Although the idea of being reborn might seem appealing, it’s more than likely the end result will be unsatisfactory. Mark Fraser revisits a dark American cult classic concerning the tragic consequences of seeking spiritual rejuvenation.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
At its terrifying core Seconds is – according to the film’s director John Frankenheimer – essentially about accepting who you are. While this may be true, the 1966 movie also ponders the old adage that people should be wary about what they wish for in case they end up getting it.
This is more or less the quandary facing Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson), who literally gets it in the head after blowing his second chance at life – an unexpected opportunity given to him by a shadowy and largely anonymous US corporation which specialises in providing tired middle-aged men with completely new identities.
Before his eventual demise, Wilson – formerly known as New York banking executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) – pretty much has everything he thought he would ever want. A successful artist with an attractive girlfriend (Salome Jens), he also owns a spacious beachside home studio in Malibu where he can draw and paint to his heart’s content. In effect he is a younger man set to enjoy an affluent retirement while pursuing his long-neglected metaphysical concerns.
Hamilton’s life literally changes after he is contacted by his presumably dead friend Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton), who convinces him over the phone to visit the “Company” so he too can be reborn. Following some radical “cosmetic renovation” (conducted by the same doctors who also work in the organisation’s ominous-sounding Cadaver Procurement Section), the new-look Wilson is told he will now be a bachelor – the only son of deceased parents.
Furthermore, he is provided with a fabricated reputation as a qualified and respected artist.
“You see, you don’t have to prove anything anymore – you are accepted,” the Company’s Davalo (Khigh Dhiegh) cheerily explains to him after the painful medical procedure.
“You will be in your own new dimension.”
Things become unstuck, however, when Wilson realises – during a drunken bout at his disastrous housewarming party – that he can’t escape (or forget) his former life, no matter how much his new existence tries to compensate for its loss.
Although Seconds is, in effect, a kind of Faustian futuristic morality tale, it also reads as a grim treatise on disappointment, failed expectations, the loss of passion and lingering regret. If anything, it is an expose of the pitfalls of growing old – of not fulfilling one’s potential and, in the final analysis, of failing to have a dream.
Moreover – as film commentator Henry Blinder put it back in the late 1980s when he wrote about the movie in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies Three – it is “quite possibly the most depressing film ever made”.
In addition, Seconds has the reputation of being one of the truly misunderstood Hollywood movies of the 1960s (a situation which fortunately has changed in the last 15 years), thanks no doubt to its combination of confronting subject matter and surreal visual narrative.
Released by Paramount Pictures Corporation in sobering black and white, it was America’s official entry in the 1966 Cannes Film Festival – a choice most likely influenced by Frankenheimer’s growing reputation as a serious director with contemporary works like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) which, with Seconds, made up the director’s so-called “paranoia trilogy”. However, according to Binder, it was “soundly booed”, after which the film pretty much travelled under the radar for the next quarter century.
Aside from being put off by the movie’s unconventional story – which, for Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage in American Directors Volume Two, emphasises “utter pessimism” – it also seems audiences of the day were loath to watch erstwhile matinee idol Hudson in such a painfully bleak role.
And why wouldn’t they be? After all, by the time the film reaches its shattering conclusion, there are not too many high points in Wilson’s brief existence as a reborn.
Disorientated after his arduous physical transformation, the wannabe artist frustratingly tries to nurture a drawing style under the watchful eye of mild mannered Company minder John (played by Robert Aldrich regular Wesley Addy) before meeting the enigmatic Nora Marcus (Jens) while taking a solitary walk along the beach.
Although he eventually lets his guard down (while attending a bohemian wine making ritual in Santa Barbara – a scene in which Frankenheimer exercises some unnecessary overindulgence), Wilson soon discovers he cannot totally leave the past behind him. Part of the reason for this, he later explains to Charlie, is he needed to know what went wrong – to understand why his former life had become such a disappointment. Unfortunately – by the time he finds out the answer to this burning question – it is too late.
It’s fair to assume that when Seconds came out in the mid-1960s, the cinema-going public had a fairly preconceived idea regarding what it expected of Hudson, an actor whose early career had, as correctly observed by critic Dianna Simmonds in 1980, been “founded solely on physique and extraordinary good looks”.
Since 1948 he had mostly avoided playing complex roles, only revealing his more serious acting ambitions in some of the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s – namely Magnificent Obsessions (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1956) and The Tarnished Angel (1957) – as well as in his Oscar nominated leading performance in George Stevens sprawling Giant (also 1956).
Furthermore, his popularity around the start of the 1960s had been given a boost following his successful teaming with Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959), the acknowledged prototype of the sophisticated sex comedy – a work which is probably as diametrically opposed to the pseudo-horror tableau of Seconds as is possible.
Given this, it was quite a bold move by Frankenheimer and his scriptwriter Lewis John Carlino (who based his material on a short novel by David Ely) not to introduce the scarred and traumatised Wilson until well into the story, at which point he looks like something the cat has dragged in.
Unfortunately, it appears contemporary audiences (and some of the critics for that matter) didn’t find this use of Hudson particularly appealing, choosing to overlook his acting despite the fact it was, in all likelihood, the bravest role he had ever taken on.
As mentioned above, another possible reason for Seconds‘ initial failure was, somewhat ironically, its ground breaking visual narrative.
While Frankenheimer’s direction is great (except, perhaps, his handling of the wine making shindig, which is a little tedious), it’s the mesmerising monochrome cinematography of James Wong Howe that really makes the movie stand out as a truly cutting edge piece of American cinema. As succinctly put by Stephen Bowie in Senses of Cinema.com back in late 2006, together the pair worked from a “palette” which included real locations, handheld cameras, extreme close-ups, first-person point of view shots, fisheye lenses, jump cuts and forced perspective sets.
The results are simply stunning, making Seconds as important a contribution to the visual history of black and white Hollywood as other significant works like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967).
In a rational world this approach would have been celebrated by the film watching community. However, it appears audiences of the day weren’t appreciative of this level of cinematic mastery – particularly as it chillingly detailed such dark subject matter.
During an interview with Gerald Pratley – parts of which were included in his 1969 book The Cinema of John Frankenheimer – the director explained the philosophy behind Seconds.
“Basically what it has to say is that an individual is what he is, and he has to live his life,” the film maker, who died in 2002, said.
“He cannot change anything, and all of today’s literature and film about escapism are just rubbish because you cannot and should not ever try to escape from what you are. If you don’t want to live with it, it’s just too bad.”
Although this may be true, there is another interesting idea at work in the movie which isn’t necessarily Faustian.
If anything Seconds suggests the spiritual malaise which is already afflicting Hamilton at the start of the story is peculiar to males. As a result the recycling process, as depicted on the screen, is dominated by men.
For instance the key employees of the Company – from the kindly old patriarch played by Will Geer and blackmailing recruitment agent Mr Ruby (a sublimely funny Jeff Cory, who delivers what is possibly the film’s blackest line to Hamilton: “The question of death selection may be the most important decision of your life”) to the blunt head surgeon Dr Innes (Richard Anderson) and cheery Davalo – are all males.
Later, it turns out that while all of the male guests at Wilson’s disastrous housewarming party are also seconds, there’s not a female reboot amongst them.
Furthermore, all of the problem reborns who sit quietly in neatly arranged rows of desks in the Company’s underground waiting room hoping for a third chance at life are blokes.
Finally, when Wilson eventually goes back to his erstwhile home in Scarsdale, New York, to visit his “widowed” wife Emily (Frances Reid), he discovers he was more or less at fault for his spiritual demise.
He is also quietly disappointed to find out that she has managed to move on with her life after discovering his old water colour paintings – which were stored in the garage at the time of his “death” – have, like many of Emily’s unhappy memories of their marriage, been discarded. If anyone is suffering from eternal sadness, it’s the former man of the house.
“I never knew what he wanted and I don’t think he ever knew,” Emily laments.
“He fought so hard for what he had been taught to want, and when he got it he just grew more and more confused – the silences grew longer.
“You see, Arthur had been dead a long time before they found him dead in that hotel room.”
At the end of the day Seconds undeniably has a special place in the Frankenheimer canon. Aside from being his last great film, it was also his final black and white one and, arguably, the most misunderstood moment in his 43 year movie making career.
It is also a work which, thematically at least, has not lost any contemporary relevance. After all, pretty much every social ill put under the spotlight in the movie still exists today.
The desire to stay young and the use of plastic surgery to achieve this; the mind boggling desperation of the modern male mid-life crisis; personal alienation; relationship emptiness; depression; the sinister influence of corporations on consumer behaviour; the destructive potential of alcohol; even deceit amongst friends (as seen in Evan’s quite underhanded manipulation of Wilson) – all of this was as much a part of the human condition in the mid-1960s as it is now.
Given this, it’s fair to say Seconds has survived the last 50 years as a potent cautionary tale.
Words by Mark Fraser
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Written by: Lewis John Carlino
Starring: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph
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