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The production crew also filmed aboard New York, New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut commuter trains; Frankenheimer later noted that Howe operated the camera during the bulk of the scene. A handheld shot traces Hamilton on the train as the camera moves frenetically from his face to his hands, jump-cutting from one angle of the view out the speeding train window to an angle of a blurry, ever-closer suburbia, and then to another angle that jumps back and forth between the two views in rapid succession. In this scene and many others, Seconds utilizes the unconventional camera and editing techniques of the French nouvelle vague, while retaining a Rod Serling-like sense of story and tone: the film looks like a Twilight Zone episode directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
For a sequence of Hamilton arriving home, the crew went to Scarsdale to shoot at the local train station. To achieve verisimilitude, Frankenheimer and Howe again adopted a hidden camera technique to film actor John Randolph coming off the train in a real-life setting among real suburban commuters. Cameras were positioned in trash baskets, behind signs and in other places where they couldn't be seen by the public. At one point, Frankenheimer personally yanked a startled commuter out of frame when it seemed evident that a shot might be obscured.
During preproduction in May of 1965, a Paramount production manager had gone on a location scout in Scarsdale for Hamilton's suburban home, selecting a white clapboard house. A deal was struck with the owners, who were to receive $100 so the Seconds crew could film the exterior of their home. Haworth's art department designed and built interiors to match the exterior on a soundstage on the studio lot in Hollywood. However, two weeks before Frankenheimer and Howe arrived in the upscale Westchester community with a crew of almost 35, the tenants of the home changed their minds, saying they were going on vacation. Producer Edward Lewis told the production manager to offer to pay for the vacation, and penciled in $500 for work in Scarsdale.
Due to the use of wide lenses and their close proximity to the performers most of Seconds was shot without sound because of camera noise. However, filming Seconds as a silent movie gave Frankenheimer and Howe the freedom to concentrate on their elaborate visual style. "I believe that we are in the movie business, not the sound business," Frankenheimer told the New York Times during the making of the film. "It's the screen image that is important." Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score, the sound design, and heightened, re-recorded dialogue would later support the ornate visuals.
In a sequence suggested by Frankenheimer that was not in the novel, the director combined a freewheeling verité camera style with a liberated European attitude toward screen nudity. After Hamilton assumes the identity of Wilson in Malibu, he encounters Norma Marcus (Salome Jens), an attractive Company operative who tries to break down Wilson's middle-class inhibitions so he can enjoy the sensuality of his new California lifestyle. The key scene of their courtship was shot at an actual Feast of Bacchus festival held every year in Santa Barbara, California, during which male and female sun worshippers shed all their clothes and cavort in a wine vat, stomping grapes and celebrating their nudity and free spirits. Frankenheimer decided to depict the scene in the more innocent setting of a nudist colony. A special wooden vat was built higher than usual to conceal some of the full-frontal male and female nudity. Wearing only a bathing suit and wielding a handheld camera, Frankenheimer shot the action within the vat amid the celebrants mostly uninhibited non-actors on hand for the festivities. The participants became so energized in their Aquarian moment that they tried to strip the director of his only non-filmic coverage. "I wore a pair of black bathing trunks that lasted for about 30 seconds," Frankenheimer told critic Charles Champlin. "One of the women ripped them off. The whole thing was very stimulating. Trying to keep your eye on the camera with all of that going on was very, very difficult." The director shot the scene in a series of spinning swish-pans, as splashing grape juice blurred the lens.
In order to get a certificate to distribute the film, Frankenheimer had to submit to the conservative scrutiny of the Motion Picture Production Code, which ordered a long list of deletions. Paradoxically, by shortening and deleting shots, the festival sequence picked up a sexual energy. "The result was that it looked like an orgy, but it wasn't supposed to be and I didn't shoot it that way," Frankenheimer told Champlin. "The irony is that it was much more innocent in my version than in the one you see after the Code guys got through with it. You could also get a Condemned rating from the Catholic Church, and a major studio wouldn't go out with a Condemned rating on a picture. We had two priests looking over the movie saying, 'You have to cut this, you have to cut that.' Under protest, we did, and it ruined the whole intent of the scene." Seconds ultimately received a Class B certificate from the Legion of Decency.
The combination of Frankenheimer's keen visual sense and Howe's masterly use of the camera gave Seconds its uncommon look. The visual impact of the film was so strong that a measure of controversy developed around Frankenheimer and Howe's contribution to the film. In his 1970 book Hollywood Cameramen, Charles Higham remarked, "John Frankenheimer's [earlier] films have had the benefit of a consistently skilled cameraman, Lionel Lindon [ASC], but Frankenheimer's art has never looked more exciting than in Seconds, which allied him on one single occasion with James Wong Howe." In his book Behind the Camera, Leonard Maltin called Seconds "Howe's masterpiece" describing it as "One of the most brilliantly photographed films of all time."
The picture is an odd stylistic anomaly in Howe's filmography, however, and there is some debate regarding Frankenheimer's influence on the look of the picture. In the biography James Wong Howe: Cinematographer, author Todd Rainsberger spends the section on Seconds struggling to understand exactly where the extreme application of the 9.7mm lens, low angles, fish-eye distortion and jarring tracking shots all of which call attention to technique could have come from, noting, "Seconds often lacks a sense of artistic control; it reflects a camera gone wild, without restraint. Such excess was not among James Wong Howe's photographic characteristics."
In fact, Howe would later tell Higham, "On Seconds I didn't want the wide-angle lens, the bug-eye. I wanted that journey to the operating theater to be done in a simple style, with subjective camera, but John Frankenheimer differed."
If there was a struggle on Seconds between the director and director of photography, it may have been over the camera's domain and the delicate balance of control. In 1970, Frankenheimer and Howe worked again on The Horsemen, but this time the cinematographer found it difficult to deal with the director's fascination with the camera and emphasis on what Howe considered "gadgets" and "camera trickery." The cameraman walked off the project. In 1973, Howe told W.S. Eyman of Take One magazine, "I would say John needs a little help to hold him down. He tends to lose control. . . [using] handheld cameras when you don't need it."
Regardless, the camera is not merely a recording device in Seconds, but an expressive tool. By pushing conventional technique aside and working with a visual grammar of exaggeration and extreme graphic amplification, Howe and Frankenheimer revealed the mind of a man struggling to break free of his emotional bonds 14 years before Martin Scorsese and director of photography Michael Chapman, ASC, would similarly attempt to capture the black-and-white torment of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.
Seconds was the American entry at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, where it was poorly received. The film had a national U.S. release and quickly vanished after a few weeks in distribution. The ever-widening generation gap divided interest in the film. "At the time, people my age came up to me in droves and said, 'Wow!'" recalls actor Richard Anderson, who was in his mid-thirties when the film came out. "Older people in the business didn't know what was going on there at all." In time, Seconds found an audience and developed a cult following. Over the years, Rock Hudson received awards and praise from film societies and universities. He was often invited to college cinema classes and enjoyed talking to students about the film.
Howe received an Academy Award nomination for his work on Seconds, but the Oscar for black-and-white cinematography went to Haskell Wexler, ASC for Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?. Ironically, 1966 was the last year the Academy gave separate awards for monochrome and color cinematography. Seconds was also the last film that Howe shot in black-and-white, the medium in which he earned a reputation as one of America's finest cinematographers.
Howe's influence on the next generation of cinematographers was formidable. In the 1960s he taught at the UCLA film school, where he made a lasting impression on students Stephen Burum and Dean Cundey, both of whom would become prominent ASC members. His work was both classical and experimental and gave his disciples the drive to explore new visual storytelling vistas.
Seconds left a lasting legacy on a new era in American filmmaking. Paramount's recently released 1.75:1 video version of the film is headed for the hands of a nascent generation of cinematographers and directors who will shape the cinema of the 21st century. Authorship arguments can travel from the printed page to the Internet, but Seconds' radical visual statement continues to spread the message that cinematic rules were made to be broken.
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