Shortly after watching this, I seriously intrigued several of my Facebook friends with the observation that I’d just watched a film that was a combination of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and John Woo’s action film Face Off. Although my immediate reaction as soon as it ended was a spoken-aloud “what. The f*ck.”
The comparison to Face Off was tenuous at best – it refers only to the plastic-surgery element. The film is more a cautionary tale; it’s the story of Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph at first), a middle-aged New York banker bored and dissatisfied with his life. Not that it’s a bad life – he’s modestly wealthy, enjoys a comfortable (yet sexless) marriage with an amicable wife, and has one grown child happily married and now living across the country. But the ennui is getting to him – so when he suddenly gets a call from an old college friend offering him a new lease on life, he’s intrigued (especially since that friend was supposed to have died recently). After following a secretive set of instructions involving code names and visits to nondescript businesses, Arthur is brought to the office complex of a business known only as “The Company”, and finally learns the plan – for a hefty sum, The Company will fake Arthur’s death, give him extensive plastic surgery, and set him up with a new home and a chance at a new life. The Company will take care of a generous bequest to Arthur’s wife and daughter, and will even give him a caretaker for the first year or so to ensure he can transition into his new life smoothly. …They also show him that they’ve staged a blackmail video of him as insurance in case he balks, so Arthur finally acquieses.
In short order, Arthur undergoes the operation to transform him into “Tony Wilson” (Rock Hudson) – complete with an altered voice, new fingerprints, and a totally different face. The Company spares no expense in the physical aftercare, subjecting him to physical therapy as well as wound care; and within a month or so, Tony is set up in a California beachfront house, catered to by a Company-employed butler to assist Tony with his transition and stocked with canvas and easels so he can pursue his new life as “Tony Wilson the painter”. And Tony does make a go of it for a time – he even meets a potential new lover, Nora (Salome Jens), a free-spirited neighbor. But Tony’s new life is still not quite what it’s cracked up to be, and he flies back to New York to check on his wife first; and then to ask The Company for a do-over. But The Company’s policy on returns and exchanges is quite high indeed…
Two aspects of this film jumped out at me. The first is the downright surreal nature of the film – a lot of the shots are in tight closeups with weird fisheye lenses to amp up the body horror, particularly when Arthur is considering his fate or “Tony” is studying his new self. Everything about The Company also has the kind of overly-polite and decorous vibe that paradoxically comes across as being incredibly creepy; everyone in the company is endlessly nice and polite to him, bowing and scraping and smiling, offering him food and a comfy pillow and a nice chair. But the lunch might be drugged, and the friendly pat on the head is a secret signal to the security guards who then take you through a secret door and God knows what’s going to happen to you.
There’s also a flat-out bonkers sequence in the middle of the film where Nora is trying to loosen Tony up a bit and invites him to a “party with some friends” in Santa Barbara. But the “party” is actually a quasi-hippie Bacchanal – literally. Someone in the group invokes the god Pan, everyone is bedecked with grape-leaf crowns, wine flows freely, pipers are jamming in the corner and there’s a huge vat of grapes in need of stomping, with all the revelers stripping down to jump in and do the honors. There’s no sex, but there’s plenty of boobs and butts and winkies and kissing, so it reads enough like an orgy that Tony is (understandably) freaked out.
But then, buried in the middle of the sci-fi premise and the surrealist shots, there are some subtle but thought-provoking existentialist statements. There are a couple points at which both Tony and Arthur discuss how they’re frustrated with having spent their lives doing what they were told they were supposed to do, and not what they chose to do. The reason “Tony” became a painter was because of a long-buried interest of Arthur’s – but when The Company sets Tony up with all the tools and resources he could need, he finds he’s still got to paint, and…that’s still not satisfying. The people Tony meets at a cocktail party at his new home are just as vapid and dull as the guests he would have met back in New York as Arthur. And towards the end of the film, as Tony is making his pitch to The Company about giving him a chance to start over, Tony/Arthur sadly admits that maybe the reason that this second chance to Fulfill His Dream didn’t pan out because life had never really given him much of a chance to dream in the first place.
Some film scholars call this the third film in director John Frankenheimer’s “Paranoia triology”, along with The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days In May. I’m not quite as convinced that’s the right word; all three are great examples of Frankenheimer’s film techniques, but I’m not sure “paranoia” is the right word for what prompted Arthur to seek out The Company in the first place. Instead, it’s a thought-provoking look at the internal pressures of a society that was on the cusp of boiling over on several different fronts; just one month after its release, 20,000 people would converge on a San Francisco park for the first “Human Be-In“, a broad-sweeping counterculture convention that probably looked like this film’s grape scene to many more buttoned-down observers. Elsewhere in the country, the Black Panthers were having their first meeting. A budding women’s movement would soon make waves, protests against the Vietnam War would soon take off, and the Stonewall Riots were just three years in the future – all joining voices in a chorus of discontent and protest against the buttoned-down way of life Arthur had tried to escape.