Master cinematographer James Wong Howe, ASC lent a seasoned eye to director John Frankenheimer's horrific tale of "rebirth."
Film historians generally acknowledge that the transformation from the Hollywood studio system to the American "New Wave" occurred with the 1969 release of Easy Rider. This counterculture classic, directed by Dennis Hopper and photographed by Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, revolutionized cinematic storytelling with a visually and aurally driven style that broke away from the classic literary, narrative and pictorial devices familiar to older moviegoers. But the liberation of the motion picture camera had actually occurred a bit earlier, in the mid-Sixties. It's ironic that during a highly politicized era in which anyone over 30 was subject to mistrust, a leader of this cinematic insurrection was the renowned 67-year-old cinematographer James Wong Howe, ASC, who had been born at the end of the 19th Century. The veteran cameraman's work on director John Frankenheimer's 1966 film Seconds, a controversial and misunderstood picture, would later exert a strong influence upon the future of American moviemaking.
In the fall of 1964, Kirk Douglas was appearing in the original Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when he announced in the trade papers that Joel Productions, in conjunction with Frankenheimer, had acquired David Ely's novel Seconds for $75,000. Douglas, Frankenheimer and producer Edward Lewis had brought Seven Days in May to the screen via Paramount, and were anxious to work together again. Seconds was to be the inaugural project for the newly constituted Douglas and Lewis Productions, and ultimately became part of a two-picture deal established with Paramount. Production began in 1965.
Seconds is a contemporary horror story centering on Arthur Hamilton, a middle-aged, upper-class suburbanite who is dissatisfied with his affluent but mundane lifestyle. Hamilton is offered a second chance at youth and a new, vital way of life by a mysterious, nameless Company in exchange for his substantial wealth. After being "killed" in a planned accident, Hamilton is physically transformed through plastic surgery and supplied with the new identity of Tony Wilson, an established painter living in California. "Wilson" is provided with a manservant, friends, a portfolio of his "art" and even female companionship. The inner Arthur Hamilton, however, becomes overwhelmed by the organization's Big Brother control tactics, and begins to feel the conflict between his past and present identities. After suffering a mental breakdown, Hamilton asks the Company for a chance
to forge a self-defined and meaningful existence, but is unable to comply with their requirement that he recommend a new client for their nefarious purposes. Otherwise useless to them, Hamilton meets his fate as he enters what the Company calls the "next stage" becoming a cadaver for use in a another customer's staged death.
At the time Seconds was made, 36-year-old John Frankenheimer was part of a new breed of directors trained in the "Golden Age" of live television in the Fifties. Following his prestigious work in television dramas for the series Danger, Climax, and Play house 90, Frankenheimer developed his astute pictorial style for the big screen on provocative films such as The Young Savages, All Fall Down, The Birdman of Alcatraz and especially The Manchurian Candidate, a political thriller which entered the mind of a brainwashed man through a baroque use of black-and-white imagery, expressive production design and a paranoic filled plot.
After Frankenheimer returned from filming The Train in Europe, he was propelled in a new creative direction. Hollywood movies were still produced primarily in the studios, where style and content could be heavily managed, but Frankenheimer decided that he wanted to create films outside of studio confines. For Seconds, Frankenheimer planned to shoot on the East Coast in New York's Grand Central Station; in Scarsdale, a suburb of Westchester County, for scenes involving Hamilton's firstborn life; and on the West Coast in Malibu, California for the sequences that occur after the character's artificial rebirth.
The novel and screenplay had a surreal quality which suggested an extreme visual approach to Frankenheimer, who liked to use the armature of a simple story to construct a complex visualization. Frankenheimer saw in the project the possibility of creating a disturbing blend of cinema verité, science-fiction and horror elements.
Frankenheimer's original intention was to have Kirk Douglas play both Hamilton and Wilson, but he was not satisfied with the idea of using extreme character makeup to disguise the highly recognizable actor. Then, during preproduction, Douglas bowed out due to other contractual commitments. After sifting through many leading-man choices, Frankenheimer went ahead with the unlikely choice of Rock Hudson, best known for his light comedic romps with Doris Day. Hudson was not considered a serious dramatic actor, which the anguished characterization of Wilson required, but he was looking for a challenge and the studio was appeased by a marquee name. Hudson, however, insisted that he should only play the post-operative role of Tony Wilson. Frankenheimer, who had not previously considered a two-actor transition, therefore cast veteran actor John Randolph to play the middle-aged Hamilton later crediting Hudson with idea of using two performers.
Perhaps Frankenheimer's most crucial directorial decision on Seconds was his request that James Wong Howe serve as director of photography. A seasoned Hollywood professional who always sought to bend the rules and express a story in vivid visual terms, Howe was a perfect collaborator for the youthful and ambitious Frankenheimer.
Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in Kwantung, China on August 28, 1899. He began his more than 50 years of dedication to cinematography during Hollywood's silent film era, making his debut behind the camera on 1922's Drums of Destiny for the Jesse L. Lasky Studio. Howe became a visual stylist who created atmosphere and emotion with his commanding application of the tools of cinematography. During his career, he worked with many first-tier directors, including Victor Fleming, Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Erich von Stroheim, Busby Berkeley, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Fritz Lang and Lewis Milestone. Howe's stylistic hallmarks were deep-focus photography, low-key moods, film noir, and naturalistic, romantic and expressive lighting effects. He became a master of black-and-white photography while working on an impressive roster of films that included Air Force; The Power and the Glory; Body and Soul; Come Back, Little Sheba; The Sweet Smell of Success and Hud, which earned Howe the 1963 Academy Award for Best Black-and-White Cinematography. He had previously earned an Oscar in 1955 for his color cinematography on The Rose Tattoo, photographed in VistaVision.
The central visual metaphor of Seconds emerged from Howe and Frankenheimer's experimentation with a 9.7mm fisheye lens. "In Seconds, the [idea of] distortion was terribly important," Frankenheimer told Gerald Pratley in 1969. "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."
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