Directed by John Frankenheimer
Produced by Edward Lewis (John Frankenheimer, uncredited)
Screenplay by Lewis John Carlino
Based on the novel Seconds by David Ely
Cinematography by James Wong Howe
Edited by David Newhouse, Ferris Webster
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
YouTube (black-and-white; 1:37)
Before the Criterion Collection’s release of Seconds in 2013, the other two films in Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy” – The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) – were no doubt seen and discussed more frequently due to the nature of their subject matter (political assassination and the Cold War, respectively). Yet Seconds transcends (but does not necessarily discount) politics and national issues, focusing on concerns primal, universal and eternal. As unlikely as it may seem right now, there may come a day when we don’t have to worry so much about the issues raised in the first two “paranoia trilogy” films, yet those raised in Seconds have the potential to haunt us to our last breath.
The strange, disorienting (and quite possibly painful) opening credits may have immediately turned off audiences in 1966, but the Saul Bass title sequence perfectly prepares us for what lies ahead: the strange, the unsettling, and the truly horrible.
Middle-aged bank executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph, above) is approached in a train station and handed a slip of paper. On it is written an address that means nothing to Hamilton. In the middle of the night, Hamilton receives a phone call from a friend Hamilton believed to be dead. The friend pleads with Hamilton to go immediately to the address given him.
After a few false starts, Hamilton discovers “The Company,” a secret organization that specializes in giving people a second chance at life, which in his case, may be a good thing. Hamilton’s life screams tedium. He’s successful at work, married to a pleasant woman, but is bored with both. Hamilton’s transformation comes at a high price, but who can place a price tag on starting your life over, fresh and unblemished?
Hamilton emerges post-surgery with the face of his new alias Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). Hamilton always wanted to be a painter, so poof – now he’s a painter with a complete portfolio of completed works. It’s just part of “The Company”’s quality service to their clients. Wilson/Hamilton – at first reluctant to socialize with anyone, although “The Company” highly encourages it – strikes up a relationship with a woman named Nora (Salome Jens, above right), a woman far more exciting than his former wife. Wilson/Hamilton has everything he needs, right?
Seconds is filled with disturbing, frantic scenes with strange camera angles, the most effective of which occur as the camera is placed in such a way that we see the actor and the camera moving together as if the camera is attached to the actor (probably done with steadycam). The implication seems to be that no matter where the actor goes in this nightmare, he can’t escape from the camera or his situation.
One of the film’s most quiet scenes is also one the most powerful. Hamilton, now transformed, visits his wife (Frances Reid, above left), who obviously doesn’t recognize her former husband as Wilson. For the first time, Hamilton hears the truth about his life, his wife thinking she’s disclosing information to Wilson, a man who – as far as she knows – is simply inquiring about Hamilton. In this scene, Hamilton realizes what he truly had, all his missed opportunities, all his wasted years. A wasted life. This is the real turning point of the film and it drives every subsequent unforgettable scene.
I find the theological implications of Seconds amazing. The Bible tells us (Hebrews 9:27) “…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” We only get one shot. But, without giving too much away, we have to wonder whether Hamilton will be judged for the mistakes he’s made in both his lives? The pain of Hamilton’s regret at seeing and hearing from his wife is an incredible judgment on its own, one that could easily devastate anyone. I can’t think of anything more earth-shattering than the realization that you have wasted your entire existence on this earth. If you’re looking for true horror, you’ve found it.
The film also makes us realize that we rarely have the power to change ourselves. I’m not talking about things like quitting smoking or losing weight, but neither am I belittling those changes. I’m talking about bigger changes, those that normally must come from beyond ourselves, whether those changes come from God, a group of trained professionals, or an organization like “The Company.”
Or maybe the changes we think we need aren’t the ones that will really help us at all. Maybe we’re too focused on preserving youth at all costs, or chasing the American Dream or something else. When you consider all the images and advertising assaulting us with these ideas, you have to ask yourself if things have really changed much since 1966. Or has “The Company” just gotten better at its tactics? In a way, Seconds was a film of its moment, yet in other ways it’s just as relevant and frightening (perhaps more so) now.
Hudson stood five inches taller than Randolph, but with the camera angles, you don’t really notice the difference. One thing audiences did notice was Hudson’s first appearance in the film. I didn’t check the elapsed time, but Hudson doesn’t appear for at least the first 45 minutes and when he does, he looks tired, old and haggard. Eventually, he’s the Rock Hudson audiences recognized, but the role was like nothing he’d ever done before. I can only imagine what 1966 audiences told their friends about the new Rock Hudson movie. Yet Hudson is incredibly good here, especially at channeling Randolph’s portrayal of Hamilton.
The supporting cast is filled with wonderful performances including work by Jeff Corey (above left), Will Geer and John Randolph, all of whom had been blacklisted for refusing to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s.
Seconds is far more than an extended episode of The Twilight Zone on steroids. It’s more than simply a sf/horror film from the wild-and-crazy 60s with overtones of European cinema. It’s a brilliant film that, even with the relatively recent Criterion release, is too often overlooked. Seconds is also one of many films I’m considering purchasing during the next Criterion flash sale. It’s one of those films that’s so good you want to see it again, yet so disturbing and sometimes unsettling that you hesitate to re-watch it. Yet the power of the film and its cultural, social and theological implications will probably encourage me to purchase the Blu-ray. You should consider it as well.
The Library of Congress selected Seconds for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2015. Although the film is available on YouTube, the presentation is awful with a constant brightness in the center of the film. Please see Seconds on DVD or Blu-ray either through purchase or your local library.