Master cinematographer James Wong Howe, ASC lent a seasoned eye to director John Frankenheimer’s horrific tale of “rebirth.”
Film historians generally acknowledge that the transformation from the Hollywood studio system to the American “New Wave” occurred with the 1969 release of Easy Rider. This counterculture classic, directed by Dennis Hopper and photographed by László Kovács, ASC, revolutionized cinematic storytelling with a visually and aurally driven style that broke away from the classic literary, narrative and pictorial devices familiar to older moviegoers. But the liberation of the motion picture camera had actually occurred a bit earlier, in the mid-Sixties. It's ironic that during a highly politicized era in which anyone over 30 was subject to mistrust, a leader of this cinematic insurrection was the renowned 67-year-old cinematographer James Wong Howe, ASC, who had been born at the end of the 19th Century. The veteran cameraman’s work on director John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Seconds, a controversial and misunderstood picture, would later exert a strong influence upon the future of American moviemaking.
In the fall of 1964, Kirk Douglas was appearing in the original Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when he announced in the trade papers that Joel Productions, in conjunction with Frankenheimer, had acquired David Ely’s novel Seconds for $75,000. Douglas, Frankenheimer and producer Edward Lewis had brought Seven Days in May to the screen via Paramount, and were anxious to work together again. Seconds was to be the inaugural project for the newly constituted Douglas and Lewis Productions, and ultimately became part of a two-picture deal established with Paramount. Production began in 1965.
Seconds is a contemporary horror story centering on Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a middle-aged, upper-class suburbanite who is dissatisfied with his affluent but mundane lifestyle. Hamilton is offered a second chance at youth and a new, vital way of life by a mysterious, nameless Company in exchange for his substantial wealth. After being “killed” in a planned accident, Hamilton is physically transformed through plastic surgery and supplied with the new identity of Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson), an established painter living in California.
Wilson is provided with a manservant, friends, a portfolio of his “art” and even female companionship. The inner Arthur Hamilton, however, becomes overwhelmed by the organization's Big Brother control tactics, and begins to feel the conflict between his past and present identities. After suffering a mental breakdown, Hamilton asks the Company for a chance to forge a self-defined and meaningful existence, but is unable to comply with their requirement that he recommend a new client for their nefarious purposes. Otherwise useless to them, Hamilton meets his fate as he enters what the Company calls the “next stage,” becoming a cadaver for use in a another customer’s staged death.
At the time Seconds was made, 36-year-old John Frankenheimer was part of a new breed of directors trained in the “Golden Age” of live television in the Fifties. Following his prestigious work in television dramas for the series Danger, Climax and Playhouse 90, Frankenheimer developed his astute pictorial style for the big screen on provocative films such as The Young Savages, All Fall Down, The Birdman of Alcatraz and especially The Manchurian Candidate, a political thriller which entered the mind of a brainwashed man through a baroque use of black-and-white imagery, expressive production design and a paranoic filled plot.
After Frankenheimer returned from filming The Train in Europe, he was propelled in a new creative direction. Hollywood movies were still produced primarily in the studios, where style and content could be heavily managed, but Frankenheimer decided that he wanted to create films outside of studio confines. For Seconds, Frankenheimer planned to shoot on the East Coast in New York's Grand Central Station; in Scarsdale, a suburb of Westchester County, for scenes involving Hamilton's firstborn life; and on the West Coast in Malibu, California, for the sequences that occur after the character's artificial rebirth.
The novel and screenplay had a surreal quality that suggested an extreme visual approach to Frankenheimer, who liked to use the armature of a simple story to construct a complex visualization. Frankenheimer saw in the project the possibility of creating a disturbing blend of cinema-verité, science-fiction and horror elements.
Perhaps Frankenheimer's most crucial directorial decision on Seconds was his request that James Wong Howe serve as director of photography. A seasoned Hollywood professional who always sought to bend the rules and express a story in vivid visual terms, Howe was a perfect collaborator for the youthful and ambitious Frankenheimer.
Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in Kwantung, China on August 28, 1899. He began his more than 50 years of dedication to cinematography during Hollywood's silent film era, making his debut behind the camera on 1922’s Drums of Destiny for the Jesse L. Lasky Studio. Howe became a visual stylist who created atmosphere and emotion with his commanding application of the tools of cinematography. During his career, he worked with many first-tier directors, including Victor Fleming, Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Erich von Stroheim, Busby Berkeley, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Fritz Lang and Lewis Milestone. Howe's stylistic hallmarks were deep-focus photography, low-key moods, film noir, and naturalistic, romantic and expressive lighting effects. He became a master of black-and-white photography while working on an impressive roster of films that included Air Force, The Power and the Glory, Body and Soul, Come Back Little Sheba, The Sweet Smell of Success and Hud, which earned Howe the 1963 Academy Award for Best Black-and-White Cinematography. He had previously earned an Oscar in 1955 for his color cinematography on The Rose Tattoo, photographed in VistaVision.
The central visual metaphor of Seconds emerged from Howe and Frankenheimer's experimentation with a 9.7mm fisheye lens. “In Seconds, the [idea of] distortion was terribly important,” Frankenheimer told Gerald Pratley in 1969. “The distortion of what society had made this man, what the Company then turned him out to be, and finally when he was going to his death everything had to be that complete distortion of reality and the fact that it was all just utter nonsense.”
Noted graphics designer Saul Bass' unsettling opening credits introduce this theme, as disturbingly extreme close-ups of a man's face (presumably Hamilton’s) twist and contort behind stark white typography. The images were created in-camera through the use of macro lenses and a flexible Mylar-like mirror:
The motif was continued by art director Ted Haworth. Some sets were designed to be distorted in perspective and were photographed with normal lenses. Other sets were designed in normal proportions and shot with extreme wide-angle lenses that warped their presentation.
One of Haworth’s key contributions was the Company’s mazelike offices, consisting of a long corridor with interconnecting offices, a waiting area and an operating room. The enclosed set led Howe to experiment with optics and camera movement to heighten the tale's terror, best evidenced at the end of the picture as Tony Wilson is strapped to a gurney and wheeled into the operating room thrashing and struggling as he realizes the end is near. The camera, often mounted to the gurney and fitted with either the 9.7mm or an 18mm lens, is an unflinching witness to Wilson's desperate yet vain efforts to free himself; the optics bend the set walls inward, adding to the claustrophobic horror of the sequence:
Another of Haworth’s notable creations was a bedroom set that appears in a drug-induced hallucination sequence. Frankenheimer wanted the scene to be “almost psychedelic,” and succeeded in striking fashion. After Hamilton is dosed by a Company agent, he dreams of molesting a young woman in a bizarre chamber. The room’s heavily textured walls raked at extreme angles to create a false sense of perspective, while the floor undulated beneath black-and-white checkerboard tiles. Exemplified by this scene, the physical and optical distortion achieved by Haworth's sets and Howe's cinematography combined throughout Seconds to create a disturbing, stomach-churning effect of a Kafkaesque universe:
Richard Anderson, who played Dr. Innes, the ruthlessly hi-tech Company plastic surgeon who transforms dissatisfied, middle-aged men into vital-looking “reborns,” says that the collaboration between Frankenheimer and Howe produced a distinctive vision. “The script triggered the vision of [the picture] as almost a horror film,” says Anderson. “I was delighted to work with the man who had photographed Body and Soul and all of those wonderful black-and-white pictures. James Wong Howe was hugely responsible for the mood of the movie visually, because he had such a striking vision of his approach. I was struck by the low-key quality of his work. John Frankenheimer has a great feel for camerawork, and he's very expressive and dramatic. The wide angles were used to extenuate the mood. I could see that they were going for unique ways of telling the story.”
Because of the extensive use of wide-angle lenses, Seconds was a demanding exercise for the film's camera operators. The visual approach required multiple cameras (often handheld), oddly-placed framing and unusual camera movements. A bedroom scene in which Hamilton realized that he cannot make love to his wife was photographed simultaneously with four handheld Arriflex cameras. These various angles were covered by Frankenheimer, Howe and two other operators at the other positions.
In July of 1965, Hollywood film production was in a growth period, so Howe found it difficult to keep up with the project's demand for operators. Aiding him were Roy Clark, John M. Stephens and an uncredited John A. Alonzo, who would later become one of the industry’s most notable cinematographers and an ASC member. Alonzo was shooting documentaries for David L. Wolper when he was summoned to the set of Seconds to help out. “Local 659 had absolutely no operators available,” recalls Alonzo today, some 32 years later. “Herb Aller, the business agent for the Local, called Wolper and asked if anyone there could operate, especially on handheld work, so I was sent over by production manager, Burt Gold.”
Alonzo arrived at Paramount Studios that afternoon and joined two other operators brought in for that night. “I was very excited,” Alonzo remembers, “because Jimmy Wong Howe was shooting the picture, Frankenheimer was directing and Rock Hudson was the star. But I was warned by Herb Aller that this was just a one-night job.”
Arriving at the set which depicted Tony Wilson’s Malibu bachelor pad Alonzo found himself “just hanging out” and observing Howe for much of the night, until the famous cinematographer turned to him and pointedly asked, “What do you do?”
After Alonzo explained that he had been brought in to operate, Howe said to him, “Well, then pick up the camera.”
“It was a little Arriflex and the lenses had those butterfly ears for pulling focus,” Alonzo says. “They had assistants to help you follow focus, but I was a documentary cameraman and wasn’t used to that. I explained that I just wasn’t used to having a focus-puller, and Howe said, 'Can you follow your own focus?' I told him I could and he basically responded, 'Well, don't screw it up, kid, or you're in trouble.”
The scene at hand was a cocktail party that Wilson holds for his neighbors. During the festivities, he drunkenly alludes to his secret past much to the ire of several guests, whom he shockingly discovers to be fellow Company reborns. Seeking realism, Frankenheimer had Hudson actually get drunk for the scene a risky tactic which demanded that many shots be covered in one take by multiple cameras. Hence the need for Alonzo and the other operators.
“My first shot had Hudson coming into this crowded living room full of people smoking and drinking,” Alonzo remembers. “I was in front of him, walking backwards through the crowd, photographing him with a fairly wide 24mm lens. Three cameras were rolling, and I heard one of the other operators say to Howe, ‘He got in my shot,’ meaning me. Howe asked about my shot, ‘How was it, kid?’ And I said, ‘Very good.’
“Howe could tell if a shot was working, so he just told me to do it again and not worry about getting in other people's shots.”
Instructed by Howe to “make it more complicated, create more movement, and let people get in the foreground,” Alonzo found his documentary skills coming into play; he even grabbed extras with a free hand and pulled them in front of the lens. Observing this tactic, Howe said to the operator, “That looked pretty good, but it better be in focus.”
“I was just praying that they would let me come back the next night,” says Alonzo. He received a call the following day from production manager Chico Day asking him to do just that, but the Local couldn’t allow it. Impressed by Alonzo’s skills, Howe, Frankenheimer and producer Eddie Lewis contacted the union and lobbied Herb Aller to get him in the guild, to no avail.
Aller ultimately relented, allowing Alonzo in as a “second second assistant,” and the two later became close friends. Some years later, Aller helped Alonzo upgrade his status to director of photography.
“I didn’t get to work on Seconds again,” says Alonzo, “but the experience of working with James Wong Howe was more important to me. He remembered me and recommended me for one of my first features [as a cinematographer]: Sounder, for Martin Ritt. I called Howe to thank him and he just said, ‘You’re the guy to do it. [Ritt] is the best director around, so help him out.’ So that one night [on Seconds] was a moment of luck or fate that really changed things for me.”
Multiple cameras again came into play for the film's opening sequence, which portrays Grand Central Station as a Gothic labyrinth. For certain shots, a camera outfitted with an 18mm lens was harnessed to actor Frank Campanella, who portrayed a Company agent in pursuit of Hamilton. The result was a strange, somnambulistic tracking effect as the camera faces Campanella, keeping him in the frame as the architecture of the station moves by in the background:
Frankenheimer came up with two working strategies to capture the actual commuters streaming in and moving through the well-traveled train terminal. Seven cameras, often handheld, were hidden from view. Two were inside the centrally located main information booth, others were in a newsstand and the stationmaster's office. A few cameras were even installed in suitcases to achieve eerie low-angle handheld shots as the operator, case in hand, surreptitiously followed Hamilton through the station.
Frankenheimer also staged a diversion in another part of Grand Central's concourse that allowed the filmmakers to work undisturbed. In the main thoroughfare, he had screenwriter John Lewis Carlino and a bogus crew fake the shooting of a scene which involved a well-dressed young man being greeted by a fully clothed blonde siren who, when the crowds began to encircle them, stripped to a brief bikini. The faux crew drew so much attention that few noticed Frankenheimer and Howe shooting the real setups elsewhere in Grand Central.
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 feature 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.
Additional reporting for this article contributed by David E. Williams
This article was originally published in American Cinematographer, November, 1997. Some images are additional or alternate.
In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected Seconds for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."