Seconds may have flopped when it debuted in 1966, but it eventually became a landmark, with a radical visual style and a brutal critique of a uniquely American con
There are few things more damning than watching or reading something from decades ago that offers some wild exaggeration to make a point, when the future proved even meaner and more absurd. A Face in the Crowd didn’t capture the rabid tackiness of the Orange One, and Network didn’t fathom how turning the news into entertainment would break the collective brain of a global superpower. By the time COVID hit, Contagion wasn’t even a horror movie anymore; we all flocked to its vision of institutional competence for comfort.
Seconds hasn’t come true. Yet. Its premise is that a mysterious company provides rich people a literal second chance at life. For a price, they fake a client’s death and then grant them a new identity, complete with a younger, more attractive body. Based on a novel by David Ely, the material calls to mind The Twilight Zone, but John Frankenheimer doesn’t merely stretch out the two-beats-and-a-twist structure of that show. Instead, he uses the extra running time to warp the story into something stranger and sadder.
By the mid-sixties, Frankenheimer was running on all cylinders as a director, with such classics as The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and The Train. These radiated with formal daring, intelligence, and a full-throated liberal ire at his country’s paranoia, corruption, and cruelty. At the rate he was going, he was about to tackle Mom and apple pie next. Except in Seconds, he went after something far more sacred to the flag-waving crowd. The main character is one Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who got that Ivy League degree, that lucrative banking job, the house in Scarsdale, and the devoted housewife (Francis Reid) only to find himself, shockingly, unfulfilled. But he soon learns he doesn’t need to stay trapped during a late-night phone call from an old college pal that supposedly died months ago. Enter the company with a promise too good to be true. To the movie’s credit, it never wastes time pretending this will work out. It doesn’t even waste time selling the audience on how cool getting that second life might be.
Instead, Seconds introduces Arthur, already on the run through Grand Central, followed by strangers in suits, one of whom eventually shoves a piece of paper at him with an address, but no explanation. The whole sequence is filmed for maximum disorientation, with cuts that don’t let an action finish, and shots captured by cameras mounted on shoulder braces that the actors wear, so the character appears motionless even as they move through space (a shot that might have appeared in a few Spike Lee joints). The shot was designed by the film’s DP, the legendary James Wong Howe, who Frankenheimer frequently refers to as his most important collaborator on the picture, and a man who changed the way he shot movies. Even more impressive is that Howe shot this in his mid-sixties, after decades of innovations, dating back to the silent era, when he’d use black velvet wrapped around the camera to help blue eyes pop on the film stock of the time. Howe even used deep focus in Transatlantic ten years before Gregg Toland made it famous in Citizen Kane, all the while wrestling through racist horseshit that comes with being Chinese in Tinseltown. Although to be fair, the entire state of California wasn’t much better, refusing to acknowledge Howe’s marriage to a white woman for ten years until a law against interracial relationships was repealed in 1948.
Howe chose to shoot the movie with lighter but louder Arriflex cameras which required virtually all the dialogue to be recorded afterwards, which while standard practice in say, Italy or France at the time, was not in Hollywood. But it allowed for the madhouse camerawork that still feels revolutionary, starting with the opening credits by Saul Bass, who used metal mirrors to liquefy the mirror images of the human body. Howe shot most of Seconds with only wide-angle lenses, veering back and forth between a 9.7mm and 18mm, which gave them deep focus and distortions, recasting even the most mundane scenes into something monstrous. Such as when Arthur Hamilton retires to bed with his wife after getting back from Grand Central, and that fateful call from that “dead” college pal. His wife tries to suss out what’s wrong and when that fails, attempts to initiate sex, with no success. The wide-angle lens makes the seduction deeply unflattering, highlighting their jowls and wrinkles. The discomfort is heightened by Randolph’s response to her overture, where his slack boredom reads as nearly comatose. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t try and blame the loveless marriage on his wife, by casting her as a frigid, absolutely no-fun bitch, that beloved rationale of married men looking to follow their dicks to new places. Here Arthur is the emotional cripple and a cripple who just learned about Lourdes.
I couldn’t help it, Charlie. I had to find out where I went wrong. The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important – that I was supposed to want! Things!Tony
So off Arthur goes to the address on the note, which turns out to be a sweltering dry cleaner, all steam and sweat, only to be shooed onward by an ancient, ornery owner (Edgar Stehli), who directs him to a meat packing plant. There, he proceeds to freeze among row after row of cattle corpses. It’s a brilliant way to show Arthur leaving behind his scrubbed, furnished life to an “underworld” that happens to be the source of those pressed shirts and silky slices of beef grenadine. He dons a hard hat and the white coat of a meat packer and steps inside the back of a dark, empty van that will deliver him to the “company” in question, with his fedora now on his lap like a dead pet. The company’s office is an ode to 50s corporate luxury. What could be more trustworthy than a white-shoe law firm? Although, in this kind of picture, we know nothing could be shadier. But production designer/ art director Ted Haworth didn’t merely recreate an office, he installed swinging double doors from a hospital, dressed in the same leather and brass buttons as a Chesterfield couch. He included no windows whatsoever, upping the claustrophobia.
Arthur is quickly shown to a couch in a private office where he’s served a cup of drugged tea. During that “nap,” Arthur dreams he rapes a young woman in a zombie-like trance while someone films it. The dream takes place in a bedroom, warped as if in a funhouse mirror. Howe knew his camera couldn’t distort the setting enough, so they had Haworth build two sets, one warped, and one normal because it wasn’t a dream. The “rape” might have been coerced with drugs, but the film of it is effective blackmail, used to keep Arthur discrete about this wholesome provider of second lives. Arthur wakes from his drugged slumber and a company rep (Jeff Corey) quickly marches him through the paperwork: the transfer of funds, the rewritten will, his staged death with the corpse of someone of his own build, etc. The blackmail is raised and dismissed only as a precaution, irrelevant to Arthur, who will certainly behave. Nonetheless, Arthur waivers in signing his old life away. So the rep brings in the company’s closer, an old man played with sweet, countrified malice by Will Geer. Frankenheimer films the hard sales pitch in a two-shot, with Geer over Randolph’s shoulder, like the devil whispering in his ear, after already bumping off the angel. Frankenheimer was so adamant about the staging that he refused to shoot coverage of the scene.
What’s notable here is that Geer never talks up the glories of this second life, only the disappointments of the first. The loveless marriage, the distant friends, the boredom. Geer casts his first life as worthless, which makes the new one… priceless. The movie doesn’t pretend for a moment that Arthur won’t sign but takes the time to show us exactly why someone takes the deal. It’s because they think so little of the life and people they knew. He signs and the surgery begins, Arthur acquiring his new, younger face and body, which makes him look like Rock Hudson, literally. Frankenheimer had wanted the same actor to play Arthur in both versions of himself, but Hudson refused to age up for the first act of the picture, and he was the studio’s choice to star. It works marvellously thanks to Hudson finding a new gear for the part, which he often referred to as the performance of his career. His eyes, his body language, and his voice all ring true for an old man in a new body. Frankenheimer further sells it with a graphic depiction of the surgery that makes John Randolph into Rock Hudson. But it was Rock’s burden to make the concept work, and he did. Shooting in black and white also helped, granting a distance between this and the candy-coloured romcoms that made Hudson an icon. Frankenheimer also had the rarest of luxuries for a shoot: two weeks of rehearsal with the cast, something that Hudson never had before.
After the surgery, Rock goes through the saddest training montage in Hollywood history: a series of calisthenics and stretches that look as unpleasant as they actually are. Then he’s assigned a psychiatrist to help with the transition, but he’s played by Khigh Dhiegh, whose grinning ill will as a therapist was previously established in The Manchurian Candidate. From Dhiegh, Arthur learns his new life will be as Antiochus Wilson, a well-regarded painter, living by the sea in California. Dhiegh is quick to wave away any reservations, saying out loud what kind of life the company is really selling: “In short, you are alone in the world, absolved of all responsibility except to your own interest. Isn’t that marvelous!” If that sounds a bit on the nose, this was made well before people felt comfortable admitting, let alone celebrating such an ambition. Rock is soon flown to California and settles in a gorgeous seaside home which was actually Frankenheimer’s residence at the time. Rock finds the house complete with an art studio, and a butler (Wesley Addley) who seems closer to a life coach than a servant, gently prodding Rock into embracing this new life.
What kind of man is he? There’s grace in the line and color, but it doesn’t emerge pure. It pushes at the edge of something still tentative, unresolved – as if somewhere in the man there is still a key unturned.Nora
A lesser movie would find Rock Hudson making the most of this second chance. Movies of this ilk love accentuating the wish-fulfillment before the bills come due, such as Limitless and about 94% of addiction flicks. But here, Rock is only disoriented by the new face staring back in the mirror. He’s frustrated with his attempts at painting. The company was kind enough to “establish” him as a great painter before his arrival, with a rep and body of work in place, but that only leaves him feeling more like a fraud at his easel. Because he is. He soon comes across Nora (Salome Jens), sitting on a beach. Howe blands the beach up, accentuating the faded sands and bleak skies to kill any postcard look. The filmmakers had to be tempted to cast some Playboy-Bunny-by-way-of-Nebraska ingenue for the part, but Salome radiates sophistication and self-awareness that doesn’t suit a pin-up calendar. No, Nora offers the promise of genuine connection here.
That connection grows as Rock ends up joining her at a bacchanal in Santa Barbara, where the locals strip naked, stomp grapes, and dance about in drunken revelry. Nora is quick to join the festivities, but Arthur-as-Wilson is still a banker from Scarsdale, who finds all of this unsavoury, yanking at Nora to get dressed and go. But the mob of revellers get the best of him, stripping him down and carrying him to a tub of naked folks, shot and cut like a zombie swarming, with no room to breathe. In the end, he finally gives in to the moment and smiles that Rock Hudson smile. It’s Arthur’s only moment of unbridled joy in the movie.
This bash stands in sharp contrast to the house party that follows, where Arthur-as-Wilson invites his neighbours over. Unnerved by the tacky, nagging crowd, Arthur drinks too much and begins dropping hints to the guests about his past life, which we gather from the surrounding glares is strictly forbidden. The drinks don’t stop, and Rock Hudson has to be dragged into the bedroom by seven or eight men, where they remind him of the terms and conditions. It’s a mirror image of the drunk revellers dragging him to the tub. As the mob of guests surround him, Rock descends into a mewling fit, which is by far the least flattering moment in the actor’s career. Hudson was so nervous he actually got drunk for the scenes, so Frankenheimer used multiple cameras to cover their once chance. Arthur’s tantrum is finally broken when Nora barges in and yells: “Shut up! Who the hell do you think you are?” Turns out, she’s not his salvation; she’s just another company employee.
During the shoot, Salome Jens wanted this moment to be a sweet one, and argued with Frankenheimer that she should be consoling, to show there was real affection between them. They shot it both ways, and Salome quickly saw that her director was right. The movie was never concerned with making this new life seem fulfilling, and the anger in her voice vibrates with the repressed rage of every hourly worker who has to listen to the managerial class moan about work-life balance. From the party on, Arthur refuses to play along, sneaking out of California to see his wife Emily back in Scarsdale, with his new name and face. He stays in character as Wilson, playing the celebrated artist, explaining that he struck up a friendship with Arthur before his death. One way to play the material is to show us how beautiful his old life was, how much he’d given up in pursuit of a fresh start. But all Emily can recall are her husband’s silences and the celibacy they endured. She didn’t even know Arthur cared about painting and had already thrown out his watercolours. It’s not merely a fact that he can’t go back, he can’t even be nostalgic about his past. It’s a tart reversal of It’s A Wonderful Life, where on closer look, his existence is even emptier than he imagined.
In short, you are alone in the world, absolved of all responsibility except to your own interest. Isn’t that marvellous!Davalo
The company is waiting for Arthur outside his old house. He’s loaded in the car and given one last reprieve. He can start over, with yet another body, yet another life, but he’ll need to provide the company with a new client in exchange, such as a friend he could call like his college pal called him. The service is by word of mouth only, since one can’t advertise the chance to fake one’s death on a billboard. Another word for such marketing is a pyramid scheme, where family and friends are commoditized. Until he finds a new “client,” Arthur is left to waste away his days in a purgatory room, staying drugged and compliant with other failed “reborns” like himself. One of them turns out to be his old college pal who roped him into this mess. At this point, Arthur has been too alone and despairing to read his pal the riot act. They’re both hanging on to the hope that their next shot will be the one that sticks, where they get things right, with Arthur vowing to do what he wants this time. That old friend soon gets called out of purgatory for his third or fourth chance, and they look at each other like gambling addicts, where only one wins another trip to the casino.
In the end, Arthur refuses to offer any of his friends or acquaintances for the scheme, without explanation. It’s one of the film’s few flaws, as we don’t know if this is the first rebellious act of Arthur Hamilton’s life, or his final failure, because his life left him with no one to call. As a result, the company finally gives up on him. The old man who sold him the service returns to visit Arthur with his Colonel Sanders routine, this time doing much to confirm our guess that he’s the founder of this little operation. “We really did want you to make it,” he tells Arthur. It’s a phrase that gives chills, now that it’s been the guiding sentiment of the Democrats since Clinton bit his bottom lip to empathize how much he’d like to do, but how powerless he is against the great free market’s verdict on who gets to thrive and who gets the shaft. One of the best touches of Seconds is how often it reminds us of all the people required to create a new existence for some rich sad sack. Of course, the founder lost faith in Arthur, but not his business model, “We can’t let the mistakes get in the way of our success,” which also calls to mind a sociopathic android who invented a social media platform that broke the public square. Say what you will about what the company imagined here, but it’s got 2012-era “unicorn” written all over it. By refusing to find a replacement, Rock Hudson is demoted from client to spare parts. They’ll use his body to fake a death for yet another client, and while the surgeon calls him his greatest work, the drill revs up and Arthur, in any form, ceases to be. Frankenheimer ends this nightmare with an image of a man, his tiny daughter on his shoulders, and a dog beside them. A memory we sense Arthur had no idea he cherished so much until now.
It’s no shock Seconds flopped so hard at the box office. Rock Hudson’s fans didn’t want to see him mope, and his presence might have alienated the fans of such a trip. There’s an argument that the movie’s gonzo style and despairing vibe would play better a decade later. But it’s one thing to criticize the media, the police, politicians, the military/ industrial complex, or Madison Avenue, as audiences can see such institutions as separate from themselves. But Seconds dared question the very American idea of ambition and consumerism which puts most of us in the crosshairs. During Frankenheimer’s commentary on the movie, recorded in the late 90s, he said the material spoke to him because we don’t exist without our pasts, mistakes and all. But the more pressing issue at hand in Seconds was that all that money and fuss couldn’t erase Arthur Hamilton’s past. It’s not the lack of memories that sunk his new life; it was his old limitations. In a sense, he was unfulfilled for buying into the culture’s pre-packaged idea of success, only to go out and buy another pre-packaged idea. The company could sell Arthur a new face, name, reputation and home, even a love interest, but could not address the rotten values that ruined his first life. When America made consuming the heart of its economy, it had to make even bigger promises about what could be bought. Seconds showed that for all its scientific miracles and administrative discipline, the company was only giving him a new costume.
Seconds stands in stark contrast to the Boomer genre of suburban rebellion, where mere material comforts aren’t sufficient, so folks in safe neighborhoods and steady jobs toss all that aside for the thrill of creative and sexual liberation. Much later, Mad Men would offer a more humanist dismantling of this myth, but in 1966, this fantasy was in full bloom. However, Seconds isn’t some regressive cautionary tale that suggests Arthur should have stayed on his joyless hamster wheel. By glamorizing neither his old life nor his new one, Seconds argued that neither life was worth what Arthur paid for them. The dirty little secret of a consumption-based economy is that it runs on dissatisfaction and ingratitude, not desire. The old man didn’t sell Arthur on the promise of his new life, merely the emptiness of his current one. And it just so happens that old man has a cure to sell. It’s the great American two-step sales pitch. “There’s something wrong with you, your life, your job,” followed closely after by, “And here’s something you can buy to fix it.” Of course, whatever we buy eventually disappoints, and we’re back to shopping for the next thing. Rinse, repeat until death, only our loved ones are still there, talked into upgrades for our memorial service.
Since Seconds was released, this trend has only grown more relentlessly soul-crushing, supercharged by a war on pleasure that somehow involves spending even more money on diets, retreats, gurus, gyms, and surgeries, and of course, only the most enlightened culture, where consumption-as-activism is at its most blatant and hypocritical. Seconds dramatized the dead-end of capitalism, where we’re all so atomized that we’re not just trading out jobs, clothes, and technology, but our whole lives, all in the hopes that the next life would fill the void left by the first. It’s a deeply upsetting fact that everyone knows, and no one has any idea how to address. The real miracle of Seconds isn’t that it offers some solution, but it has the bravery to say out loud that for all its power and allure, the only thing our get-rich-or-die-trying ethos might deliver is seconds of the same shitty meal.
Thank you for the wonderful review. I always place this on my “best adaptation” list (if a literal adaptation is your thing) — it’s almost scene by scene the same as the novel.
Huge fan of the novel (and film) myself. I reviewed Ely’s novel on my site.