Casual observations inspired by screening SECONDS to students —
Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (THE FOX, THE MECHANIC) apparently didn’t care for John Frankenheimer’s handling of SECONDS — Frankenheimer cut a scene on a beach with a kid which nevertheless gets referenced in the film’s final shot. “It still works,” argued Frankenheimer, and he’s right — in a non-literal, allusive way, the scene has something to do with unfulfilled dreams or poignant memories, and it provides a heartbreaking note of regret amidst the sheer horror of that killer final sequence.
Carlino also objected to all the damn STYLE — James Wong Howe’s bravura handheld swooping, the cameras mounted on actors to turn them into gliding automata in a wobbly world, the jump cuts (in Hollywood! in 1966!), the expressionist set in the drug-trip staged sexual assault. Carlino carefully scripted the action to take place in mundane settings, anchoring the allegory (the ending, with the line “You were my finest work,” somehow reminds me of Kafka’s Parable of The Law in The Trial). As with ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, the fantastic company is plonked down in reality — reached via a steam laundry on Lafayette and a meat-packing company a short taxi ride away.
But I love all the disorienting tricks. The only false step I think is shooting Jeff Corey low-angle, where his nostrils, black and wondrously elongated like tadpoles, get a little distracting.
The best (and most literal) cut in a film full of daring excisions — John Randolph lowers pen to paper to sign his Faustian pact, and we immediately see a scalpel touch skin as the painful (and in literal terms unbelievable) process of transforming the puddingy Randolph into chiselled Rock Hudson begins. We think of signing in blood, and the surgeon’s blade as a pen rewriting lives. Very evocative, and also OUCH!
That missing scene is a good thing, probably — the beginning and end of the film are very strong, and the middle kind of weak (that interminable nudie hippy wine ceremony!), and so speed is a good weapon to get Rock back to the company and bring things to their predestined appalling conclusion. They nearly overdo it — one is reminded of what Fitzgerald said about second acts in American lives — but the balance is just about there. I suspect David Ely’s novel got too internal in the middle and Carlino couldn’t quite crack it without access to the character’s inner world, or else he did crack it and Frankenheimer and Hudson strayed from the path (it’s never fair to blame the writer unless one has read the script, and I haven’t, though I’d like to).
Still, this is strong stuff, and I found myself thinking about the many, worrying ways the story blends with Hudson’s own life (we’ll give you a new face, new voice, new name, and everything will be perfect). Theory: the strongest horror movies were probably made by people who didn’t think they were making a horror movie as such. Or, rather than scaring the audience with a Wes Craven 1-2-3-BOO! every ten minutes, they simply follow the implications of a disturbing story to its terrible conclusion.