Dir: John Frankenheimer
Paramount Pictures, USA, 1966
Starring: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph, Will Geer
“I know it’s going to be different. I suppose you know too.”
Since I recently reviewed Tarsem Singh’s painfully mediocre sci-fi thriller Self/less (2015), I thought I’d seize the opportunity to go back and look at an infinitely better film that Self/less attempted to imitate: John Frankenheimer’s Seconds.
With Seconds having more or less been unavailable in the UK for years, it’s a film that has been drifting in and out of relative obscurity since its rather unremarkable 1966 release; it has been kept alive, however, mostly by the ever-resilient film sanctuary of obtaining ‘cult’ status. With its availability having been scarce, it’s only fitting that my discovering the film was not made through a random DVD punt, a late night television binge or anything even remotely cinema-related. Strangely, I discovered Seconds via the front cover of Godflesh’s crushing 1988 EP (below) which bears a striking, albeit highly contrasted shot from its opening credits. (Thank you, Godflesh).
Essentially, Seconds is a modern-day Faustian tale that focuses on the unsettling pitfalls of a radical physical rebirth. Despite being highly educated, having a well-paying job on Wall Street, a big suburban house and a wife, Arthur Hamilton (Randolph) is a man whose midlife ennui is draining him of any sense of purpose. Through a friend he thought was long dead, Arthur’s attention is turned to a company which specialises in creating new lives for the wealthy, thus enabling them to ‘start again’. Hamilton signs up for a costly sum; his death is promptly staged by the company and he is given a new identity via a surgical transformation into the much younger and good-looking bachelor, Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Hudson). With the procedure being a wonderful success, all seems pleasant enough at first for Arthur/Tony, but it is not long before the nightmarish trappings of his irreversible decision soon become apparent.
That Seconds places its rather fantastical premise inside a low-key milieu ensures its effortless defiance of categorisation; it’s a distinctive mix of psychological drama, social-science-fiction and existential horror. The high-end fantasy that Hamilton signs up for is somewhat comparable to the theme parks seen in Crichton’s Westworld (1973) or the inscrutable CRS company Michael Douglas reluctantly enlists to – a company that, as it turns out, specialises in turning the world of its clientele upside-down – in Fincher’s The Game (1997). But just like the central character in Seconds, the otherwise straight-laced, upper-class clientele in these films get a lot more than they bargained for in their respective endeavours to escape their apparently humdrum existences.
The fantasy that Hamilton seeks in his ‘rebirth’ process seems to be endemic in a crisis of masculinity. He is an old-, flabby-looking man who has no more dreams or accomplishments to live for as well as no form of adoration for his wife left within him. A bedroom scene showing his wife’s futile attempt at initiating a romantic kiss with Arthur – which he dispassionately rebuffs – could well be the most unromantic scene in cinematic history. How terrific, then, that Arthur is able to be physically transformed into Rock Hudson: an attractive, athletically-built and winsome bachelor that is adored by women and is relocated to a Malibu beach house. Arthur is now, as they say, living the dream. Supposedly.
Despite the elaborate concept that Seconds posits, the feeling of the events within seeming feasible is unshakable. This feeling is bolstered by the fact that Hamilton’s transition to Wilson is presented as an extensive and lengthy one – just as one imagines it would be. We see him undergo facial plastic surgery (a much more radical procedure in the ‘60s than it is considered in today’s culture); he also endures months of physical conditioning so his old bones and muscles will be up to speed with his refreshed exterior. He is also administered sodium pentathol so the company can determine what suppressed aspirational urges have been lying dormant within his subconscious; they will then provide him with the respective academic credentials for his newly ‘chosen’ career. Ultimately, Seconds offers ways and means to access the forbidden fruit with discomforting realism. That this integral aspect of the film’s concept is so well-conceived, it makes the likelihood of this literally life-changing (in more than one sense) opportunity seem as if it is really there for the wealthy and elite to clasp, ergo heightening the cautionary nature of the tale. This is precisely where Self/less failed.
As Seconds’ third act and its sledgehammer-blow ending illustrate so incisively – and what is central to the film’s concept – no extent of cosmetic transformation can ever disburden one of their own mind and memories. Hamilton’s superficial switch to Tony Wilson is just that; he has ostensibly painted over dirt by undergoing the transformation and ultimately given up a lot more than he has gained with the procedure. The double-edged nature of the ‘rebirth’ is encapsulated by one of the company’s agents (Khigh Dheigh) as he explains how “marvellous” existential ‘seconds’ apparently is: “[You] are alone in the world”.
The combination of Hudson being one of the most desirable male celebrities of the ‘60s with the fact that his turn in Seconds was, in itself, a radical transition from starring in much more palatable comedies and dramas – such as Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), Send Me No Flowers (1964), and so on – into much darker, challenging territory culminated in one of the most successful and effective castings against type ever. Hudson’s portrayal of the deeply confused and inhibited character thrown into the younger generation’s world of exemption and sexual liberalism is chilling and tragic. Hudson absorbs Hamilton’s anguish and inner demons – that are so effectively conveyed through Randolph’s pained first-half performance – and they are always visible through his façade of happiness in his new face.
The film is also a visual marvel; the lingering sense of paranoia and looming dread is initiated by Saul Bass’ mesmeric opening credits sequence that is underpinned by Jerry Goldsmith’s doom-laden score. The bizarre sequence symbolically displays demented visuals of facial features being stretched and distorted by nothing more than camera and mirror trickery; the end result appears almost to be hallucinogenic. This feeling is seamlessly translated into the film proper via legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe’s dazzling black and white photography that punctuates the film’s sense of unease. His use of fisheye lenses in certain scenes squeeze the subjects even more tightly within the frame of the already discomforting intimately-shot sequences; the proto-steadicam work is as odd as it is disorientating, particularly during the opening scene in Grand Central Station; in addition, the frequent use of deep-focus within the film adds to the grounded nature in which the film is treating its fascinating central premise.
Seconds is a masterpiece of psychological torment that taps into some unpleasantly common socio-political and psychological fears and anxieties; it will be a long time before it ceases to appear anything less than universal and timeless. Just to reiterate what I stated in the Self/less review: watch Seconds instead.
Note: Having only been available in Region 1 territories and on lacklustre Region 0 releases, Seconds will be available on Blu Ray in the UK courtesy of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema line on October 26th in time for the film’s 50th anniversary.
- Liam Hathaway