A fellow I met who used to work with Joe Bob Briggs lent me some of his knowledge regarding out-there movies, and, when casting around one night for something interesting, saw his brief note for this movie, which read: "Rock Hudson!!! Sci-fi!! Horror!!!" And really, that was ALL I needed to know. You really can't say "sci-fi / horror" without getting me interested. However, my viewing was stymied by one errant touch of my remote control, which overloaded my electrical circuits, already stretched by the DVD, TV, and air conditioner, blowing the power in my apt, and leading to a fight with fuses that precluded further video watching. Then, two nights later, one hour through the movie, the disc died. As of this writing, I still haven't seen the whole movie—I'm waiting for a replacement, and I have a serious case of movie blueballs! Urrrrggghh!!!
This was made all the more frustrating by the fact that this movie was going along AMAZINGLY. Actually, thank heavens it has begun to slow down a little by the time the disc completely died, or I'd be much more annoyed. We open with this quite nice credits sequence featuring uncomfortably-close close-ups of facial parts in crisp black-and-white images, while we hear unnerving music. Sometimes the images are distorted with lenses, and by the end strange compositions have been made via split-screen. During this time we learn that these titles have been designed by Saul Bass, the music is by Jerry Goldsmith, that the movie is directed by John Frankenheimer [I actually didn't know that going in] and that hairstyles for Miss Jens were created by Sydney Guilaroff. Maybe I noticed this because he also has a notable credit for "Hair Creations" at the beginning of What's the Matter with Helen?
Now, if you trust me, it truly is better to watch this movie knowing NOTHING about it. It is a fascinating intellectual sci-fi movie with twists that you will NOT see coming, and the directorial style is VERY in-your-face, the crisp B&W photography is beautiful, and it's emotionally moving. If that sounds like you, I really recommend that you come back after you've watched it. But if you want a little set-up, read on and I'll tell you when you REALLY need to protect your ignorance.
So we open in Grand Central. There is a very tense, off-kilter scene as a man follows another man through the crowd and to a train. Sometimes the camera is actually attached to the man, so he is motionless in the frame, but everything is moving around him, and sometimes the camera is gliding along stealthily, just above floor-level. He reaches the train and a man presses a note with an address into his hand. Our main character, Arthur, gets on the train. The tension continues with more uncomfortable close-ups, and shots of the foliage outside coming, and going, then coming-going, in quick, ostentatious edits. If you like smart direction that makes itself obvious instead of receding into the background, this movie is for you. Mention must also be made of the stunning black and white cinematography by James Wong Howe, which is filling the screen with sharp, fascinatingly busy images. I am totally on board. And then—the disc died for the first time.
Arthur gets picked up by his wife, and they have a tense talk as she drives him home. She asks him about a call he got the night before, that he does NOT want to talk about. That night he is sitting by the phone and grabs it on the first ring. It is his old friend Charlie—who died years ago! Charlie does some stuff to prove that it's actually him, and tells Arthur to go to the address the next day, or he won't get another chance. So Arthur is all upset, and his wife is all over him about what's going on and how he should see a doctor and says she'll make an appointment. It's clear that the tenderness has gone out of their relationship, and Frankenheimer has shot the whole thing in such a way that the wife becomes extremely smothering and creepy. They kiss and embrace in a way that gave me the total willies. The next day Arthur goes to the address listed on the note.
Okay, as I said, I had no idea what was coming next, and I'm really glad I didn't, because I never would have predicted it, and it's a very strange and confusing trip to get there. So if you want to see it and you don't know what's going to happen, here's the place where you stop reading now and don't read anything about the movie [least of all the back of the DVD], and just let it unfold. Just know that it's "Rock Hudson!!! Sci-fi!! Horror!!!," that's it's very tense and unsettling, it's well-directed [I cannot overstate how in-your-face the direction is for the first 45 minutes], really intriguing, and gorgeously shot. Now, go get it!
SPOILERS > > >
Arthur is told to go to the address and say his name is Wilson. He goes to some dank laundry place, and is told to go to another place, a slaughterhouse. He is escorted through several gorgeously-photographed half-carcasses, into the back of a dark truck, up an elevator, and into a nicely-appointed [for the 60s] apartment. They give him some tea—and he passes out! He has a dream where he walks into a room, sees a young woman, and rapes her! The first time we see him, it looks like we're once again looking through a distorted lens, but something is so off about it, I began to wonder if it was actually a purposely distorted set. The today I read that Frankenheimer is known for using forced-perspective sets, so I'll assume it was a real set created to look distorted—which come on, you gotta love. That's it, just below.
So Arthur wakes, and tries to get out, leading to what a thought was a good little paranoia moment—an elevator, but no button with which to call it. He's finally introduced to Mr. Ruby, who tells him—okay, last chance, are you sure you want to know?—that he's dead. This goes on for a while, causing me to think this movie was going to be some Beetlejuice-esque thing in which death is like some big bureaucratic office, but no, what they'll do is, for a fee, fake his death, give him plastic surgery to completely alter his appearance and return him to youth, and set him up in exactly the kind of life he'd like—which they know by interviewing him while drugged.
They want him to sign a form authorizing his change of identity. Of course, Arthur isn't sure. They show him a film of the "rape," which was staged so he'd have little choice but to embrace his change. Ruby talks to him about how his life sucks, his marriage is dead, he barely sees his kid anymore… and finally Arthur signs the contract. He is taken instantly into an extensive plastic surgery session. This sequence is done very well by just showing instruments and facial parts, i.e. very little mild gore [I think we two slight incisions], but it SEEMS very gory. There's a creepy scene where he's all bandaged up and wheezing, and we can project how unsure he is about the snap decision he made. When he's done he looks like Rock Hudson, and they have set him up with a life as an artist. "You are alone in the world," he is told, "absolved of any responsibility but to your own interest. …Isn't that marvelous?"
So Rock as Wilson takes a while to adjust to his new face and identity and is all set up with a gorgeous seaside house and live-in assistant, John, to keep his house and answer his questions. All this for $30,000! That seems like a value. Wilson dabs at paint—I was intrigued by the whole concept of being declared a successful artist, THEN learning to paint—but seems discontent. John encourages him to throw a party, but Wilson doesn't feel he's ready. One day he's walking along the beach when he spots this woman, Laura, looking all gloomy. He says hi and she stares at him in horror, then snaps out of it and comes on quite friendly. A few seconds later she is running to the sea and throwing her arms out, screaming to embrace its mysteries. I would advise Wilson to high-tail it away from her fast, but he's all charmed. She says she's going to some sort of picnic, and he invites himself along. She gives him a little look, then says okay.
Turns out this isn't just any picnic, but this hippy-dippy-type pagan thing where they're all draped with flowers and frolicking through the forest—it's like we're suddenly in The Wicker Man. They fill a huge tub with grapes, and a nude woman gets in to stomp them. She is soon joined by others, and soon it seems as though they're having a big orgy amongst the grapes. During this scene, your thought process might follow that of me and my friend's: "That looks like fun. I wonder where I can stomp some grapes. I bet it feels great on your feet. Oh, you wonder where their feet have been. This is starting to get gross. Imagine the fungus in that wine. Oh, God no. I wouldn't want to be in there with those hideous people. No way would I drink that wine. That's going to be a Chlamydia Chardonnay." Eventually uptight Wilson gets drunk and gives in and has a great time. The scene goes on forever, which I understand is part of the point, but hey, it doesn't mean it still doesn't go on forever.
But it's bonus time—the next scene goes on forever, too! Wilson throws a swank 60s cocktail party, where he starts to get drunk and make an ass out of himself. It goes on, and toward the end he sees that everyone is pissed at him, not least Laura, who comes in yelling "Damn you! Who the hell do you think you are?" Now, here's where spoilers for the end of the movie start, so if you have come this far and still don't know where it's headed, you might want to skip outside of the spoiler zone. Turns out ALL the people at the party are those who have gone through the same procedure; they are "seconds" [if they made a sequel set amongst the world of Warhol's studio, they could call it Factory Seconds. I'm sorry]. Anyway, drunk Wilson was spilling the secrets of his previous life, which is a big no-no, and they're all pissed. Then Wilson decided he doesn't like his new life, and wants out of the program.
He goes to visit his wife, who thinks her husband has died. She's newly vital and seems content, and says that when her husband was alive, he was silent, confused, and a little desperate. She says "we lived our lives in a polite celibate truce. Arthur was dead a long time before he was in that room [where he died]." This is great because it causes you to reconsider the entire relationship with the wife, not to mention who Arthur was. Our sympathies were with him, having to endure this dreary life and loveless marriage with this lurking wife—now we see that she's quite lively and charming without him around, and considered him to be too mannered and closed off. The line about him being dead long before he was dead comes off as quite ironic, especially given the large amount of thematic material we've been fed about life, death and rebirth, and what each one means.
They tell him he can get out, but there will be the slightest penalty for early withdrawal. He is back in the creepy office from the beginning, and they ask him to sponsor someone else to enter the program. He refuses, and they park him at a desk in the one room he entered earlier—turns out this is where people wait when they want to be reassigned. They have drugs handed out to them. He speaks to a young Murray Hamilton, and soon finds out some bad news—remember that they need a cadaver to serve as the body of someone entering the program, and if you're not going to sponsor someone, well…
< < < SPOILERS END
It was good! I was really into how very in-your-face the direction was, it really didn't let you forget it for the first forty minutes, and I like that—it keeps you on edge and forces you to try to puzzle out what the director intends. The first forty minutes here are will keep you right on the edge of your seat with a furrow on your brow, feeling eerie and uncomfortable and trying to figure out what the hell is happening—if you don't know where the movie is going. Once the primary conceit is in place, the movie takes a welcome breather, using the sudden steadiness of energy to mirror the sudden plunk into a new phase of the character's life. Scenes go on too long here, but they're supposed to, encouraging the viewer to work through a similar arc in each, from a sense of the fun being had to a queasy sense that everything is quite, quite wrong. And while very little that is horrifying happens in the entire film, it is suffused with such a sense of menace and violence that is deeply unsettling. The long scenes in the middle serve as a little breather before things head back into weird and scary territory for the last bit.
So there ya go—if you like thoughtful sci-fi that is more about freaky ideas than special effects, smart and deeply unsettling direction, a story that you can't predict, and gorgeous black and white photography—oh my God, I narrowly avoided making a pun about "going for Seconds."
Yes! It was really interesting and deeply unsettling! It might not all work, but what does?