Yerkes Iselin an obvious caricature of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had been investigating so-called communists in the senate when the House Un-American Activities Committee was interrogating actors, directors and writers suspected of being communists.
The blacklist had a big impact on anyone working in movies. People who were blacklisted were often harassed by the FBI, made to feel like outcasts, and exposed in the media. That meant there was pressure to keep quiet about your political views, and avoid anyone who was targeted. People working in film would always have to worry about malicious gossip, for example the owner of The Hollywood Reporter used anti-communist stories about popular actors and writers to get revenge on studio bosses (Wilkerson, 2012).
For Seconds, Frankenheimer hired actors who had been unable to work for a long time so they could have a real “second life.” The blacklist technically finished in 1960 after Dalton Trumbo wrote Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960) and wasn’t credited and someone let slip that fact, but many formerly blacklisted actors, writers and directors were still struggling to get back to work in the mid-1960s (Douglas, 2012).
The issue of honest identity, whether it was gay or left-wing identity or some other aspect, was becoming very crucial in the 1960s. Many people were questioning what they had been told about how they should live or what they should think, coming out of the very conformist 1950s. It is significant that Hudson’s character chooses to be a bohemian painter in California, trying on a kind of identity that many people might secretly wish for. It is also interesting however that this identity doesn’t work out for him: Seconds is a dark film where things are not neatly wrapped up in a happy ending. What the characters think they want seems to be as empty as what they left behind and maybe even more so. As Wilson says to Evans at the end of the film: “The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important. That I was told to want. Things, not people or meaning, just things. California was the same. They made the same decisions for me all over again, and they were the same things really.”
Frankenheimer makes big business the villain of the story, selling his characters a false idea of a better life and even murdering them. He has said he wanted it to be a “horrifying portrait of big business” (Armstrong p. 112). This fits with the questions many people were asking about business at the time, and this concept is later explored by Alan J. Pakula in The Parallax View (1974) (see Chapter Four).
Chapter 2: Seconds: Genre, style and Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy”
Most Hollywood films in the 1960s up to the release of Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967) were straightforward genre movies, you could fairly easily define them as comedies, musicals, dramas, thrillers etc. As noted earlier, films in a genre share a set of creative conventions that tie them together, for instance Westerns share a set of typical characters, settings, and types of shots, even though the exact plots of the films may be different. Although he didn’t write very much about films, in film studies many writers reference Roland Barthes’ work on cultural myth (2009) and discuss how film genre conventions and genre films can be used as examples of this. Grant writes: “The elements of cultural myth that Barthes identifies can all be found in genre films: the stripping of history from the narrative, the tendency towards proverbs, and the inability to imagine the Other…from this perspective, genre movies tend to be read as ritualized endorsements of dominant ideology” (p. 32-33). In this section I will point out some ways that Frankenheimer uses, mixes and breaks genre conventions to do the opposite, to explode cultural myths.
Frankenheimer was best known for working in the thriller genre. He started his career in television, and did many episodes of the Playhouse 90 drama series. Between 1954 and 1960 he did 152 television drama episodes on various topics (Pratley, 1998). There is an influence on his film work from his TV work, for instance the press conference in The Manchurian Candidate is shot as if it is on television, like a fly on the wall documentary (Bowie, 2006).
Frankenheimer was one of several directors who made the move from TV to film at that time including Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin. Frankenheimer also did a television drama for the Playhouse 90 series called The Comedian (1957) in collaboration with Rod Sterling, whose series The Twilight Zone is an obvious comparison for Seconds. Sterling was also the screenwriter for Seven Days in May, the middle film of Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy. In Seven Days in May there is a coup d’état to overthrow the president. The director was an early practitioner of guerilla filmmaking: for this film he used many actual locations, such as the White House, but was unable to get permission to film in some others. When he couldn’t get permission to shoot Kirk Douglas entering the Pentagon he rigged up a movie camera on a station wagon to steal the shot (Pratley, 1969). This can be seen as Frankenheimer’s past of shooting the news for television showing up in his films.
However, Stephen Bowie writes that Frankenheimer’ approach was very different from some of the other directors who moved from TV to film. “Whereas Sidney Lumet or Delbert Mann, who rehearsed and blocked their TV productions much as one would for the theatre, seemed perfectly suited to this world of emotional intimacy and physical claustrophobia, Frankenheimer reacted instinctively against it,” he writes. “He sought material and visual strategies that expanded the boundaries of what could be done in live television” (Bowie, 2006).
Film content was also changing very drastically in the 1960s, and this is reflected in Seconds. In 1960 you had Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) and Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960), two films that completely changed the film scene. Peeping Tom was a complete disaster financially and almost wrecked director Michael Powell’s career, but Psycho, a more sensationalized film, was a huge success. Those two films broke the rules of what could be seen on screen in a film, becoming proto-slasher films about serial killers. Psycho can be seen as the beginning of the “New Hollywood,” the movement that changed the kinds of stories you could tell and the films that were made, with directors having control instead of the studio. This resulted in more morally ambiguous films with darker visions and without endings that wrapped everything up (King, 2000).
Frankenheimer was older than the filmmakers typically associated with the New Hollywood, such as Frances Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin, but he pushed boundaries in theme, cinematography and storytelling that were similar to and had a strong influence on the New Hollywood directors. In the 1970s Frankenheimer himself made films that were quite similar to those directors’ works, such as The Iceman Cometh (1973), and the sequel to Freidkin’s The French Connection (1971)—The French Connection II (Frankenheimer, 1975) is actually a darker film than the original. Many writers have made a case for Frankenheimer (as well as Sidney Lumet) as a kind of transitional director between the “old Hollywood” and the New Hollywood era because he was not a full part of either (Pomerance, Murray and Palmer, 2011).
One of the key aspects of the New Hollywood was its move away from stereotypical “genre films,” as shown by deliberately breaking genre conventions and combining genres. Geoff King notes that this was not something entirely new, but genre had always been important in the film industry: “For Hollywood studios, genre identity is one of a number of ways to hedge against the risks of investing money into expensive productions. For the filmgoer, it is a way of guarding investments not just in ticket or rental prices but in resources of available leisure time” (King, 2000: p. 120). The New Hollywood directors took surface elements that made studios and audiences think they were getting a genre film (a gangster film or a thriller for example) but then delivered something that was not so black and white and broke the expected mould.
Wikipedia attempts to describe Seconds by saying it is “characterized sometimes as a science fiction thriller, but with elements of horror, neo-noir, psychedelia, and drama” (Wikipedia, 2013a). Frankenheimer’s mixing of genre conventions was very radical for the time, and this mix would be extreme even today. In fact even films today that play around with genre conventions tend to mix just two (for example blaxplotation Western or comedy-horror).
I believe that Frankenheimer deliberately used and then broke genre conventions to unsettle audience expectations. This interpretation fits with his cast and crew choices, the film’s cinematography, and the score, all of which seem to be done with that plan in mind.
Seconds is at root a science fiction film because the plot revolves around a non-existent technology, but does not fit into the usual confines of that genre. As Keith Johnston (2011) defines it, “all science fiction contains, regardless of medium…a potential future development within science or the natural world, caused by human or unknown force, which has to be understood, tamed or destroyed.” (p. 1) He goes on to note that science fiction films are typically dramas (although they may also have comic or romantic elements) concerned with “the future, artificial creation, technological invention, extraterrestrial contact, time travel, physical or mental mutation, scientific experimentation, or fantastic natural disaster” (ibid.) As in science fiction books they can be about alternate realities in the present or even the past, not just the future. In Seconds there is scientific experimentation that causes physical mutation, and without this the plot wouldn’t work. It takes place in a world like that of the time when it was made, but with the difference that this technology not available at the time changes what is possible. In this way it is similar to The Stepford Wives or Westworld (Crichton, 1973), because the introduction of a new scientific or technological possibility is causing a problem around identity that has to be dealt with.
However unlike those films or most other science fiction films, the solution is not presented as a better technology, a hero or an escape plan. Because the real problem is inside Wilson, or inside consumer society, there is no escape possible. So although there are sequences that focus on how the transformation is done (the surgery scenes) and descriptions of how the person starts a new life there is also a focus on Wilson’s internal life and this is where the “horror, neo-noir, psychedelia” part shows up on screen.
The film features surreal, nightmarish opening credits by Saul Bass. It then uses a strange psychedelic dissolve into New York’s Central Station to a first-person shot, then switches to very extreme close-ups of Arthur Hamilton utilising fisheye lenses. This back and forth of perspectives continues, for example when following Hamilton through the meat-packing plant beneath the offices of The Company where a first-person shot is used but from another person’s point of view, not Hamilton’s. These anxiety-producing changes in shots are closer to what you would expect in a thriller, than in a science fiction film. However, the film does not absolutely follow the kind of fast, tense cuts and angles you would expect from a thriller either, because as Armstrong writes, Frankenheimer and Wong “squeeze and stretch their shots across the screen, lending large segments of the film the look of a nightmare” (Armstrong, 2007: p. 114). Frankenheimer’s use of black and white film also changes the viewer’s perception of the story’s time period and of reality.
Possibly the closest comparison thematically is with the books of Philip K. Dick, which have a similar focus that combines fluid identity, suburban life not being quite what it seems, and business/government conspiracy against the individual who dares to question. Dick’s novels also usually have a hallucinatory element, either drug- or mentally induced or both, which is shared with particular scenes in Seconds. People often live in “constructed realities” – for example as in Time Out of Joint (Dick, 1959) and in Wilson’s second life—and then the storyline often revolves around what happens when they question or stray outside of this, or things start to happen around them that disrupt their sense of reality, as in Ubik (1969) where events start to run backwards. This is what sets Dick apart from “space opera” kinds of science fiction writers, and sets Seconds apart from other science fiction films. The topic is conspiracies, mental experiences, how people understand each other and reality or do not, and the fear of technology, rather than fascinating technology or monsters from outer space. Dick’s books and Frankenheimer’s screenplay were written around the same time, and presumably in response to some of the same issues, and they come to similar conclusions—that there is a sinister enemy out there (government, corporation or both) but that the real enemy may be ourselves.
The book Seconds (Ely, 1963) does read as if it was a deliberate story outline for a film, and the turnaround between the film and publication of the book is only a few years, which is short for a pulp paperback to get the notice of a major director. The script was written by Lewis John Carlino, an up and coming playwright. It was Carlino’s first screenplay, and much of his later work touches on themes of existentialism ad nihilism, for example The Mechanic (Winner, 1972) and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea (Carlino, 1976).
Carlino and Frankenheimer introduced some other differences between the film and the book. In the book Wilson isn’t dragged off to be killed, he is given a drug and then talks to the head of The Company while slowly dying. The film ending is more dramatic. In the book the “seconds” hire prostitutes, while in the film the women are “seconds” just like the men, which makes the director’s point more thoroughly. Otherwise, the film is a very close adaptation. The dialogue in the film, however, is much better than in the book, more existential. The book is an averagely written pulp thriller novel. Through what Frankenheimer and his screenwriter do with the changes to dialogue and the story, the visuals, and who he chose to work on the project, he makes it much more than that.
As for the horror genre, Seconds does borrow from its conventions because of its themes. For example, the theme that there are terrible consequences for changing the human body or fate is a common theme of horror films, dating back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Wells, 2000). There have been several films that lie somewhere within or between science fiction and horror that can be seen as exploring this idea, along with Seconds. These include Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1959), The Face of Another (Teshigahara, 1966) and The Skin I Live In (Almodóvar, 2011); science fiction films such as Altered States (Chayevsky, 1980), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956), and the work of David Cronenberg.
Siegbert Prawer (1980) notes that a key aspect of the horror film is creating a feeling of terror and disorientation in the audience and this is something Seconds certainly does:
“The provision of an alternative world, an imaginative widening of the horizon of common experience, is not the least of the pleasures that audiences look for in a terror film. Having once experienced that alternative world familiar and yet different from their own they long to recapture the pleasure they felt in new variations and intensifications. The pleasure of widening experience can even be derived from being precipitated for a time in the safety of the cinema into the radical alienation of a world distorted by drugs or madness… the distorted drawings and flats of Caligari; the fish-eye lens view of Frankenheimer’s Seconds” (p. 130).
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Wiene, 1920) set the mould for psychological horror films where nothing is what is seems. Prawer claims that Seconds is terrifying specifically because of its Caligari-esque photography and distortion, tactics that have a long association with the horror genre, but more importantly because as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers the people around us may not be what they seem.
Body horror films are an extension of this idea, they are about disruption and decay of the body as the source of horror. A typical example is Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) with its themes of mind control and remote body alteration, but even more experimental films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) can be seen to fit. The concept goes back to things like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1918) where the boundaries between alive or dead, human or monster are blurred. In Seconds the experience of total body modification, sold to Wilson as a great new life, turns out to be horrific. The viewer is invited to see the frightening reality through both the surgical films, a part Wilson doesn’t see as he is anaesthetized, and the first-person shots that offer the actual experience of living in and then being killed in this other body. The slaughterhouse scene early in the film is also a fairly obvious reference to the idea of the human body being just a piece of meat to The Company.
The style of Seconds.
The style of Seconds is what really sets it apart from other films that try to tell superficially similar stories, such as The Game (Fincher, 1997) or Face of Another (Teshigahara, 1966). It is technically brilliant, and proves that style can be substance. The style is down to the collaboration between Frankenheimer and his director of photography on the film, James Wong Howe.
Howe was one of the most respected cinematographers in film history. A Chinese-American, he was nominated for 10 Academy Awards for his work, including one for Seconds. Howe had started working in the 1920s and worked with many top directors including Cecil B. De Mille, Howard Hawkes, Martin Ritt, and David O. Selznick. He had a background that included silent films and film noir, for example noir-precursor The Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1934), but also The Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick, 1957), another brilliantly photographed film.
Howe’s nickname was “Low-Key” because he was well-known for using low light and deep shadows to set a mood or give actors a particular appearance. He also employed unusual lenses and film stock, and experimented with shooting techniques, having been an early adopter of dolly shots back in the 1920s. He was also the first cinematographer to use deep focus, ten years before Gregg Toland made the technique famous in Citizen Kane (Wikipedia, 2013b). The deep focus technique is used extensively in Seconds, which is one of the reasons it is so powerful visually.
Like many members of the Seconds cast, Howe had found it hard to find work for political reasons. He had been “greylisted” because his wife, scriptwriter Sanora Babb, had been a member of the Communist party (ibid.). However, Howe had worked on Hud (Ritt, 1963), a western in which the way he shoots the landscape using very high-contract black and white is almost apocalyptic and science-fiction-like, making the West look like another planet.
Howe never worked with Frankenheimer before or after Seconds, so since he was one of the most in-demand cinematographers in the business presumably he was chosen specifically for what he could bring to the film, evidence that Frankenheimer saw the look of the film as crucial to conveying the feelings he wanted audiences to have when watching it. Wilshire (2001) calls this Frankenheimer’s “most important directional decision” and Pratley (1969) quotes the director as saying:
In Seconds, the distortion was terribly important. The distortion of what society had made this man, what the Company then turned him out to be, and finally when he was going to his death, everything had to be that complete distortion of reality and the fact that it was all just utter nonsense. Not the film, the irony of it. (p. 145)
Any director after Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) would have taken some inspiration from Welles as he can be said to have invented modern filmmaking. Citizen Kane is very much a special effects film even though some people don’t see it that way, and this is echoed in Seconds with its reliance on film effects. Frankenheimer’s TV background also brings in touches from documentary filmmaking such as the surgery scene, which includes actual footage of nose operations (which he filmed himself after the cameraman passed out).
One technique used extensively in Seconds is deep focus, where everything in the frame is in focus instead of just what’s in the foreground. Such shots can include deliberate distortion of part of the image. Deep focus shots can make a film look more realistic or even hyper-realistic, and they have the effect of getting the viewer to see that everything in the frame is connected. Instead of the filmmaker saying “focus on this main person,” the deep-focus shot encourages the viewer to look at the image longer. In these kinds of shots the cinematographer has to think very carefully about how the shot is composed (mise en scene).
Howe also uses many shots where the audience sees the scene through Hamilton/Wilson’s eyes. Derry writes: “the many point-of-view shots invite audience identification with Hamilton” (p. 179). However, instead of giving the audience a stable experience from this point of view, the film’s cinematography puts the viewer off-kilter and is unsettling—as Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s experience of watching it revealed.
Wilson identified deeply with the film because at the time he was trying to get away from public life and live performance, partly due to his drug use problems but also because he felt uncomfortable with his public identity as part of the Beach Boys and fan attention. Wilson came into the film late, and the first thing he heard was the line “Come in, Mr Wilson,” precipitating a lengthy psychotic break, no doubt inspired by the strange vision of the film combined with his own state of mind (Wilson, 1996).
For the average viewer the impact of the visuals would not be so extreme but it was certainly confusing, interesting and thought-provoking.
Frankenheimer’s final addition to disorienting the viewer through style was the soundtrack, which is by Jerry Goldsmith, one of the great film composers. Unlike many of Goldsmith’s other scores, such as Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)or Alien (Scott, 1979), it is very abrasive and discordant. It begins with a distorted organ or organ-like sound, much more experimental than Goldsmith’s usual work and a clear link to the horror genre. This is another thing done to create a particular mood in the audience.
Seconds and Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy”
Although Seven Days in May, Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate were not deliberately made as a trilogy, they have since been called Frankeheimer’s “paranoia trilogy” because of the themes that run throughout all three films (Pratt, 2001). These are paranoia, conspiracy, and the Cold War, themes that are most often seen in the thriller genre.
In each of these films, a conspiracy is out to get someone, all were based on pre-existing books (two on very successful novels), and all three are in black and white, although colour film was in wide use at the time. This stylistic departure from the typical is one of several ways they depart from the genre conventions of the thriller: they have a more expressionistic style, and use an alternative-reality vision. The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds are surreal, while Seven Days in May takes a more conventional military drama/thriller approach, commenting on current events but also placing them in the not-too-distant future.
As they were based on earlier novels, both Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate were conceived of before the JFK assassination, despite obvious similarities; in fact John F. Kennedy was actually consulted during the making of Seven Days in May, and when asked if he thought the plot was plausible, he replied that he did think so (Frankenheimer, 2000). Frankenheimer became a close friend of Robert Kennedy later on, and was with him right before his assassination (Pratt, 2001).
However despite these links with reality, his “paranoia trilogy” films do not try to be documentary-like, which sets them apart from many other political thrillers. For instance, as Pratt writes: “by recirculating and giving an almost hyperreal quality to (and thus ridiculing and critiquing) the most extreme 1950s paranoia about enemies within the nation, The Manchurian Candidate, through its mood of paranoia and suspense as well as its dark, ominous, sometimes even comedic images, made a significant early contribution to an emerging oppositional, resistance subculture of the 1960s” (ibid., p. 94).
These films can be compared with another trilogy of political thrillers directed by Alan J. Pakula: Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). One key difference is that Pakula’s films are set in a realistic milieu, and in the case of All the President’s Men are based on actual contemporary events. The Parallax View is closer because it takes a more surreal turn at the end.
The Parallax View is a very thinly disguised film about the John F Kennedy assassination. A reporter tries to investigate the assassination of US senator, uncovers a link to a company called the Parallax Corporation, and goes inside the company to learn more. The company them frames the reporter for the murder.
Unlike Frankenheimer, Pakula picked his cast from the hip young actors of the day, making more typical box office choices. He also probably worked a bit closer with the actors than Frankenheimer, although The Manchurian Candidate was somewhat of a Frank Sinatra project so in that film Sinatra did have more influence than an actor typically would, including ending up owning the rights to the film, and being instrumental in its re-release in 1988 (Schlesinger, 2008). The Manchurian Candidate was considered a ‘lost film’ for 25 years. To an extent this has happened with Seconds as well, as it is out of print, was never released in the UK where it is still rated ‘X’ by the BBFC (2013).
Pakula and Frankenheimer were both making points about the negative power of corporate control. In Seconds the control is of individual people, but in The Parallax View it is control of governments and the news.
Pakula’s Klute is more of a noir film as it is a detective story, and the way it is shot does bear comparison with Frankenheimer’s work, possibly because they are drawing on the same film noir sources. Martin Scorsese (2012) has said: “There are movies that change the whole way in which films are made, like Klute, where Gordon Willis’s photography on the film is so textured, and, they said, too dark. At first this was alarming to people, because they’re used to a certain way things are done within the studio system. And the studio is selling a product, so they were wary of people thinking that it’s too dark.”
In this dissertation I have explored how breaking genre conventions and the use of cinematic techniques elevated Seconds into much more than the genre science fiction or thriller film it easily could have been in the hands of a different director. Seconds has its critics then and now, but continues to be a very unique film from a unique time in cinema history.
As my examples have shown, Seconds has been very influential, with echoes visible in the science fiction and horror genres particularly, including more recent films like The Game (particularly the office scene, which is very reminiscent of the party scene in Seconds), The Skin I Live In and the work of David Cronenberg.
It is a unique take on the science fiction genre that asks deep questions about corporate greed, and the fact that you can’t change your past. Frankenheimer suggests that while you could change your life, you cannot do it by buying something from a company. Science fiction is always really about the present, even when stories purport to be about the future, and Seconds is certainly a film that’s along those lines.
Its stylistic influence on films like Eraserhead is undeniable, and it has achieved a small cult following that would increase but for the lack of availability. The film is still most widely known because of its connection with Brian Wilson.
Its influence has sadly not been as great as The Manchurian Candidate, which has a strong place in the public consciousness both because of its artistry and its urban-legend connection with Lee Harvey Oswald and the JFK assassination. Seconds does however bring surrealism to a genre not normally done that way, along with a different plot line than the usual thriller.
Obviously the political thriller has been an important genre within American film, but there are parallels in other national cinemas, such as Greek/French director’s Costa-Gavras ’ Z (1969), State of Siege (1972), and Missing (1982), which are more overtly political than Frankenheimer’s work.
These films are all based on true events, or fictionalised version of true events as in the case of Z, whilst Seconds is entirely fictional. These films also draw even more on the documentary film genre than Seconds (or the other parts of the “paranoia trilogy”) to add realism. This can be seen as a lingering effect of the blacklist, which even in the mid-1960s made it difficult to make a mainstream Hollywood film that was overtly political and remain working. Frankenheimer’s casting choices were more political than the script.
As the quotes from Frankenheimer used earlier in this essay show, he was a socially conscious filmmaker. Some of his later films, such as Year of the Gun (1991) and three TV drama films George Wallace (1997) Against the Wall (1994), and Path to War (2002). This last was a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as he tried to decide if he should withdraw or escalate the war in Vietnam, and many consider it real return to form. These films are social comment about some key events of the 1960s and 1970s, but more about violence and its effects on people and society than overt political statements.
Seconds certainly stands out in the filmography of Rock Hudson, an actor better known for his light comedies and his work with director Douglas Sirk. Since the 1970s most readings of Sirk (for example, Camper, 2006) recognise that his films were intended as social critiques, allowing Hudson’s performances to be examined in conjunction with Seconds.
Hudson said about Seconds that it was “controversial as hell — a horror film that is bizarre … frightening. I play a sixty-year-old man, a ‘reborn.’ I’ve had a facelift, and there’s a before and after, and for most of the picture I’m the ‘after.’ At the Cannes Film Festival they compared it to the Faust story” (Hudson and Davidson, quoted in Ecksel, 2008). He obviously identified with the film very much. And as this quote shows, Seconds can also be seen as a thoughtful modern updating of the Faust legend. This has been the topic of many films from a lost Georges Méliès silent in 1897 to Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (2009) and his later opera of Faust (2011). In the Faust story, the desire for eternal life and great knowledge turns out to have terrible consequences (Hedges, 2005). In Seconds, the lead character also wants a new and better life but in reality the cost is too dear.
For Frankenheimer himself, Seconds was a very personal film. The director has said it is the only one of his films that he could watch over and over (Frankenheimer, 2002). It was filmed in two houses that he had lived in himself, and even the set decoration featured many of the director’s own possessions (Internet Movie Database, 2013). It is also a strong expression of its director’s vision:
Many of my films concern the individual trying to find himself in society and trying to maintain his individuality in a mechanized world. I do feel that society wants everybody to be exactly the same. It’s so much easier. I think the theme of the indomitability of the human spirit is very much there, and the fight against regimentation. When we talk about life my philosophy is that you have to live your life the way it is. You can change it but you can’t change who you are or what you’ve done before. And you have to live with that. I think that point was very well brought out in Seconds (1966), that’s what the film is all about. (Frankenheimer, in Pratley, 1969, quoted in Ecksel, 2008)
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