Opinions | John Frankenheimer Pointed His Camera Toward the Things We Cannot Escape

June 20, 2023 0 Comments

It doesn’t, of course. He is still stuck and still lost and still alienated from himself. “The body is reborn,” wrote the critic David Sterritt in his 2013 essay on the film, “but the spirit stays dead.” In desperation, Hamilton/Wilson returns to the nameless — although not faceless — the company that gave him his new life and pleaded for a second secondchance. It obliges, in a way, to bring the film to its shocking, sobering conclusion.

Somewhat unusual among Hollywood directors of the time, Frankenheimer was, noted Sterritt, preoccupied with the darker side of the 1960s: “the sour aftertaste of McCarthyism, the expanding military-industrial complex, the growing sense that technology might be controlling us instead of the other way around.” He was contemptuous of American consumerism and the American dream — the idea that you could buy fulfillment from a catalog.

At the same time, Frankenheimer appears to have been suspicious of the idea that you could escape from yourself, that you could free yourself of your obligations and commit yourself to self-discovery. “Seconds” captures both instincts, along with the ironic recognition that whichever path you take, the house never loses; capital always reaps its profits.

I can’t end this without mentioning two other elements of “Seconds.” There’s the abstract and ominous title sequence, designed and filmed by Saul Bass, and there is the look of the film itself, a tour de force of cinematic photography by James Wong Howe, one of the geniuses of the form. Howe, whose career stretched back to the 1920s, emphasized light and movement and dynamism.

Howe brought those qualities, and many others, to “Seconds,” which has the chiaroscuro of noir and a searching camera whose movements, in the most virtuosic sequences of the film, evoke the feeling of a fever dream. He also uses a wide-angle lens to great effect, deploying it for group close-ups that emphasize the inhumanity of the people in Hamilton’s new life. Other techniques, like the expert use of deep focus in one particularly harrowing scene — in which Hamilton/Wilson is strapped to a bed, surrounded by orderlies — serve to both advance the story and emphasize the extent to which it is a nightmare.

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