Last week, the mailman delivered an Amazon box containing the Criterion Blu-Ray edition of the 1966 John Frankenheimer movie Seconds, starring Rock Hudson. Its arrival meant I could finally retire my 1997 laser disc edition of the film, one of the last 12-inch silver discs I purchased before switching to DVDs. But first, it meant a late night viewing of one of the strangest and most unsettling movies produced by mid-‘60s Hollywood.
Forget Dr. Strangelove’s obsession with fluoridation — something strange had gotten in the water in the mid-1960s. Maybe it was a collective premonition that the overreach of the Johnson Administration’s Great Society would very likely cause it to fail, as it attempted to fight the war on poverty, the war on racism, the space race, the Cold War, and the hot war in Vietnam, all simultaneously.
Perhaps it was the cognitive dissonance of the left, unable to process the fact that Johnson was only in office because President Kennedy was shot by “some silly little Communist,” as newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy muttered upon hearing the news about the motivations of the man who shot her husband. Instead of understanding that the Cold War had claimed her husband, Jackie, like most of the American left couldn’t make the connection. The ideology of Kennedy’s assassin “robs his death of any meaning,” she added.
But giving meaning to life didn’t really interest the American left at the height of the Cold War. In the early days of the 20th century, pioneering, self-described “Progressives” championed better working conditions for the common man. Now that America’s postwar economic boom meant that many men had them, and were moving to the suburbs as a result, after World War II, the left decided this was a bad thing. Hence, the 1956 film, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, (which both Seconds and today’s Mad Men each owes much to), and by time of the Kennedy era, Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes,” with its references to suburban houses “all made out of ticky-tacky,” dubbed “the most sanctimonious song ever written” by fellow leftwing songwriter Tom Leher.
But this trend went into overdrive by the mid-‘60s, a hatred of all things suburbia that burns to this day, one of many poisoned leftwing wells from which our current president has drunk from deeply. In 1966, director Frank Perry shot the film version of the 1964 short story written by the New Yorker’s John Cheever, The Swimmer, which starred a buff-looking Burt Lancaster, trapped in an 95-minute-long metaphor of a movie. As the title implies, Lancaster swam from pool to pool, chatting wistfully with his neighbors in their wealthy Connecticut suburb about missed opportunities, middle age, and social conformity.
The Swimmer, which is available in high def streaming video from Amazon, wasn’t released by Columbia Pictures until 1968, perhaps because another, much darker film with a somewhat similar theme had bombed badly at the box office. In the early to mid-1960s, director John Frankenheimer had a made a career of Cold War paranoid thrillers, releasing first The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. In 1964, Frankenheimer next helmed Seven Days in May, with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster starring in a film about American generals attempting a coup against a dovish liberal president. In 1966, Frankenheimer directed Seconds.
SPOILER ALERT: DON’T READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM YET, BUT MIGHT WANT TO. I’M ABOUT TO GIVE AWAY WIDE SWATCHES OF THE PLOT. YOU WERE WARNED.