John Frankenheimer’s censor-baiting and game-changing paranoia drama was decades ahead of its time – it created the template for Blade Runner (1982), The Swimmer (1968), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Parallax View (1974) and The Truman Show (1998) to mention just a few – and underneath the sci-fi surface asked deeper questions about identity, reality and depression. And it might well qualify as reaching for the impossible dream. Kafkaesque aspects intrude. It’s as much an essay on hopelessness as it is on hope, a scorching portrayal of the human condition. Unusual camera angles and depth of field make this a visual, if occasionally challenging, delight.
Disillusioned banker Arthur (John Randolph), marriage off-kilter, reacting to a call from someone he believes is dead, gets hooked into a deal which promises rebirth. After plastic surgery and a faked death, he is reborn as a much more handsome figure (Rock Hudson), pursues a new career as an artist, is sexually re-born during an orgy, but finds memories of his old life resurfacing at inopportune moments and takes against the notion that he has to recruit friends or colleagues to go through the same process.
Although audiences had been treated to some paranoid impulses like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and films dealing with mental health such as Lilith (1964), this was the first film to touch on paranoia about big business, the unseen conglomerates controlling lives in unseen ways that directors in the 1970s pounced upon. Although a piece of breakthrough technology, the rebirth business is now just that, a business, wherein an anonymous corporation, known here only as The Company, seeks to maximize profit from human misery.
You could almost view the men who had more successfully undergone the experiment than Arthur as Stepford Husbands, guys who had created an ideal version of themselves. They could be body snatchers who have stolen a more convenient body. In another respect, the conventional Arthur turns into the rebel in society, refusing to accept this new creed. And he is gullible enough to believe his employers will accommodate his demands.
On the one hand it is a self-destructive horror story. Arthur willingly gives in to his desire for a better life regardless of the emotional cost and is somewhat surprised to find that the community in which he lives is a construct, almost as fictional as any computer game.
It is an amazing mixture of sci-fi and horror. But the sci-fi has the bleakness of Blade Runner, the hospital and offices where the future unfolds are drab, while the beach locations have an uncanny unreality. The horror is for the most part confined to two scenes – the new Arthur waking up swathed in bandages and later, strapped to a gurney, realizing too late his destiny.
But mostly what I found resonating was the examination of male psyche and its inability to deal with adversity and depression. Arthur isn’t so much desperate to wake up as a handsome hunk as to enter a new existence where he does not feel so lonely and displaced, where he can discover the humanity he has lost. It is not that he wants to be absolved of all responsibilities but wishes to be free of his current joyless life. While he becomes an improved physical specimen, he finds to his consternation that he has not shaken off the gloominess lurking in his brain.
The futuristic aspects are compounded by brilliant down-to-earth scenes. Company executive Ruby (Jeff Corey) goes into all the details of their contract while eating a chicken dinner, an old friend Charlie (Murray Hamilton) is deskbound, when Arthur arranges in his new skin to meet wife Emily (Frances Reid) he discovers his old true self had been only too apparent, cursed with unspoken longing and divorced from reality. Even romance with the outgoing Nora (Salome Jens) only offers brief reinvigoration after he partakes in an orgiastic grape-stomping event.
This is Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, and given he also directed The Manchurian Candidate, that is some accomplishment. He exercises total control in a film about total control but he is indebted to cinematographer James Wong Howe for developing new techniques to achieve a quite different, often austere, look.
It incurred the wrath of the Production Code – the U.S. censor – with scenes of full-frontal female nudity. These were all cut (though you will find them on the DVD). Whether their inclusion would have turned the film into a hit – rather than being booed at the Cannes Film Festival and a big flop at the American box office – is a moot point since, at that time, films as obscure as Blow Up (1966) had attracted big audiences due their more permissive approach. This should have been a late career transition for Rock Hudson (Strange Bedfellows, 1965) into more mature work but his excellent and brave performance was dismissed by the critics.