Operating Table

In their latest (8.1) newsletter, the board of the Elitist Fraternity of Film Dweebs reminded readers that (and I quote) “under no circumstance will any EFFD members be permitted to say anything that doesn’t enthusiastically praise Criterion’s Bluray of John Frankenheimer‘s Seconds.” I understand the ruling, but I bought this Bluray at Amoeba last night and then drove home and watched it. And watched it. And watched it. And I’m telling you it’s a black drag to sit through. A dark, creepy, chilly-hearted downer from start to finish. Mainly about malevolence and threats and intimidation and dread. “Interesting,” yes, because of the creepy Orwellian (or do I mean Burroughsian?) tone and James Wong Howe‘s nightmarish black-and-white cinematography. But it’s mostly punishing.

Seconds lasts 107 minutes and aside from the grape-stomping scene there isn’t even a 30-second passage that delivers anything that comes close to enjoyable. The movie makes you feel like there’s a needle in your neck the whole time.

Rock Hudson spends pretty much the entire film looking over his shoulder and sucking in cigarette smoke and acting like one of the most haunted and miserable fucks who ever agreed to star in a film about a haunted, miserable fuck.

The dweebs like Seconds because it’s a modern horror story about middle-class entrapment and corporate malevolence, and because some of Howe’s camerawork vaguely recalls the severe angles and surreal set design in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But if you watch it from a gut Joe Popcorn level (i.e., without your honorary scholastic film lover cap on) it will send you into a tailspin of depression. It’s not “scary” — it’s suffocating. It’s about “how much longer does this last?” It’s about hitting the fast-forward button during the slow scenes.

The fundamental thing that you can’t buy is that John Randolph could be transformed into Hudson through plastic surgery. It would have been ten times more interesting if Frankenheimer had just had Hudson wear lots of older-guy makeup with a putty nose and chin and neck wattle. Randolph is maybe 5’11 or six feet tall compared to Hudson’s six-foot-five, and it’s just ridiculous that plastic surgeons would be able to add five or six inches of height to his frame.

On top of which Randolph is a miserable dead man at the beginning — a faceless organization stooge who takes a train to Manhattan every morning and then back to Scarsdale every night — and he’s the same guy inside Hudson all the way through. Why should we, the audience, want to hang out with this colorless terrified man…this flat glass of water? Why should we care what happens to him? It’s wonderful when Randolph finally “dies” on the operating table because at least he’s gone and we have only party-pooper Hudson to deal with.

All you know as a viewer is that you’re expected to be fascinated by Seconds because the dweebs have written in their reviews that it’s a classic cerebral horror trip, and so you’re sitting there going “what’s wrong with me…why is this movie making me feel so bad and bored when the dweebs have told me it’s a really brave and special film, and that it made them feel cool and elated and should be part of the national archives?”

  • TheRealBadHatHarry

    It is a brave and special movie, but as with a lot of things, you’re either seduced by it or you’re not. I always have been, since I saw it on video at 18 or so (the book is also terrific). But your attitude toward it, which presumably reflects, as you say, the “Joe Popcorn” attitude toward it, probably goes some way to explain why we’ve had such a hard time getting a remake set up. So thanks a lot.

  • BromanBrolanski

    With Wells you’re either a dweeb or a plebe.

  • jermsguy

    Dweebs & Plebes – the new TV series from Judd Apatow.

  • Tony Dayoub

    At least that “needle in your neck” feeling is deliberate, which is a lot more than I can say about the exasperating SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Must every movie make you feel like tra-la-la-ing through the tulips once the credits roll? It’s really no more disturbing than any well-executed Serling script.

  • It’s actually science fiction, not horror, so there you go.

  • Sumo-Pop

    I see that you wrote words, but when I read them they make no sense to me.

  • Michael Gebert

    Yeah, it’s brilliant but it’s about the bleakest sumbitch ever to come out of Hollywood town. Did we not all know this?

  • Brilliant movie. Like an extended Twilight Zone episode with touches of Kafka and Philip K Dick – amazingly atmospheric and immaculately shot. This movie fucked with Brian Wilson’s already deep-fried brain so much he didn’t venture back into a cinema until E.T.! In a sense, I think it’s unfortunate that The Manchurian Candidate is the best known of Frankenheimer’s Paranoia trilogy, cause Seven Days in May and Seconds were better movies.

    • Perfect Tommy

      But TMC is pretty excellent as well. Not at all unfortunate it is well known. Love SDIM & Seconds, but the Candidate just has the elements that allow it to be enjoyed by a wider audience.

      • lazarus

        Candidate has a great script, a great cast, and really creative, Welles-inspired direction.

        For me it’s far away the best of the three films. The most artistically accomplished as well as the most entertaining.

        • DukeSavoy

          And Candidate it shows how deadly drinking milk can be.

      • Raising_Kaned

        Yeah, well-said. TMC is easily the most accessible of the three (mostly for narrative and pacing reasons, I believe). In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. The other two do seem a little underrated in comparison now, however.

        • Perfect Tommy

          THC also has in Angela Lansbury one of the all time great screen villains. (And you should listen to my opinion on movies because I married a flautist and I was a member of the Charles M. Schultz Museum which all means I’m grown up and hecka insightful.)

          • Raising_Kaned

            Funny — good callback. That guy will go down in HE history as a 2013 “one-hit (thread) wonder” (although he’d be more Timbuk3 – “Future’s So Bright” to Jeff Puim’s blockbuster Falco jam “Rock Me Amadeus”).

            Really seemed like the odds had to be no worse than 6:1 that Puim actually was Zimmerman.

    • brenkilco

      They’re all different of course. Seconds is a pitch dark sci/fi horror fable about the sad immutability of human nature and not something you want to think about all that often, let alone revisit. SDIM is more straight up but cool in the oblique way it’s set up, the way for most of the movie we’re at the edge of the conspiracy trying to figure what’s going on at the center. But MC with it’s comic craziness is really its own thing: the ladies’ garden club, the jovial red Chinese brainwasher, any bit of Lansbury and that train conversation between Sinatra and Leigh which has got to be one of the weirdest dialogue exchanges in any Hollywood movie.

  • actionman

    A film that I’m super happy will NEVER get remade or reimagined or rejiggered or whatever the “re-word” is these days. An absolute masterpiece, one of JF’s best, and yes, definitely a nasty, ruthless piece of work. But that’s sort of the point, no?

    • You can have that point and keep it.

    • DrewAtHitFix

      It came very close to being remade by Roger Avery in the last few years. I have no doubt they’ll try again, too.

      • Terry McCarty

        I have a vague memory of Gary Fleder wanting to remake it.

    • TheRealBadHatHarry

      If Paramount didn’t have high turnaround costs against it, the remake would be shooting now.

  • Brian McIntire

    I can’t get over the fact that you’ve never seen this thing before now. I thought you’d be bitching about aspect ratio or grain-storms or whichever other dead horse was within beating range.

    • I saw it years ago, but had forgotten what a dead-end it is.

  • Hollis Mulwray

    SECONDS was broadcast several times on the ABC network movie. Memorable for its tone and b&w photography. Not entirely successful but bleak for a ’66 release. POV shots of Grand Central in the opening were unique.

  • CBJ

    Yeah, Wells can’t ever really decide whether he’s an elitist asshole or an everyday Joe Schmoe working-class hero asshole. Hence using “Joe Popcorn” to support a point despite demonizing his version of that contingent on an hourly basis.

    Basically, Jeff doesn’t like auteur pictures, or any pictures with few exceptions not made in America. Or anything that doesn’t principally concern a white man having an existential crisis that will resolve itself neatly.

    • lazarus

      I believe the term is “middlebrow”. Which is in many ways the most pathetic of the three.

      • DenverCinephile

        Precisely. Though he’s loathe to admit it, he’s the kind that hangs outside the local Landmark with the rest of the seniors waiting for the latest “masterpiece” from Iñárritu.

  • Mr Bohemian

    It is sad when people peak at a young age probably in college, have one defining moment then settle in to a career and a routine and live a ghost life

  • Joe Leydon

    This movie was released by a major Hollywood studio — Paramount — in 1966 (even before Robert Evans was in command). Can you imagine a major releasing this movie today?

  • DukeSavoy

    Was this the first film to use the “strapped to a character’s back cam”?

  • donkaye

    A flat-out masterpiece. The scene where Hudson goes to visit his wife, who tells him what she really thought of her “late” husband and their marriage without knowing who she is really speaking with, is devastating.

  • Deaf Ears

    I happened upon this on late night TV when I was in junior high and I think it fucked me up a little bit. Yes, you don’t quite buy that Randolph and Hudson are the same person but I think that actually contributes to a kind of nightmare logic that holds the film together, like in a dream where you’re not even sure who you are. Not surprising that it would depress somebody who puts so much stock in outside appearances. It’s been criminally overlooked and I’m glad it’s finally getting its due.

  • Michael Gebert

    Everyone’s talking about how you couldn’t remake it now but I would argue that it already has been: The Game owes a lot to it in terms of setup and I would say even casts some parts to pay homage (e.g. James Rebhorn to remind us of Wesley Addy). But what makes The Game acceptable now is that its mysterious company exists to make Michael Douglas a better yuppie, to “take him on a journey”– the story is effectively therapy, redemptive. That’s the difference why Seconds could never truly be remade.

    • Raising_Kaned

      It’s a great point, and one that I never would have thought to make myself. I might even argue that The Game commercializes a lot of same themes found in Seconds without losing any of their raw substance. It is, to Wells’ point above, probably an “easier” watch (much like Seven, it’s imminently watchable in a “car-crash” sorta way). Whether or not that reflexively makes it a “better” piece of cinema, though, is certainly a matter of debate/personal aesthetics.

      Anyway — The Game really is an underrated (borderline) masterpiece from Fincher (and also available on Criterion!).

  • Raising_Kaned

    I kinda see what you’re saying here, Jeff, but honestly? Come the FUCK on, dawg. This puppy was released in 1966 (before Bonnie and Clyde…Jesus!) by a major studio with a star at the height of his hunkiness. In and of itself, that is a major, major fucking accomplishment for Hollywood.

    So what if it’s perhaps maayybbee a little more interesting to think and talk about than actually watch? We could use way more movies like that, frankly. It’s a crazy Fellini meets Cassavetes B&W concoction with just enough of a dash of Kafka-esque/Burroughs-ian nightmarish dreamscape thrown in to give it that edgy kick where it will never quite seem “aged”…ever. Is it that much of a leap to suspect that something like Eraserhead (undoubtedly a singular masterpiece in its own right) would probably never exist without this (or flicks like it)? Forget a “pleasant sit” — this movie is IMPORTANT, goddamnit (quoth the Movie Godz).

    To be fair, I know you didn’t totally dump on it — and, again, I do see some of the points you’re making here — but even if you didn’t love the experience of watching Seconds (which, after all, isn’t really the point), you should at least support the IDEA of Seconds back when it was released. Because it was (and is) an incredibly influential work for new and future filmmakers at the time — it’s kinda like the cinematic equivalent of the Velvet Underground in that respect.

    The EFFD (whoever the hell they are) are totally right. Given the context: stone-cold masterpiece.

  • philip mora

    So you watched a slow paced character-piece and you dismiss it because it ‘bored’ you and made you ‘feel bad’

    Gee. That level of breathtaking insight belongs on the imdb user comments threads, usually written by teenagers.

    But then, being a contrarian clod, you have to write off anyone who watched SECONDS (and didnt ‘feel bad’
    or was ‘bored’, as you were,) as ‘dweebs’.

    Guess what Capt. Oxymoron? You’re the snobbish clod,

    What provocative and edgey observations are forthcoming from your fertile grey matter? Lemme guess, You watched a comedy and “God dammit, wotta piece of shit- it just FUNNY…duh”.

    Just quit wlll you? The net’s log-jammed with thousands of byte-clogging ‘reviews’ (sic) like yours. Saying nothing about film, but revealing your own puffery and
    mental emptiness.