Seconds (1966)

“Don’t think, Tony — I came here to feel, to be!”

Seconds Poster

Synopsis:
A middle-aged banker (John Randolph) emotionally estranged from his devoted wife (Frances Reid) undergoes extreme plastic surgery and emerges with a new identity as a bohemian painter (Rock Hudson) and a new love interest (Salome Jens) — but will his second chance at life be any more fulfilling than the first?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that John Frankenheimer’s Kafka-esque psychological horror film (based on a 1963 novel by David Ely) is “one of the most depressing science fiction films ever made — perhaps because its premise seems credible — and one of the most provocative”; he notes that “if you don’t detest this film, then chances are you’ll greatly admire it”. While it was once challenging to see (it received poor reviews and limited screenings until 1988), it’s long held “an enormous cult following” and remains a fascinating — if undeniably emotionally challenging — viewing experience. As Peary writes, “the acting in the film is first-rate” (Hudson gives his best-ever lead performance) and “John Frankenheimer’s direction seems appropriately audacious, if overly self-indulgent”. However, Peary rightly notes that “the ‘star’ of the film is cameraman James Wong Howe, who used black-and-white photography and assorted lenses to create the most sinister-surreal-paranoid atmosphere the genre had ever known”. Howe’s “striking contributions” included “putting a camera with a wide-angle lens on a wheeled suitcase-carrier for bizarre shots of Randolph walking through Grand Central Station” and “using a fish-eye lens for the horrifying final shot of Hudson’s last seconds”, in addition to incorporating a “segment of a real nose operation” for the opening title sequence (designed by Saul Bass).

In Peary’s Cult Movies 3, he includes an extended essay on Seconds written by Henry Blinder, who interviewed Randolph, screenwriter John Carlino, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and producer Edward Lewis. Blinder writes unequivocally that “Seconds is quite possibly the most depressing film ever made — it is a film of unrelieved despair”, and (citing Carlino) “almost too painful to watch”. Blinder refers to Seconds as “the living nightmare of a man who acts to fill his emptiness without having an idea of what to fill it with”, culminating in “one of the most harrowing murders ever filmed”. In his analysis, Blinder references other key cinematic works — noting, for instance, that the final shot in Seconds is akin to “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane (1941), and that Ely’s original novel was a precursor of sorts to Ira Levin’s novel-turned-movie The Stepford Wives (1975): “In Ely’s work, the men pay a great deal of money to alter/replace themselves; in Levin’s the men pay a great deal of money to alter/replace their wives”.

Indeed, Seconds is very clearly about males in crisis, given that the two key females — Reid as Randolph’s wife, and Jens as Hudson’s free-spirited new lover — are ultimately supporting players in his story, and the nefarious “company” is run by (white, middle-aged) men. Blinder writes that Ely’s novel “was inspired by a startling statistic: At the time, 80,000 middle-aged American men left their wives and children each year, never to return”, causing Ely to hypothesize “that big business might want to capitalize on the legion of wealthy men”. The somewhat opaque workings of “The Company” provide a chilling example of fatal coercion in marketing, given that new members are not-so-subtly “encouraged” to name another potential client for the expensive underground procedure before they’re allowed to move on to another “level”. Hudson’s ultimate refusal to “name names” is a poignant tribute to the blacklisted actors brought out of obscurity to play either supporting (Jeff Corey, Will Geer) or central (John Randolph) roles. There is much more to say and discuss about Seconds, but simply put, it remains must-see viewing: steel yourself.

Note: Seconds is often referred to as the third of Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy”, following The Manchurian Candidate (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Saul Bass’s opening title sequence
    Seconds Bass
  • Rock Hudson as reborn Arthur
    Seconds Hudson
  • John Randolph as older Arthur
    Seconds Randolph
  • Fine supporting performances by Will Geer and others
    Seconds Geer2
    Seconds Supporting
    Seconds Hamilton
    Seconds Supporting2
  • James Wong Howe’s superb cinematography
    Seconds Cinematography4
    Seconds Cinematography3
    Seconds Cinematography1
    Seconds Cinematography2
  • Jerry Goldsmith’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a cult classic.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Atom Age Vampire (1960)

“There’s no doubt of it! Yes, she’s disfigured forever! Like a cancer that’s beyond control — like leprosy!”

Atom Age Vampire Poster

Synopsis:
Distraught that her boyfriend (Sergio Fantoni) is leaving her because she won’t give up her job as a nightclub dancer, a woman (Susanne Loret) crashes her car and is facially disfigured. She is discovered by a scientist (Albert Lupo) and his loyal assistant (Franca Parisi), who are determined to utilize an experimental new skin cure on her; but when the treatment proves to be temporary, Lupo — who has fallen hopelessly in love with Loret — resorts to monstrous means to keep her looking beautiful.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “sleazy, dubbed horror film” is an “awful picture” but “fun to watch”, and points out how “perversely exciting” it was for him as a young boy to see “scarred Loret displaying her stacked body in skimpy underwear”. Naturally, my own take on this mash-up of Eyes Without a Face (1960) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lacks Peary’s fond memories of it as “one of the first horror films to really exploit sex”. While it is indeed sleazy, terribly dubbed, poorly acted, and somewhat schizophrenic in its many (cliched) narrative strands, I don’t agree with Peary that it’s AWFUL; it’s often creatively shot (see stills below) and reasonably suspenseful for a low-budget thriller, with plenty of campy dialogue. Most humorous of all is how gorgeous Loret — evoking Veronica Lake with her peekaboo blonde wave of hair — survives a near-fatal car crash with facial scarring conveniently on just one side of her face, and no other obvious impairments; her suicidal distress feels somewhat out of proportion.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some creative direction
    Atom Age Vampire Direction
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Atom Age Vampire Cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its cult/camp appeal. Available as a public domain video here.

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White Cargo (1942)

“She knows how to purr her way into your mind and scratch her way out, always taking and never giving.”

White Cargo Poster

Synopsis:
A rubber plantation overseer (Walter Pidgeon) in a humid African village — just one among a handful of white men, including an alcoholic doctor (Frank Morgan) and a kind missionary (Henry O’Neill) — laments the arrival of an idealistic new co-worker (Richard Carlson) who quickly falls in love with a local “half-breed” seductress named Tondelayo (Hedy Lamarr).

Genres:

Review:
There is so much to be offended by in this openly misogynist, racist, colonialist jungle flick — based on a hit 1923 play, which was in turn based on a novel entitled Hell’s Playground (!) — that, as many viewers have pointed out, its true value lies in its perceived camp appeal. Indeed, TCM refers to it as a “popular mixture of exotica, pulp thrills and over-the-top misogyny”, as well as “a deliciously ripe relic”. With black-faced, shiny-skinned Hedy Lamarr slinking around spouting dialogue like the following to her “prey” (Carlson):

“I’m married to you for five months — and you not beat me once! Awila, please beat me… Then maybe you feel much better. Soon we make up — much love, many bangles.”

you will simply be slack-jawed throughout. Her pidgin-like speech is peppered with the words “much” and “many” (“Him much nice man.”; “Awila give me much silk and many bangles.”), with the particularly favored phrase “much love, many bangles” repeated at least once. While Tondelayo is referred to at one point as possessing an “innate morality”, there’s really none of that on display here, as she simply evinces a “childlike” simplicity combined with seductive, sociopathic maneuvering. At least Harry Stradling’s cinematography is gorgeous (see stills below), so that’s a bonus.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harry Stradling’s dramatic cinematography
    White Cargo Cinematography
    White Cargo Cinematography2
  • Some clever dialogue:

    “The natives have been looking at me in a queer sort of way.”
    “Maybe they’re wondering how you can walk without a spine.”

Must See?
No — though of course, if this seems like your cup of tea, you should give it a try!

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Letter to Three Wives, A (1949)

“I’m fed up with Addie Ross!”

Letter to Three Wives Poster

Synopsis:
Three small-town wives (Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern, and Linda Darnell) in post-WWII America each worry that their husband (Jeffrey Lynn, Kirk Douglas, and Paul Douglas) may have run off with one of their “friends” (Celeste Holm).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “sharp-edged yet ultimately sentimental look at three marriages in a small American town” — co-written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz — is “stagy, almost like three one-act plays put together” but “perceptive” and possesses a “literate, Oscar-winning script” which makes us “care about the characters” (who, he argues, “would be ideal as the initial characters in a TV soap”). We’re kept in suspense from beginning to end as we wonder which of their three husbands will turn out to be the adulterer who has run away with the unseen yet seductively voiced “Addie Ross”. The film’s three flashback vignettes each provide a glimpse into unique marital challenges of the era: former-WAVE Crain is insecure about transitioning from her pre-war life on a farm to her new role as a socialite wife; Sothern worries that her work as a successful radio writer may be threatening her cultured husband’s sense of masculinity; and Darnell reflects on the seductive wiles she used to climb the social ladder and snare her boss as her husband.

As in Mankiewicz’s next two movies — All About Eve (1950) and People Will Talk (1951)A Letter to Three Wives not only features strong female protagonists but directly addresses feminist issues (work, identity, marital insecurity) not commonly on display in other films of the era. It’s notable that while Sothern is the overworked mother of twins, we never see them; the focus is entirely on her role as a writer painfully aware of how her success is impacting her marriage. The most intriguing storyline, however, is that between Darnell and Douglas: co-screenwriters Mankiewicz and Vera Caspary pull no punches in their depiction of a beautiful woman all-too-aware of the games played between men-of-means and working-class women, and how carefully Darnell must lure Douglas into marrying her in order to bed her. Collectively the three wives’ stories tell a fascinating tale of post-war lives for (white) American women.

P.S. This film is also noteworthy for providing uncredited Thelma Ritter with one of her first post-Miracle on 34th Street wisecracking sidekick roles.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas as Lora Mae and Porter Hollingsway
    Letter to Three Wives Darnell Douglas
  • A witty, suspenseful script
  • Creative use of sound

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable mid-century classic.

Categories

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Applause (1929)

“The kid deserves a better break. Why, this burlesque racket is no place for her!”

Applause Poster

Synopsis:
An aging burlesque star (Helen Morgan) with a manipulative boyfriend (Fuller Mellish, Jr.) tries to prevent her daughter (Joan Peers) — who has fallen in love with a kind sailor (Henry Wadsworth) — from following in her footsteps.

Genres:

Review:
Rouben Mamoulian’s directorial debut remains one of the most creatively conceived early talkies; as noted in Stuart Galbraith IV’s review for DVD Talk, “Compared with the stage-bound, bolt-the-camera-to-the-floor look of nearly all the earliest sound films, Applause is downright astounding.” A glimpse at the stills below provides evidence of Mamoulian’s (and cinematographer George J. Folsey’s) visual brilliance and effective use of on-location shooting. The film is also notable for providing torch singer Helen Morgan with one of a handful of leading cinematic roles as a Stella Dallas-like mother sacrificing all for her daughter. Unfortunately, the storyline itself is pure melodrama through-and-through, with few surprises and many cliches, making this one merely recommended rather than must-see.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Creative direction and cinematography
    Applause1
    Applause2
    Applause3
    Applause5
  • Fine on-location shooting
    Applause4

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Picture of Dorian Gray, The (1945)

“There can be something fatal about a portrait.”

Picture of Dorian Gray Poster

Synopsis:
Goaded by a corrupt lord (George Sanders), a handsome young aristocrat (Hurd Hatfield) offers his soul to the devil if he can appear as young as he looks in a portrait painted by his friend (Lowell Gilmore). He soon finds that his misdeeds — including his cruel mistreatment of a lovely young singer (Angela Lansbury) — show up on the painting while he himself remains ageless; but he must eventually make some challenging decisions when the suitor (Peter Lawford) of Gilmore’s niece (Donna Reed) is determined to find out why Hatfield keeps one room in his house permanently locked.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “handsomely produced” MGM adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s late-19th century story is “strikingly photographed by Harry Stradling (who won an Oscar), and literately scripted by director Albert Lewin” but is ultimately “too tasteful for a film about a sinner”. He accurately points out that “miscast Hatfield’s scoundrel, who is repeatedly shown standing stiff and emotionless like a mannequin, is not active or imaginative enough to be feared”. Indeed, Hatfield’s frustratingly flat performance — presumably (mis)guided by Lewin — brings the entire movie to a halt; with his character acting more like a “model” in a Robert Bresson film than a blue-blooded sociopath (and nearly all of his “wicked acts… kept off screen”), we’re hard-pressed to feel engaged in the scenario one way or another. Are we meant to feel sorry for Gray, who appears to have been naively corrupted by the (perfectly typecast) epigraph-spouting Sanders? And why doesn’t Sanders’ character — who “gets a charge out of Gray’s insensitivity” — show up more often in the second half of the film?

Meanwhile, the film’s biggest “reveal” is, naturally, the hideous state of the continuously morphing titular painting. We’re given plenty of teasers — with shot after shot of a character looking in horror at the portrait we can’t see — before a flash of Technicolor finally reveals what the painting has turned into, at which point we can’t help guffawing. While mid-20th-century audiences may have been aghast at the purulent evidence of Gray’s “moral leprosy”, the painting today comes across like an escaped artifact from A Bucket of Blood (1959) or Color Me Blood Red (1965). Thankfully, the rest of the film is aesthetically pleasing, with scrupulously staged scenes of hollow interactions occurring in cavernous halls, effectively photographed in atmospheric black-and-white; the mid-film murder scene is particularly memorable. But on the whole, this adaptation doesn’t live up to its potential.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine production values
    Picture of Dorian Gray Production
  • Harry Stradling’s Oscar-winning cinematography
    Picture of Dorian Gray Cinematography2
    Picture of Dorian Gray Cinematography
  • An effectively staged murder sequence
    Picture of Dorian Gray Murder

Must See?
No; this one isn’t must-see.

Links:

People Will Talk (1951)

“You’re quite a noble character, aren’t you?”

People Will Talk Poster

Synopsis:
A well-intentioned doctor (Cary Grant) accompanied by a stoic yet loyal assistant (Finlay Currie) marries a suicidal pregnant woman (Jeanne Crain) out of both concern and love, while being pestered by a jealous colleague (Hume Cronyn) desperate to reveal questionable elements of Grant and Currie’s mysterious pasts.

Genres:

Review:
This most unusual “romantic comedy” — written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, and based on a play by German playwright Curt Goetz — is usually referred to as a thinly veiled commentary on anti-Communist hysteria and witch hunts in 1950s America. While it doesn’t really succeed as such, it does remain a bold, often cleverly scripted antidote to most of the overly sanitized films being produced in Hollywood at the time. Cary Grant’s Dr. Praetorius represents an idealistic vision of what humanity could be like if only our actions were led by compassion and logic rather than suspicion and priggish morality. His “rescue” of an unwed, pregnant, suicidal woman is initially posited as a deceptive maneuver to save her life, but we soon realize he’s simply allowing powerful emotions to drive his sense of justice and righteous living (perhaps much like Jesus?). Dr. Praetorius is so superior to slimy leches like jealous Professor Elwell (Cronyn) that it’s clear he’ll win the day; the entire film basically plays out how this triumph occurs.

Unfortunately, Grant wasn’t the best choice for this most unusual of romantic male leads; it’s much easier to imagine a more nuanced actor — like Spencer Tracy — investing the character with inspired depth. Crain is fine as Grant’s loyal wife, but never really transcends what’s required of her in the role. The supporting roles are more successful: Cronyn is spot-on as weaselly Elwell; Currie gives a memorable performance as the mysterious lumbering “Shunderson”; and Margaret Hamilton is nicely typecast as a suspicious shrew brought in during the first scene to bolster Cronyn’s growing case against Grant and Currie. Ultimately, this odd title remains a mixed bag: intriguing and different enough to be worth checking out, but not entirely successful.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An often wittily acerbic script
    People Will Talk Hamilton2
  • Milton Krasner’s cinematography
    People Will Talk Cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look if you’re curious.

Links:

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

“What about our sons? What future is there here for them?”

Swiss Family Robinson Poster

Synopsis:
A Swiss family — father (John Mills), mother (Dorothy McGuire), and three sons (Tommy Kirk, James MacArthur, and Kevin Corcoran) — emigrating to New Guinea in the early 19th century is shipwrecked on a remote island, and must fight against marauding pirates while rebuilding their lives and rescuing a captured teenage girl (Janet Munro).

Genres:

Review:
This enormously popular adaptation of Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel is notable as the first widescreen Disney movie filmed with Panavision lenses, and for its fabled location shooting on the island of Tobago. According to TCM’s article, filming conditions were often treacherous, with star John Mills stating in an interview:

“If a scorpion doesn’t bite me during the night I get into the car, and if it doesn’t skid off the edge of a cliff, I reach the mangrove swamp. I walk through; and if I’m not sucked in by a quick-sand, eaten alive by land crabs, or bitten by a snake, I reach the beach. I change on the beach, trying to avoid being devoured by insects, and walk into the sea. If there are no sharks or barracudas about, we get the shot – and then do the whole thing in reverse, providing, of course, we haven’t died of sunstroke in the meantime.”

Dozens of animals from around the world were shipped to the island, under the care of no less than 14 trainers. The movie cost 4.5 million dollars to make, but was (and remained) so popular it is considered one of the most profitable films of all time — and its fame lives on through reconstructions of the family’s elaborate treehouse at theme parks around the world.

Unfortunately, despite its beloved status, the film is far from a true classic. There’s plenty of adventure to be had, but it’s all so patently unbelievable — a chase between people riding zebras and ostriches?? — that only the youngest or most naive of viewers will be taken in. The two primary plot elements driving the narrative are the family’s attempts to stave off a persistent band of pirates (led by Sessue Hayakawa), and the love triangle that instantly emerges when the two older Robinson brothers conveniently stumble upon (and easily rescue) a teenage girl. Who will win her heart? How will the other boy handle his defeat? Munro is a sweet and lovely actress, but her characterization here does no favors to her gender, and is especially disappointing after her sparkling turn in Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) the year before. [Thankfully, she got back on track with her notable performance as a deep-throated romantic interest the following year in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961).]

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful cinematography on the island of Tobago
    Swiss Family Robinson Still

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for fans who remember it fondly from their childhood.

Links:

Real Life (1979)

“We want the greatest show of all: life!”

Real Life Poster

Synopsis:
A pushy film director (Albert Brooks) recruits an “ordinary” American family — Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain, Lisa Urette, and Robert Stirrat — to open up their house to a documentary crew and two psychologists (Matthew Tobin and J.A. Preston).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “reasonably funny satire” — which “pokes fun at PBS’s American Family series that presented the lives of the Louds in cinema verite style — shows that “the presence of a camera alters reality” and “asserts that documentarians have a lot of gall to take their cameras into people’s homes to exploit them”. Given that reality television is now beyond de rigeur (and few younger viewers will have seen the original series), director-star Albert Brooks’ satirical insights no longer pack the same punch; 21st century audiences understand how “reality” is inevitably obscured by being filmed, and (thanks to ample mass media coverage) have a more nuanced view of what it means for participants to be “exploited” while simultaneously exploiting the genre for their own fame and gain. With that said, as Peary notes, the movie “has peculiar insight into family life, some believable characterizations, and several truly hilarious scenes”, including Brooks singing “to Phoenix residents about how he ‘sincerely’ appreciates them; the visit to McCain’s crooked gynecologist; and Grodin’s showing incompetence while operating on a horse”. (I also enjoy the slow-mo montage sequence.)

However, things get off to a creaky start as soon as filming begins in the Yeagers’ house, as we’re shown how the Yeagers’ “normal” appearance during the audition process masked (who knew?!) a darker suburban reality of bitchy wives, petulant children, and put-upon, milquetoast husbands. McCain’s immediate crush on Brooks — while strategically fueling the ego of his “opportunist” character “whose integrity and sensitivity come and go” — feels patently false, and the two kids are instantly forgettable. Although Peary argues that the secondary plotline involving “Brooks’s meetings with psychologists and studio executives” causes the film to lose momentum, I disagree; I actually find Brooks’ character (as obnoxious as he is) the most perversely interesting and authentic in the film, and his dealings with a faceless producer ring all-too-true. The film’s denouement is reasonably inspired, and zany enough to leave us feeling that this film is really about outsized Hollywood egos run amok.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some amusing moments
    Real Life Montage
  • Brooks’ no-holds-barred performance as (a variation on) himself
    Real Life Brooks

Must See?
No, though you’ll certainly want to check it out if you’re an Albert Brooks fan.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Olympiad, The/Olympia (1936)

“For the last time, the athletes have to fight with all their might.”

Olympia Poster

Synopsis:
Athletes from around the world compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as Adolf Hitler watches from the sidelines.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “two-part film of the Berlin Olympics of 1936” — “regarded as one of the best documentaries ever made”, as well as “among the most controversial” — is “extremely disappointing”, given that “there is virtually no excitement on any event” and we “have no idea who most of the athletes are [or] what their strategies will be”. He concedes that some of the “best moments in this long, interesting, but overrated documentary… are the close-ups of the athletes’ faces, the shots of cheering fans in the grandstands, and, of course the heralded [final] diving montage in which faceless, acrobatic bodies become one with the sky, air, and water”. He notes the interesting fact that “the clips we always see of [Jesse] Owens setting Olympic records (and thus disputing the Nazi myth of white supremacy) are taken from this documentary, but that [the] shot of unhappy Hitler we always see after Owens’s victories was taken from another part of the movie and… had nothing to do with his reaction to Owens”. Finally, he points out that despite being regarded as “fascistic” because “it idealizes athletes as beautifully built, superhuman figures”, Riefenstahl “gives fair coverage to events in which Germans lost”.

Indeed, given its reputation as yet another propaganda-laden film by the infamous Nazi-affiliated director of Triumph of the Will (1935), Olympia — officially titled Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations and Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty — comes across as surprisingly even-handed in its representation of athletes from across the globe. The primary indicators that this film was made in pre-WWII Germany are the presence of swastika-laden German flags, several collective heil-salutes, and reaction shots of Hitler and his key henchmen in the audience. Regardless of her political affiliations (which of course one shouldn’t dismiss or forget), Riefenstahl was an undeniably brilliant filmmaker. Although the film is too long to enjoy in one setting, and often repetitive, I find it far from boring; Riefenstahl could have chosen a different, more personal approach to filming this material, and edited more strategically, but her decision — to show a range of incredible sporting talent and physical beauty across nations — seems defensible. One finishes this marathon, two-part documentary with an appreciation for what the Olympics are (in part, ideally) designed to do: allow gifted athletes to compete as humans while simultaneously bringing honor to their homelands.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gorgeous cinematography and direction
    Olympia Cinematography
    Olympia Cinematography2
  • Valuable historical footage of early Olympics games set in a notorious global era
    Olympia Owens
    Olympia Salutes
  • The stunning closing diving sequence
    Olympia Diving

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance and aesthetic value.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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