director John Frankenheimer
I think it was the first time that I saw Seconds that I became aware of James Wong Howe. I don’t know how much I had known about him, if his name was familiar, but after seeing his stunning camerawork in this trippy black-and-white nightmare par excellence, Howe became one of the earliest Hollywood cinematographers that I knew by name.
Like John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seconds is a black-and-white freak-out on paranoia of great prescience. Where the earlier film captured the political Cold War in extremis, Seconds delves into identity and aging, a mid-life crisis in extremis with a glance at hedonistic lifestyles of the young and coming hippies.
And it’s terrifying. And occasionally blackly funny.
Whatever the readings the film had in its day or perhaps were intended in its day, it’s hard not to keen in on Rock Hudson, well known as living the double life of a closeted gay movie star, how well known at the time I am not sure. His playing the role of someone who is secretly someone else, who is repressing himself while trying to live the new life with his new hunky body and good looks, unencumbered by an aging wife and family, adds deeper consideration metatextually for those who know these facts.
I intentionally didn’t tell my son this information when we watched Seconds. Mainly because he might write a paper on it for school and his teacher didn’t want him to do any research on the films he would write about. Also, in part, because he’s able to watch the film without this metatextual information, so has the ability to see it differently.
But James Wong Howe’s cinematography is amazing. The drunken over-the-shoulder camera shots are the ones that stood out the most in my mind, but there are such a number of approaches throughout the film to create different effects and varying states of nightmare and entrapment. It’s an utter masterwork of cinematography.