Seconds (1966) *****

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.

Once a Thief (1965) ****

Latter-day film noir gem with terrific cast filmed in black-and-white and often at night that crams into a taut storyline  different slants of the themes of the con-going-straight, the vendetta and the double-cross. While Hollywood at this point had imported platoons of foreign beauties in the Sophia Loren-Elke Sommer vein, there had been less interest in the male of the species with the exception of a small British contingent and possibly Omar Sharif, on whom the jury was still out. 

MGM was gambling on Frenchman Alain Delon (The Leopard, 1963) to alter industry perceptions at the same time as pushing new contract star Ann-Margret (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) along more dramatic lines away from the glossy puffery that had made her name and which relied more upon her physical assets than acting potential. Had she continued in this vein, her career would certainly have taken a different turn. 

Eddie Pedak (Alain Delon), former minor hood turned San Francisco truck driver, is happily married to Kristine (Ann-Margret) with a young daughter they both adore. But tough cop Mike Vido (Van Heflin), with a reputation for brutality, is determined to pin a murder on him in revenge for purportedly being shot by him early in Eddie’s previous career. Eddie manages for a time to resist the overtures of brother Walter (Jack Palance) to participate in a million-dollar diamond. But when he loses his job, that changes.

While the robbery naturally takes center stage, that’s not actually the dramatic highlight. Instead, it is the Eddie-Kristine relationship. Instead of Eddie being the usual down-on-his-luck ex-con, he has clearly turned his life around, so much so he can afford a $500 down payment on a small boat. A loving father, he accepts without rancor when his daughter interrupts a night-time lovemaking session. And he’s stylish, too, wearing an iconic sheepskin jacket and driving a snazzy 1931 Ford Model A roadster. Kristine just wants a normal home life, desiring domesticity above all else, but swallowing her pride when she needs to go out to work in a night club to make ends meet, for a time rendering the unemployed Eddie a house husband.

But Eddie is not all he initially seems. His tough streak has not been smothered by the good life. In a brilliant Catch-22 situation he gets violent when an employment benefits clerk refuses to accept that Eddie was fired from his job, instead believing his employer’s claim that he resigned – the former triggering relief payment, the latter zilch. But that’s nothing to the beating he inflicts on Kristine when, pride injured that he is not the breadwinner, he discovers the skimpy costume she wears for her job.

Adding to the unusual mix are Vido and Walter, the former’s brooding presence somewhat undercut by the fact that in middle age he still lives with his mother, the latter while a big-time gangster letting nothing get in the way of strong fraternal feeling for Eddie. You won’t be surprised to learn that double cross is in the air, not when Walter employs a creepy sunglass-wearing henchman Sargantanas (John Davis Chandler) who appears to have more than a passing interest in little girls. The climax, which contains both emotional and dramatic twist, involves redemption and sacrifice.

Delon has played the cold-eyed ruthless but romantic character before, but here adds depth from his paternal commitment and as a man turned inside out by the system.

Ann-Margret is the revelation, truly believable as mother first, sexy wife second, and her anguish in the later parts of the picture showcase a different level of acting skill to anything she previously essayed. This role immediately preceded her man-eater in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) which attracted far more attention and considerably bigger box office and it would have been interesting to see how her career might have panned out had Once a Thief been the critical and commercial triumph. She probably did not attain such acting heights again until Carnal Knowledge (1971). And I did wonder, as with Daliah Lavi (The Demon, 1963) before her whether her acting skills were too often overshadowed in the Hollywood mindset by her physical attributes.  

Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963) is excellent as the cop tormented by the idea that a villain is walking free, Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966) is good as always and character actor Jeff Corey (The Cincinnati Kid) puts in an appearance as Vido’s whip-cracking boss. This marks the debut of Tony Musante (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970). Watch for a cameo by screenwriter Zekial Marko, who wrote the original book.

This represented another change of pace for director Ralph Nelson, Oscar-nominated for the Lilies of the Field (1963) and also known for box office comedy hit Father Goose (1964). His  use of an experimental extremely light-sensitive camera eliminated the bulky lighting commensurate with filming at night, bringing freshness and greater freedom to those scenes. His natural gift for drama ensured that the emotional was given as much prominence as the action. Racial awareness was demonstrated by the opening scene in a jazz club where African Americans were clearly welcome, hardly the norm at that time.

The picture was shot on location in San Francisco including Nob Hill, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. To add authenticity, Nelson employed as extras or in bit parts people famed for different reasons in the area. There was Armenian Al Nalbandian who owned the Cable Car flower store on Union Square. William ‘Tiny’ Baskin was a highly successful diamond cutter, owner of the city’s biggest diamond collection – because of his size he was ideal to play a night club bouncer. The North Beach night club provided cameos for Big Al and resident jazz drummer Russell Lee, who both play themselves. Local singer Toy Yat Mar plays the woman murdered at the start of the film. Also appearing were piano player Jimmy Diamond, bus driver Wed Trindle and belly dancer Shereef.

Mention again of a terrific score by Lalo Schifrin, especially the bold drum solo that played out over the credit sequence. Schifrin’s work on the film was showcased in a featurette aimed at schools and colleges. Russell Lee’s drumming so impressed Ralph Nelson that the opening credits were rewritten around his drum solo.

Catch-Up: Alain Delon has featured in the Blog in reviews for Lost Command (1966), Is Paris Burning? (1966), The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and Farewell, Friend (1968); check out also Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo (1966) and Ann-Margret in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).

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