With its nightmarish opening credits (shot by Saul Bass); Jerry Goldsmith’s paranoia-inducing score; a deliberately obscure opening act seemingly lifted wholesale from the French New Wave; spectacularly bleak denouement and the fact that its bankable leading man, Rock Hudson, does not appear until forty minutes into the film it is somewhat understandable that Sixties audiences stayed away in droves. Seconds is stuffed with technical and continuity problems and lacks any kind of medical, scientific or financially logical through-line and yet it is a truly great movie, one that deserves your undivided attention and one that will have you thinking about it for years to come.
Grey flannel suited banker Arthur Hamilton seemingly has every thing he ever strived for, a beautiful house in the suburbs, a loving wife, a daughter who has married well (to a doctor) and a boat to sail every Summer. Even so, Hamilton is dissatisfied, restless, facing a mid-life crisis but a phone call from a friend he thought had died years earlier is about to change everything. Forced, almost blackmailed, into a Faustian pact with a nameless organisation Hamilton is given a new face and a new start and the chance to make his most selfish dreams come true.
This corporation arranges cosmetic surgery to change Hamilton’s appearance, personal trainers to change his physique, a life coach to change his personality and a live-in assistant to help him adjust to becoming Tony Wilson, an artist living in an expansive beach house in Malibu. They even procure a dead body (to be burned beyond recognition in a hotel room fire) to add a full stop to his life as Hamilton. The question now is can Wilson put his life as Hamilton behind him?
Seconds was the third in what became known as John Frankenheimer’s Paranoia Trilogy, the first two being The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) and is probably the last great movie of his career. Audience and critical reaction (a screening in Cannes was booed) to the film persuaded Frankenheimer to reassess his approach to film making and, though solid, the rest of his catalogue never again attempted the fireworks and thematic complexity of Seconds. Along with DP James Wong Howe, Frankenheimer composed sequences from a variety of camera techniques (including hand held shots, body mounted cameras – think Robert De Niro’s drunk scene in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets – low angle shots from a worm’s eye perspective and, occasionally, the distortion of a fish-eye lens) to keep the composition off-kilter and the viewer off-balance. In fact, the combination of these techniques and scenes of actual surgery led to more than a few instances of audience members being physically ill; reports of people vomiting because of the film couldn’t have added to the appeal of the public, further damaging its box-office take.
Hamilton/Wilson was a role originally intended to be played by a single actor with the use of makeup and prosthetics. The studio, already worried by the the script, vetoed Frankenheimer’s original choice of Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando turned down the role. When Rock Hudson was hired it was he who had the inspired suggestion that Hamilton should be played by a second actor. John Randolph (who along with fellow stars Jeff Corey and Will Geer had been blacklisted for his Leftist politics by the McCarthy trials) is perfect as the conflicted Hamilton, distracted, straight-laced, effusive and paranoid he sets up the character perfectly for Hudson to carry the rest of the film. And Hudson delivers the performance of his career, had the movie not bombed it is difficult to see Academy voters denying him that year’s Best Actor Oscar, he’s that good.
Of course, knowing what we know now about Rock Hudson it’s easy to see where he channelling his performance from, the discomfort of hiding his sexuality within the public persona created for him translates directly to Hamilton’s, literally, internal conflict now he finds himself in the body of Wilson. As counter intuitive as it sounds, this is Hudson’s most personal role and, whether by accident or not, it is one of Hollywood’s greatest pieces of casting ever. The undercurrent of sexual repression that Hamilton has succumbed to (he and his wife sleep in separate beds, for example) finds glorious relief at a Bacchanalian orgy where naked flower-children cavort as he looks on, wanting to join in yet held back by his adherence to societal values. When, finally, he caves, stripped naked and joining countless nude others dancing in a wine press, Hamilton’s joy comes directly from a place in Hudson that could not be so easily or publicly revealed because of the constraints placed upon him and others at the time.
The idea that we can be given a second chance to live the lives we have always wanted is a deceptively attractive one, Seconds plays to that hope and takes it to its natural conclusion: that we are the sum of all we have experienced and that it is impossible to leave behind our time spent on Earth. Made in the mid-Sixties, the movie plays to that War generation that looked on in envy as the whole baby-boomer generation seemed to be embracing sexual and moral freedom but plays to all generations envious of the one that follows it.
When Wilson rejects his new life he is sent back to the company’s headquarters and discovers that Charlie, the friend who had recommended him to the organisation, has offered up his name in exchange for a third chance at rebirth he too having rejected his fresh start. The inability of man to recognise what it is he wants and how to achieve it or, indeed, accept responsibility for his failure is one of the lessons that runs through Seconds’ cautionary tale, our existential angst something that requires hard work and a willingness to understanding rather than quick fixes.
In the end credits it is revealed that Wilson’s first name is not based upon Anthony as we might have suspected, but Antiochus – the name of one of the young Greek nobles thrown into the Labyrinth as a sacrifice to the dreadful Minotaur. Likewise, Wilson is wandering a maze, both moral and illusory, he never truly understands, forever lost and whichever turn he takes the beast (the company) is always there, just waiting its chance to consume him.
Fans of Jordan Peele’s deeply human and equally uncategorizable Get Out (2016) will recognise a lot from Seconds, at least thematically, and there’s a definite thread from the film that weaves its way directly through such movies as Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975) and David Fincher’s The Game (1997) (in fact one scene is lifted almost verbatim) amongst many, many others. For a film that was a critical and financial failure to have such influence is a definite pointer to the film’s quality and, make no mistake, Seconds is a film or rare quality.