Timescape (David Twohy 1992), adapted from ‘Vintage Season’ (1946) by Lawrence O’Donnell (CL Moore and Henry Kuttner)

1eaffiche[yet another of those pieces I wrote for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Lawrence O’Donnell is one of the many pseudonyms under which C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, both already established sf authors, published collaborative fiction after their 1940 marriage until Kuttner’s death in 1958. The extent and nature of their co-authorship in any individual story is never clear. ‘Vintage Season’ is generally considered to be ‘probably a full collaboration’, drawing out both author’s ‘concerns’ in a ‘perfect blend of Kuttner’s logic, Moore’s emotional depth, and their combined irony and stylistic sophistication’ (Attebery 175).

In the final days of a glorious May, Oliver Wilson, who owns a run-down mansion overlooking a small-town, faces a dilemma. Omerie, Kleph and Klia Sancisco have rented rooms until the end of the month, but his fiancée, Sue, wants him to accept a mysterious, lucrative offer to buy the house.

There is something peculiar about the Sansiscos: ‘the beautiful clothing they wore so confidently was not clothing they were accustomed to’ and they speak ‘as trained singers sing, with perfect breath control and voice placement’ (O’Donnell 264, 265). Their queerness – they are often described as effeminate, flamboyant and decadent – intrigues him; and others like them begin to appear in town. There is sadness in Kleph’s eyes when she looks at Oliver. She shows him marvels he does not quite comprehend, intoxicates him with euphoriac tea and seduces him. She is enraptured by a recording of an uncompleted three-dimensional, audio-visual symphonia about human suffering in the face of catastrophe, but it sickens Oliver ‘to the depths of his mind’ (286). He tricks her into revealing the truth: the tourists are time-travellers from an idyllic future, but there is more to their trip than merely visiting perfect seasons – they have come to watch a meteorite destroy the town.

Lawrence O’Donnell

Oliver wakes up several days later. The tourists have gone, replaced by Cenbe, who is observing the aftermath to help him complete his symphonia. He lets slip that the time-travellers were inoculated to prevent a virulent disease accidentally being taken back to their own time. Oliver, already infected by the meteorite-borne disease, leaves an account of all that he has learned so that time-travellers can be identified and thus future disasters averted. But his house is dynamited in ‘the futile attempt to halt the relentless spread of the Blue Death’ (306). Cenbe’s symphonia is a ‘crowning triumph’ (306).

David Twohy’s directorial debut, intended for theatrical release as The Grand Tour, was instead released to US cable as Disaster in Time and straight to video as Timescape (it is also sometimes called The Grand Tour: Disaster in Time). It rather effectively reworks ‘Vintage Season’ as a tightly budgeted Frank Capra picture channelled through Steven Spielberg, but maintains a sufficiently dark edge to keep it from falling into the kind of sentimentalism typical of cable movies that combine problematic family relationships with fantastical elements.

1ec0414f592bfafc5c7c4df01daaeWidower Ben Wilson (Jeff Daniels) is converting a mansion into a guesthouse. He has a young teenage daughter, Hillary (Ariana Richards), a drink problem and recurring nightmares about the death of his wife Carolyn (Mimi Craven) in a car crash – he was seen fleeing the scene, but insists he was running for help. When the mysterious Madame Iovine (Marilyn Lightstone), a reworking of the pushy Hollia into Omerie’s role, arrives with half a dozen tourists, including the striking Reeve (Emilia Crow), as Kleph is renamed, Ben agrees to let them stay for a few days, despite the renovations being incomplete.

Whereas O’Donnell introduced the tourists’ strangeness by comparing them to foreigners and to people too wealthy to understand the ways of ordinary folk, Twohy depicts them as aloof, restricts their screen time, and reveals their unfamiliarity with everyday things through subtle touches, such as the bumbling Quish (David Wells) not understanding shoe laces. They claim to be from ‘south California’ and come across as European yuppies adrift in the American mid-west. Twohy also reduces the interaction between Ben and Reeve, sidestepping the demands that Kleph’s extravagant décor and advanced technology would have made on the budget; but his depiction of the initial attraction between them – Ben peers at the nearly-naked Reeve through the plastic sheeting over her doorway – looks like something from a straight-to-cable erotic thriller of the period. When Ben works out from Quish’s hints that the tourists are time-travelling ‘disaster groupies’ and moves to a hotel in town, Reeve seduces and intoxicates him to keep him from interfering in their plans.

Twohy focuses on Ben’s relationship with his daughter, and the bitterness of his dead wife’s father, Judge Caldwell (George Murdock), who obtains a writ of temporary custody over Hillary. When the meteor hits, destroying the west end of town, Ben’s concern is entirely for her. Once she is safe, he joins the search for survivors. The tourists – Quish insists he is not a sightseer but a ‘retropologist’ – are busy taking it all in. Next day, while Hillary helps out at the emergency centre established in the school, Ben discovers that the tourists have relocated to a new vantage point from which to observe a gas explosion destroying the school.

1evlcsnap-2011-04-24-22h37m40s174Ben wakes up to find a new time traveller, the Undersecretary (Robert Colbert), investigating Quish’s death while saving Ben from the explosion. Before leaving, an apologetic Reeve slips Quish’s passport, which contains a time-travelling device, to Ben. He travels back to before the meteor impact, but is caught trying to sneak Hillary out of the judge’s house. Nobody will listen to his warnings, and he has to phone his pre-disaster self to break him out of jail. Two minor plot points – the reverend’s (Time Winters) attempts to get Ben to mend the church bells, which have not rung for eighteen years, and repeated references to Für Elise, which Carolyn used to play – come together as the two Bens bash out Beethoven’s familiar bagatelle with sledgehammers on the bells. People pour in from the west end of town to find out what is going on, and are thus saved. Ben convinces them not to use the school as an emergency centre. The Undersecretary returns the time-travelling Ben to where he belongs.

In a brief coda, Ben looks at photos of Carolyn. Hillary finds his chair empty and Quish’s passport on the table beside it. From the next room comes the sound of Für Elise, played perfectly on the piano. ‘Mom?’, she asks.


It is not uncommon to use a short story as a film’s opening act or sequence, deriving name recognition or kudos from the pre-sold property before finding ways to elaborate upon material that is too scanty to sustain an entire film. Timescape does not quite fit this pattern. Based on a substantial novella, which provides almost half of the film, it makes nothing of its source or authorship, which are probably too little known to be particularly marketable anyway. Twohy discards the O’Donnell’s selfish, bullying Sue, freeing Oliver to become less of a dupe as he is transformed – thanks to Jeff Daniels’ typically precise performance – into the loving and vulnerable Ben. While the film eschews O’Donnell’s sweetly detached, apocalyptic ironies, preferring to reassert the nuclear family and a safe domestic sphere, Twohy’s simple time-loop narrative results in a more persuasive vision of a man learning the error of his ways than the better-known Groundhog Day (Ramis 1993). The key scene comes after the prison breakout as the two Bens drive to the judge’s house to grab Hillary and flee the town. The pre-disaster Ben, on learning of the imminent catastrophes, accuses the post-disaster Ben of cowardice, just like when he – they – fled the car-crash rather than saving Carolyn. In this moment of heightened anxiety, Ben voices what he has known all along, and earns redemption by drawing on this self-knowledge to save others. It is not the kind of thing one finds in the fiction of Moore and Kuttner, individually or collaboratively, but in moving away from the substance and tone of their story, Twohy creates an affecting and genuinely science-fictional moment. It is unsurprising that his subsequent career as a writer and director of sf films has been pretty successful: while accommodating the demands of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, he continues to display kinds of sf thinking more typically associated with the literary tradition.

Brian Attebery. ‘C[atherine] L[ucille] Moore (1911–87)’. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint. London: Routledge, 2009. 171–76.

Lawrence O’Donnell. ‘Vintage Season’. The Astounding-Analog Reader, Book Two. Ed. Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss. London: Sphere, 1973. 263–30.

The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor 2016)

girl-train-posterand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Girl on the Train (2016) is not the way Tate Taylor translates this gaslight melodrama hokum, mixed with a bit of Rear Window and The 4.50 from Paddington, not merely into a contemporary setting but also into a work of significance through a brilliant central performance by Emily Blunt, made all the more endearing when, in the first scene she shares with Luke Evans, both of them temporarily forget their American accents (although his oddly slips back into English rather than Welsh), through studied pacing, through a narrative and temporal slipperiness that makes the plot holes look like enigmas rather than plot holes, and through serious-looking but trivialising invocations of trauma, addiction and therapy, no, the best thing about The Girl on the Train is the way in which, in an era in which political correctness has not only gone mad but is rampaging like a berserker through American culture, as we can see from the current Presidential election, it has has the balls-to-the-wall guts to base its narrative in the scientific truths of sociobiology: that men are driven by the swashbuckling need to put their dicks in every woman they meet, especially if in doing so they can dominate a) other women that a sick society forces them into providing for financially even when they cannot produce offspring or are not always available for penetration, and b) other men, particularly if they live next door; and that the only goal, drive and desire of women is to reproduce – and possibly to be blonde, since things seem to go better for blondes than brunettes, at least for a while…

The Walk (Robert Zemeckis 2015)

walk_ver3And so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Walk (2015) – Robert Zemeckis’s attempt to turn thirty-five million dollars, the full cutting-edge apparatus of digital and 3D filmmaking, a talented cast and a thrilling story of a daring Gallic tightrope-walker who is also something of a dick, into a tin-eared, lumbering hodgepodge of edge-of-the-seat thrills and ballyhoo-dressed-up-as-self-reflexivity – is not the conjuration of a lost Paris that aims for the joyfulness of early Godard, would settle for the psychotic whimsy of Amélie (2001), falls short of Bertolucci’s genuinely godawful The Dreamers (2003) but just about achieves Team America: World Police (2004), nor is it the fabulously ridiculous haircut the as-always adorable Joseph Gordon-Levitt is forced to sport, nor is it the ominous appearance of The Dread Red-Eyed Seagull of Doom, here manifesting as a badly drawn cartoon, no, the best thing about The Walk is the way it distracts from the otherwise and as-always excellent JGL’s woeful French accent by the cunning – nay, bravura – casting of Ben Kingsley, who can do neither a Czech nor a French accent, as a Czech with a French accent…

The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges 1974), adapted from Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (1972)

[another of those pieces written for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Narrated from the perspective of the doctors treating him, particularly psychiatrist Janet Ross, Crichton’s novel tells the story of divorced, thirtysomething computer scientist, Harold Benson. He suffers from blackouts during which he becomes extremely violent. Since orthodox medication has no effect on his Acute Disinhibitory Lesion (ADL) syndrome, he agrees to a radical surgical procedure, conducted by the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit (NRU). Forty electrodes are inserted into the damaged section of his brain and a nuclear powerpack into his shoulder. A computer implanted in his neck will detect the onset of a seizure and abort it with a shock through one of the electrodes. Ross considers Benson, who believes that machines are ‘competing with human beings’ and will ‘ultimately … take over the world’ (15), is an unsuitable candidate for this procedure. Professor Manon is also opposed to the operation since it will do nothing to cure Benson’s psychosis, but the ambitious Dr Ellis justifies his decision to proceed on the grounds that it will at least stop Benson’s seizures and the accompanying violence. On the eve of the operation, a young woman called Angela Black visits Benson.

After the operation, Roger McPherson, head of the NRU, is troubled by Benson’s continued conviction about the machine threat. Monitoring Benson’s brain activity, Ross notices the increasing frequency of stimulations as he starts to ‘initiate seizures in order to experience the pleasurable shocks’ (131). Benson escapes from the hospital. A computer projection indicates that within hours he will be receiving almost continuous stimulations, making 1317932233_9him uncontrollably violent. The medical staff set out to find him. Shortly after the tipping-point passes, Angela is found murdered, her skull crushed and her body repeatedly stabbed post-mortem.

When Benson attacks Ross in her home, she uses her microwave to disrupt his powerpack, but Dr Morris, who tracks him to a hangar, is brutally beaten. While Ellis spins the story for the media, the LAPD’s Captain Anders discovers that Benson obtained plans for the hospital’s wiring system. Ross and Anders descend into the labyrinthine basement housing the hospital’s mainframe, and when Benson attemps to destroy it, Ross shoots him dead.

The selection of Mike Hodges – director of the quintessential British neo-noir Get Carter (1971) and the self-reflexive black crime comedy Pulp (1972) – to adapt Crichton’s novel might seem a curious choice. However, even if Hodges’ background in documentary (including ITV’s hard-hitting current affairs series World in Action (1963–99) in the early 1960s) had not recommended him for the project, it certainly assisted him in crafting the most aesthetically (and least financially) successful Crichton adaptation. Crichton uses various techniques in an attempt to lend his potboiler a kind of documentary realism, including: the same title format for each chapter (e.g., ‘WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 1971: Implantation’); a timeline of the history of psychosurgical therapy, culminating in an entry which reads ‘Harold Benson is operated on in Los Angeles’ (the October 23 1971 date of this introduction, like the chapter titles, implies that the novel is a record of something that has already happened); sundry computer outputs; facsimiles of LAPD crime and death reports; and a six-page bibliography. While Hodges’ documentarian skills might suit him to these and related aspects of the novel, his black humour and leftist political sensibilities are utterly at odds with Crichton’s distinctive reactionary blend of moralistic earnestness and hysterical technophobia.

Crichton presents his novel as a cautionary intervention into technoscientific developments and the failure of a purportedly democratic system to foster informed popular debate about key social issues and trends. Whatever degree of hucksterism this involves, it is presented as a genuine concern. However, although the novel does evoke concerns around the dehumanising potentials of technology, it fails to articulate a coherent position in relation to them. This ideological fuzziness, typical of Crichton’s work, may in part account for his phenomenal success.

The key contradiction shaping the novel is between linear and non-linear determinism, articulated through a dislike and simultaneous embrace of authoritarian structures, and through an equally muddled championing of individualism and moralistic disdain for the ways in which certain people ‘misuse’ their freedom. Crichton’s reactionary leanings often take on a pseudo-pragmatic, anti-intellectual, anti-big government tone (for example, substantial passages are devoted to characters arguing that violent behaviour results from physical brain damage, while no-one even contemplates any of the other potential causes suggested in all the ‘bad theory floating around, written by sociologists and paid for by good taxpayer money’ (41)), which completely contradicts his growing awareness of complex determinism.

1974terminalman01When Benson arrives at the hospital, Morris signs for him ‘as if he were receiving a package from United Parcel’ (8), a subjection to bureaucratic processes that resonates with the patient’s psychosis. McPherson later suggests that Benson has been turned into ‘a read-out device’ for the implanted computer, ‘as helpless to control the read-out as a TV screen is helpless to control the information presented on it’ (83; italics in original). The hospital computer refers to Benson as an ‘auxillary unit’ (120), while he describes himself as ‘an automobile in a complicated service station’ (125). Morris begrudges his pager, which keeps him perpetually networked into administrative systems, and at one point suddenly notices that computers monitor and predict LA traffic flows. Such ruminations are given a sense of inevitable – and detrimental – consequence through the linear determinism espoused by several characters and by the frequency with which futurological and computer projections are treated as inarguable: in 1967, McPherson surveyed the fields of ‘diagnostic conceptualization, surgical technology, and microelectronics’ and concluded that it would be possible to perform ‘an operation for ADL seizures in July of 1971’ (197), a prediction which proved too conservative by four months; and the positive progression cycle, in which Benson’s brain learns to trigger seizures, is plotted from just three points on a graph, predicting to within a couple of minutes when he will go into continuous stimulation. Consequently, when Morris is told about July 1969’s ‘Watershed Week’ – ‘when the information-handling capacity of all the computers in the world exceeded the information-handling capacity of all the human brains in the world’ – and that by 1975 computers will ‘lead human beings by fifty to one in terms of capacity’ (159-60), the novel succeeds in conveying a sense of menace. This is achieved by conflating a not unreasonable prediction of quantitative change with the implication that it must necessarily result in a threat to humanity – or at least to our human qualities (which consist entirely of small-town, middle-American values).

Such linear determinism seeps out into Crichton’s depiction of a dehumanised social world. As Ross drives around LA, she muses upon the ways in which an automobile-dominated culture ‘thwarted some deep human need to congregate, to be together, to see and be seen’ (147), producing a depersonalized society of ‘recent emigrants and therefore strangers’ (147) who lack traditional institutions and infrastructures. LA offers ‘freedom’, but no ‘supports’, and tends to attract ‘people with problems’ (148), a euphemism for homosexuals, who are equated in the same passage with loneliness and suicide. The novel’s homophobia is striking (for example, Ross bemoans a short-lease culture which results in apartment buildings ‘full of hookers, full of gays, full of drugs and transients’ (171)), implying that any alternative to heterosexuality is a form of deviance born of dehumanising modernity.

terminal-man-photo-1Curiously, though, Crichton also struggles at times to express a sense of the complex, non-linear determinism underpinning his trademark narrative about the failure of complex systems, best – if still rather clumsily – articulated through the chaos mathematics he invokes in Jurassic Park (1990). In The Terminal Man, it is most clearly developed through Gerhard’s computer programmes, called Saint George and Martha. Designed to interact with each other, they are capable of responding ‘with three emotional states – love, fear, and anger’ and of ‘produc[ing] three actions – approach, withdrawal, attack’ (99). Despite this system’s simplicity, it ‘produce[s] complex and unpredictable machine behavior’ (115). After running more than a hundred times, Saint George, ‘programmed for saintliness’, ‘is learning not be a saint around Martha’ (103), even threatening to kill her. This is presented as a value-neutral experiment, but the obvious gender stereotyping suggests that the dependence on initial conditions need not be that sensitive to produce this result. The implications of a later discussion, in which Gerhard and Ross contemplate the possibility that after twenty-four hours of stimulations Benson’s brain has become something radically different than the one on which they operated and thus beyond their capacity to predict, are likewise countered by the utter predictability of the plot.

A generous reader might construe the material about Saint George and Martha as Crichton’s commentary on his own deployment of blandly named, more or less indistinguishable characters. One might even see such characters, typical of Crichton’s fiction, as an elaboration upon his screeds against the anonymity of modern, urban life while working within an American popular fiction idiom which privileges the description of externalities from which the reader is to infer interiorities. However, Crichton does describe several characters’ interior lives, albeit perfunctorily, and just as the novel reads like the treatment for a screenplay, these formulaic passages seem like notes for the actors who might step in and bring them to life. A more conventional adaptation would undoubtedly have sought to animate them through the verisimilar and melodramatic strategies typical of Hollywood productions (such as Crichton himself deployed, with some success, in adapting Robin Cook’s Coma (1977) in 1978), but Hodges takes a rather different path. He transforms Crichton’s dyspeptic, incoherent jeremiad into a rigorous critique of totalizing institutions (here, medicine, combined with legal and penal systems, as well as the police and patriarchy) which can be understood as modelling the deeper logic of social, political and economic structures governing everyday life – like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman 1975), but without its sentimental desire for heroism and redemption.

the-terminal-man-main-reviewThe film opens in pitch black night, the only light emanating from the cockpit of an insectile police helicopter facing the camera, the only noise that of its engines as it takes to the air; the helicopter will become an aggressively loud presence, signalling the powerlessness not merely of Benson (George Segal) to avoid it but of the audience in the face of the system it represents. The film cuts to a restaurant, in which doctors Ellis (Richard Dysart), McPherson (Donald Moffat) and Friedman (James Sikking) discuss Benson and ADL syndrome. Benson’s back-story is related, with impressive economy, through a series of photographs that the three men examine – Benson with his wife and daughter, Benson being arrested, the battered face of Benson’s wife – while planning the media coverage of the operation. To Hodges’ regret, he added this sequence to help allay studio concerns that ‘the film had no one to root for’ (personal email) rather than cutting 2013-03-22-1atermdirectly to the title sequence: a black screen with white credits, accompanied by Glenn Gould’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variation No. 25; footsteps approach in a corridor; a key chain rattles; there is a scraping sound, a peephole opens on the right of the screen and an eye peers through, looking out at the audience; the men in the corridor, functionaries of some institution, discuss Benson; the caption ‘tuesday’ appears, and the film cuts to Benson being delivered by the police to the hospital. Three more times during the film the screen goes to black, a peephole opens, and these anonymous, uneducated men – it is not clear if they are prison warders or asylum orderlies – discuss Benson. The film also ends with a version of this shot, in which one of the voices says, ‘They want you next’, to which the other responds ‘Quit kidding around’. These final words comically deflate the clichéd threat intoned by the first speaker; but beneath the end credits, the police helicopter descends through the night, coming full circle, yet instead of the deafening rotors there is silence, and then a cold wind howls. This hesitation – erasing then reinstating the film’s ominous implications – indicate Hodges’ wry amusement at the materials with which he is working and, simultaneously, a genuine sense that, despite their pulpiness, they can be utilised to critique contemporary social realities.

Hodges’ damning depiction of the total institution depends upon four major strategies. First, there is the film’s remarkable production design, in particular its use of colour. The title sequence establishes The Terminal Man’s oppressive palette; it is as close as a colour film can get to a black-and-white production, with several shots among the most overtly expressionist to be found in Hollywood outside of classical film noir. The walls, floor and furniture of the hospital lobby are black, and its windows open onto utter darkness outside. Throughout the hospital, if walls are white, then doors and furnishings are black. The staff all wear white, except for when, off-duty, they wear black. If there is a source of light, everything around it is pooled in darkness. The only relief – slight that it is – comes from occasional blue-greys or flashing orange lights. Until the final stages of the film, there is no indication that daytime even exists, but once we are there, bright clear light and whiteness – from the walls of Dr Ross’s (Joan Hackett) apartment to Benson’s choice of suit – dominate, although black furnishings remind the audience of the night to come. Day or night, there is no escape from these carefully orchestrated constraints.

Second, there is Hodges’ meticulous shot-construction, perhaps the most significant aspect of which is his frequent partial obscuring of Ross. Marginalised by the medical establishment for being a woman, a psychiatrist (rather than a surgeon), and more concerned about the patient than the procedure, Ross is often pushed by Hodges to the edge of the frame or picked out, diminished in the distance, from between foregrounded the-terminal-man-_-joan-hackettsurgeons. While Crichton does acknowledge the sexism Ross faces, including incidents and passages of introspection, Hodges’ low-key spatialisation of patriarchal hegemony is far more effective. This spatialisation of gendered power is further emphasised during the sequence in which Ross’s discomfiture, when alone with Benson during the testing of his electrodes, is ignored by the male doctors observing them through one-way glass positioned high on the wall above them. The Foucauldian aspects of commonplace surveillance are even more clearly evinced during the lengthy surgical procedurals – articulated through an impeccable low-key precision, self-consciously devoid of the melodramatic imperatives shaping such sequences in Crichton’s E.R. (1994–2009) – as a crowd gathers around to observe the operation from above.

Third, there are the performances. Joan Hackett’s self-conscious awkwardness as Ross is essential to the critique of gender politics. The very different physiques, looks, mannerisms and accents of Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and, as Dr Morris, Michael C. Gwynne provide a clearer sense of differentiation between the senior medical staff than can be found in Crichton’s novel, but Hodges does not permit them to become more than components of the systems within which they function. An occasional line or gesture suggests that they are fuller human beings than their social roles allow, but such moments (for example, Ellis’s off-colour comment to McPherson about Ross, or Morris’ attempt to terminal-man-2flirt with Angela (Jill Clayburgh)) seem to bemuse the other characters. Retrospectively, George Segal seems an unlikely Benson. Despite a successful career as a dramatic actor on stage, television and film, by the early 1970s he was focusing on the kind of comedy roles with which he has subsequently become most closely associated. By effectively casting him against type, Hodges produces a soft-spoken, genial everyman who is overtaken by external forces (the pre-credits material is, indeed, a misstep, giving Benson too much specificity, and counteracting the effectiveness of a later scene in which a recording of his litany of suburban lifestyle elements and possessions plays on multiple diegetic screens). He is particularly effective when his actions – stabbing Angela, attacking the robot on which he had been working – become mechanical, taking control of his body.

the-terminal-man-1974-dvdrip-xvid-andrei-avi_snapshot_01-39-49_2011-12-22_17-52-47Finally, there is the revised ending of the story. Rather than seeing off Benson’s attack with her microwave, Ross, fearing he might attack her, holds out a knife towards him. In a moment of lucidity between stimulations, he walks onto the blade. Instead of launching an assault on the hospital computer, Benson then heads to a cemetery and descends into an open grave. The police close in and while Ross struggles to reach her patient, the police helicopter appears once more, bearing the sniper who will shoot Benson. People rush forward, and from the bottom of the grave we see them forced back by police whose vizored helmets recall not only those worn by the surgeons while they operated on Benson but also the brutally anonymous robot police of THX 1138 (Lucas 1971).

Thanks to Hodges’ stylistic innovations, The Terminal Man should be spoken of in the same breath as other films of the period in which Britons brought a European arthouse sensibility to American genre fiction, such as Point Blank (Boorman 1967) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (Roeg 1976). In terms of its political critique, however, it belongs alongside Medium Cool (Wexler 1969), Punishment Park (Watkins 1971), The Parallax View (Pakula 1974) and The Conversation (Coppola 1974). It is without question one of the most accomplished and important sf films of the 1970s.

Michael Crichton, The Terminal Man. London: Arrow, 1996.
Mike Hodges, personal email. 5 July 2009.

Seconds (John Frankenheimer 1966), adapted from David Ely’s Seconds (1964)

seconds[This is one of several pieces written several years ago for a book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

A middle-aged New York banker, who may or may not be called Wison, leaves for lunch, intending – perhaps – never to return. Charley, a friend who faked his own death, wants to introduce Wilson to the company that arranged for his rebirth into a new life with a new identity. Wilson tries to weigh his prosperous but dull existence against this chance to start over, only to discover that the company has already set the process in motion and set him up as a rapist should he try to back out. His reluctance fades under the gentle persuasion of the old man who founded the company (a mildly Kafkaesque organisation, its friendly, professional façade barely conceals the brutal indifference of its economic structure).

Wondering how long it will be before he is missed – ‘Days might go by, even weeks … and then, quite by chance, his wife might decide to organize a dinner party for eight, say, and in the course of reviewing seating arrangements, would discover, to her annoyance, that he was simply nowhere to be found’ (42) – Wilson undergoes extensive cosmetic surgery to become the thirty-something bachelor and successful painter, Antiochus Wilson. Relocated to California under the care of a servant, John, assigned to help him through his ‘initial period of adjustment’ (65), Wilson struggles to fit into his new life. Unable to paint, his self-alienation, which has never entirely disappeared, returns in force when a voluptuous teenage model hits on him. He realises that he must root out ‘the habits of nearly five decades’ (74) if his rebirth is to be meaningful. Charley phones again, rather too anxious to explain that Wilson is living ‘a dream’, composed of financial independence, social mobility and lack of responsibility, on ‘the frontier of personal freedom’ (82). As in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972), this dreamworld is available only to men. Some of Wilson’s neighbours are ‘reborns’, briefed to fake knowing him. All of them are ‘“about 40,” and … engaged in rather vague occupations’ (86); and one of them, Bushbane, warns Wilson that his ‘passing phase’ threatens their ‘tremendous monetary investment’ (97).

6c31649b2cd9b7db8030bb17aca3ecf7Wilson, posing as a friend of his old self, visits his daughter but is disillusioned by her view of the man he had been. Despite the company’s efforts to dissuade him, Wilson also visits his own ‘widow’, but to his surprise and dismay Emily has moved on with her life, remodelling and redecorating the house, effectively removing all trace of him. He surrenders to the company, imagining that he is going to be reborn again, this time with his input so as to avoid the errors of the first attempt. Spending his days in a room full of mildly tranquillised men, including Charley, he is badgered for the names of friends or acquaintances who might be interested in the company’s service. When he is finally summoned for surgery, he slowly and resignedly realises that he is not going to be reborn. He is to contribute his corpse to another client’s fake death.

John Frankenheimer’s adaptation – the third of his borderline sf movies, after The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) – follows Ely’s plot fairly closely, eschewing the possibility of transforming it into another broad canvas political thriller in favour of the more individual focus of his non-sf The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Saul Bass’s opening credit sequence collages distorted views of a face reflected in a curved, metallic surface, recalling his title sequence for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), another film about appearance and identity, and indicating the skewed visual style for which Frankenheimer and cinematographer James Wong Howe opted.


The film opens with two men moving separately through the crowds in Grand Central Station (much of the film is shot on location). Howe used extremely wide-angle (9.7mm and 18mm) lenses, which allow greater depth of field, magnify the apparent distance between objects, and produce perspective distortion (especially in the frequent low angle shots) and barrel distortion fisheye effects. (Howe also makes innovative use of handheld cameras, a camera wheeled along in a suitcase and a chest-mounted camera that provides close-ups of the actor wearing it; elsewhere in the film, Howe anticipates the effect of the seconds01not-yet-invented Steadicam by shooting handheld from a wheelchair.) The uncertainty and instability of the space thus produced is accentuated further by David Newhouse’s editing, which pushes the classical continuity system towards the more improvisatory style of the French New Wave. As Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) boards his commuter train, the second man passes him a note. It is the second time the company have made contact, following a phone call the preceding night from Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton). In a departure from the novel, we actually witness some of Wilson’s solidly bourgeois home-life, as Emily (Frances Reid) collects him from the station. That night, Charlie phones again, and the next day Hamilton leaves the bank to be reborn as Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson).

In the early pages of the novel, Ely’s tight control over first-person narration create a strong sense of a man alienated from the world around him and from himself, restricting our knowledge of the cautious, self-doubting, self-deceiving protagonist to incidentally revealed information. Howe’s deep focus black-and-white cinematography achieves a similar effect: extremely wide-angle compositions separate Hamilton from the people and objects around him; two-shots keep Hamilton and his interlocutors in perfect focus at opposite ends of the depth of field; and wide-angle close-ups simultaneously make faces appear to loom out of the screen and seal them off behind a curved, hermetic surface. (In seconds2the sequence in which Hamilton dreams he is raping a woman – only to discover later that it was staged and filmed while he was drugged – Howe’s fisheye lens is aided by a set with visual distortion already built into it. The film also features mild aural distortions throughout, with post-synchronised dubbing of most of the dialogue necessitated by shooting on noisy Arriflex cameras.)

The transformation of Hamilton into Wilson culminates in an effective double revelation. Although audiences might have been expecting Wilson’s new face to be that of Rock Hudson, who through the 1950s and 1960s epitomised a certain kind of hedonistic bachelor lifestyle (see Cohan 264-303), it is a Rock Hudson they had never seen before: white-haired, gaunt and scarred, enfeebled by surgical procedures. Frankenheimer uses seconds-2the stiffness that sometimes infects Hudson’s performances to great advantage, upsetting the familiar ease with which one might expect him to occupy the spaces of Wilson’s stylish Malibu beach house. Instead, the uncertainty with which he moves through its rooms suggests not only the unfamiliarity of his physical and social location but also of his own body. It lends a vulnerable fragility to Hudson’s performance of loneliness, isolation, self-disgust and dread. (Later, when he returns to Hamilton’s home, he looms awkwardly, completely out of place.)

seconds14In the major divergence from the novel, Wilson begins a romantic relationship with Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), a woman who walked out on her previous life as a wife and mother. She takes him to a bacchanalian revel, in which middle-class countercultural types celebrate the grape harvest, crown the Queen of the Wine, and indulge in mass, nude grape-treading. This is perhaps the most badly-dated sequence of the film (it was heavily cut for the US release, ironically making this rather innocent event appear far less innocent, but the missing footage has been restored from the version released in Europe). However, Hudson’s own reported discomfort with such nude celebrations – which seems evident in his posture – effectively expresses the gulf between who Hamilton was and Wilson is. His climactic leap into the vat to tread the grapes with other revellers carries less conviction.

imagesFrankenheimer also claims to have got Hudson drunk to enhance his performance in the following cocktail party sequence, although Wilson’s trajectory from tipsy to laid-back to dishevelled is well within Hudson’s unaided range. The sequence is rather more remarkable for its invigorating use of multiple hand-held cameras, and for Newhouse’s editing, which eschews then-conventional transitions between shots, locations and events. As in the novel, the party culminates in Wilson talking about things which are no longer supposed to be part of his identity, but it is only after Charlie reveals that Nora is a company employee that he decides to visit his ‘widow’. (Wilson’s visit to Sue was shot but cut to reduce the film’s run-time, and the negative appears to have been lost.)

The film ends with Wilson, who has returned disillusioned to the company, finding himself gagged, strapped to a gurney and being wheeled into the Cadaver Procurement Section. Wildly distorted by a fisheye lens, he struggles against his bonds, but to no avail. A corpse with his build is required in the staging of a ‘fatal’ automobile accident.

Despite Frankenheimer’s close adherence to Ely’s narrative, he considerably transforms its meaning. The novel is an oddly moralistic, and unthinkingly misogynist, absurdist thriller about the dissatisfactions of the grey flannel suits who were produced in droves during post-war America’s period of corporate consolidation. It is critical of a culture that had overseen a shift in dominant notions of masculinity (from the individual, physical and entrepreneurial, to the corporate subject of hierarchical structures) and which construed wives and families as the true beneficiaries of white-collar labour. In Frankenheimer’s film, which casts a number of formerly blacklisted actors and writers in minor roles, this complaint is made less insistent by the absence of first-person narration. While it does resonate with films noir about masculinity threatened by and trapped within corporate environments and expectations, such as Double Indemnity (Wilder 1944), The Big Clock (Farrow 1948) and Pitfall (De Toth 1948), it never quite achieves the existential crises of The Face of Another (Teshigahara 1966), adapted from Kōbō Abe’s novel. Ultimately, Frankenheimer’s film is perhaps best understood in terms of its exposure of the gulf between American realities and American dreams, and of its peeling away of the fantasy of being Rock Hudson (and all that his model of handsome, charming, pleasure-seeking, consumerist masculinity represented) – a fantasy embodied by the actor’s star persona on- and off-screen, but made all the more poignant by subsequent revelations about his sexuality.

Steven Cohan, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997.

David Ely, Seconds. London: Four Square, 1965.


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Glamorous but tough cop and psychiatrist ill-suited to psychological profiling team up to fight crime.


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Hyacinth Bouquet joins the Marvel Netflix universe


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