During a second experiment yesterday a fly which I did not see must have got into the disintegrator. My only hope is to find that fly and go through again with it. Please search for it carefully since, if it is not found, I shall have to find a way of putting an end to all this.
- from "The Fly" by George Langelaan
"...Guess I shook you up a little bit, didn't I? They handed you all that crap about love and rebirth, and now you find out it's just a butcher shop, like everything else, so you don't want to hear about it..."
- from Seconds by David Ely
Six years after Langelaan's story appeared in Playboy, writer David Ely published his second novel, called Seconds. It's the story of a man we initially know as Wilson, though it's clear this isn't his real name, and eventually as Antiochus Wilson, also clearly not his real name ("But it's a preposterous name," he says). He's a successful middle-aged banker who, when we meet him, is following a set of cryptic directions to an office which contains a business that promises something along the lines of a new life. What this will entail is, taking the macro view, not at all unlike entering the Witness Protection Program. He will be given a new name and a new job, and all ties with his previous life will be thoroughly severed. There's more, though -- his new life will also be funded by the company, his appearance will be drastically altered by plastic surgery, and the ties with his old life will be cut by producing a corpse which will be made to physically match Wilson. Wilson is told that there are many types of death packages to choose from, but Wilson being well off he chooses -- or really, is almost made to choose -- the most expensive option, and so in a New York hotel room, a man dies of cerebral hemorrhage, and Antiochus Wilson is off to California. This story fascinated director John Frankenheimer, who was coming off a hot streak of films, two of the most recent being The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May. When Frankenheimer, working from a script by Lewis John Carlino, turned Seconds into a film in 1966, these three films would later be said to comprise the director's "paranoia trilogy."
Even though there are key similarities between George Langelaan's original story and David Cronenberg's adaptation, Cronenberg does something that Langelaan did not, and that Neumann did not. It's the same thing that pretty much every screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has done to that story, which, like Langelaan's story, is structured as a mystery, with the truth about Mr. Hyde's identity only being revealed at the end. What I'm getting at is, Cronenberg removes the mystery element, and forces his scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) to live with his horror. Dr. Jekyll on-screen is almost always seen taking that first catastrophic dose, so the mystery is only for the characters around him, but not for the audience, and certainly -- and this goes without saying but is nevertheless key -- for him. In his depiction of the tragedy of Seth Brundle, Cronenberg also removes the mystery, so that the audience knows what's up every step of the way, and his small cast of characters, of which there are really only three, the other two being science journalist and Brundle's lover Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) and her editor and ex-boyfriend, the unforgettably named Stathis Borans (John Getz), all catch up with us at about the same time. So that what we're left with is Seth Brundle's old life ending and his new life of insectile disintegration beginning, and ending.
Frankenheimer and Carlino's version of Seconds in plot terms is not remarkably different from David Ely's novel. The most important aspect of Seconds as a film is Frankenheimer's ability to translate to screen what so many people ignorantly regard as one of the "unadaptable" elements of prose fiction, which is to say, the state of mind of the characters. Therefore, when Ely's prose is quite straightforward, Wilson is constantly doubtful, nervous, uneasy. With the unnamed company whose services he kind of sings on for, Wilson is dealing with a building filled with apparently normal people doing something extraordinary, and extraordinarily bizarre, with always -- always -- the hint of something sinister. So in Seconds, everyday rooms are shot to look enormous, wider and taller than they are, sometimes cavernous -- Wilson is surrounded by emptiness, but an emptiness that is nevertheless walled in. They're emptiness, captured. Similarly, Jerry Goldsmith's magnificent score is both eerie and, eventually, mournful, sometimes both of these at once, as the truth, or the lie, of what Arthur Hamilton, the name, for practical reasons, given to the pre-Wilson protagonist (played before the company's services by John Randolph, and after the necessary plastic surgery, and now called Wilson, by Rock Hudson) has purchased isn't revealed to him, exactly, but rather dawns on him.
Seth Brundle begins his new life by experiencing, and enjoying, an enormous increase in physical strength and agility. Added to this is a powerful boost to his sex drive and general energy, to the point that Veronica can't keep up with him -- he's become superhuman. When she can't, he becomes angry, both in her weakness and her unwillingness to begin her life anew with him by going through the teleporter. He's convinced that his new power is a result simply of his body being reduced to molecules, scattered, and rejoined fifteen feet away. We know differently, but in any case, he's reborn, and life as he knew it, as it's experienced by others, is boring, slow -- it's shit. His temper is short, and his disdain for ordinary life makes it easy to betray Veronica and take up a very driven and purposeful form of hedonism. This angers Veronica less than it frightens her. She knows something is wrong and she soon knows what it is. Brundle doesn't care, because his life is better now.
In David Ely's novel, Wilson sort of just drifts into his new life as a successful California painter (new paintings are supplied to him by the company), never comfortable with any of it, except when he's had a couple of drinks and starts to enjoy his big house and his potential freedom. But that freedom is always only a potential thing, and he never truly lives it up. Many chances to have sex with young women are poorly acted upon, or not acted upon, because Wilson is still the man he was. Unhappily married, but married, and never a guy to chase a skirt. The "new freedoms," as A Serious Man's Mrs. Samsky would call them, of the 1960s, even the early stages of that decade, are a new thing, and they're off-putting, nerve-wracking, and alien. No matter what he's been told, Wilson is not a new man. Frankenheimer's version is somewhat different here, as his Wilson, as played by Hudson, is initially hesitant around this apparently free-wheeling beach community he finds himself living in, but the guidance of an ocean-loving woman named Nora (Salome Jens) allows him to almost literally fall into what is essentially a non-Roman Roman orgy, complete with stomped grapes and wine. It's an old custom made new again, but, like Wilson, it's old. It's not new. Nothing that already exists or has existed can now be called new. Rock Hudson as Wilson can whoop it up all he wants, but he's still Arthur Hamilton. This is something he will come to understand.
Brundle's life is not better for very long. His body twists and cracks and his flesh softens and his fingernails fall away and his teeth drop out and he can no longer eat solid food. He must vomit on his meals to liquify them. His rebirth is speeding him along to his death. Even after the arrogance he drew from his new power oozes out of him like pus, Brundle's shattered mind can't grasp that what is so awful about his new life is the fact that he is still Seth Brundle. None of this would be nearly so sad if he wasn't still Seth Brundle, but he only occasionally comprehends that. At one point he says to Veronica "I'm an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over...and the insect is awake."
Antiochus Wilson always knows where he came from and who he was, and that's the lie. John Frankenheimer was drawn to Ely's novel because he knew that the popular 1960s philosophy that a person could cast off that which made them unhappy and begin life all over was bullshit. Who you are at a given moment is a culmination of who you were and what you experienced and who you knew over every second of your life up to that point*. If you believe otherwise, you are acting. Wilson, when he rolls around in a barrel of grapes with dozens of naked people, he's performing. He doesn't know that, but pretty soon, at another party he gets drunk and he starts spilling details of his old life. According to the company, This Is Not Done. But it's who he is. It can't stay inside. What he's meant to be and do is unnatural, and would be unnatural for anybody. Both Ely's novel and Frankenheimer's film eventually become, or have always been but the exclamation point is eventually added, a science fiction/horror film. In the novel and the film, Wilson makes doomed attempts to reclaim his past with a new name and face, but while Ely's approach is sad to the point of being depressing, Frankenheimer's, interestingly, is sad to the point of being angry. In the novel, Wilson is a man at sea in the modern world -- elevators still kind of fascinate him. Once reborn, his Wilson can never anchor himself, and he's pulled back to a life in which he found no happiness but which at least was his. Frankenheimer is pissed off, however, not with any perceived increase in individual freedom or liberty or the shedding of certain inhibitions -- he's pissed off at the notion that in embracing these you can or should or are even able to obliterate that which could stall that embrace, and he's pissed off at those who promise rebirth free of any umbilical cord. In his Seconds, stupid people are being preyed on, and he's pissed off at the stupid people and he's pissed off at the predators. Wilson was never Wilson. He was always Arthur Hamilton, introducing himself as Antiochus Wilson.
Cronenberg isn't angry. His film is also, and always was, a science fiction/horror film, but it's one where the only person who dies is also the villain, and also the greatest victim (though Stathis Borans could make a pretty good case for himself if he felt like it). Seth Brundle's tragedy begins with a freak accident, and is exacerbated, so that The Fly finally becomes Cronenberg's most emotionally wrenching film to date, by a return of his self-awareness. Cronenberg's flair for insanely and complexly grotesque endings is in full force here -- Brundle, by the end, is more monstrous, more inhumanly twisted, than he ever was, and now, finally, he knows it, fully. He always knew it, but he could deny it. He could believe his new life as a fly was just beginning. He might have learned to mourn what he was losing, but it isn't until his final seconds that he realizes it was never a new life to begin with. It was always his death. There was nothing next. What he was going through wasn't the birth of Brundlefly, as he insists, because there is no Brundlefly. All he was experiencing was the death of Seth Brundle.
John Frankenheimer's filmmaking career was a long one. He died in 2002, with dozens of films behind him, the last of which was an HBO film that aired the same year he died. He's primarily remembered for his first ten or so films, but he always did great work, and there's a handful in there that are genuine American masterpieces. The Fly turned out to be, and may still be, David Cronenberg's biggest commercial success. This is curious considering that it's still very much a David Cronenberg film, but that core idea is pretty irresistible. The Fly is also one of his very best movies. After this, he would enter a new phase. In the subsequent 27 years, there would still be a scattering of films like eXistenZ that hearken back to his wild, twisted, viscera-splattered early days, but if before he made science fiction horror, he would soon begin making what might be called horror dramas. And then he would change again, but we'll get to that. David Ely is still alive. He doesn't seem to write or publish anymore, and there's no much information about him out there, at least that I can find, other than that between 1963 and 1992, he published seven novels and two collections of short stories.
George Langelaan died in 1972. He wrote several short stories, a handful of novels, and a couple of memoirs. During World War II, he was a spy for the Allies. In his memoir The Masks of War, he describes needing to alter certain physical features so that he might more easily drop undercover. He achieved this through plastic surgery.
*The Criterion Collection is releasing Seconds on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 13th. John Frankenheimer's motives for adapting Ely's novel are described by his widow, Evans Frankenheimer, in a special feature on that disc called "A Second Look." I have paraphrased her words for this post.