John Frankenheimer, 1966, USA
As a kid, John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’ always gave me serious chills. Not only did this come from the grand guignol of the ending, but also from the idea of failing at life, of not quite being in control, of not quite knowing the tricks of assimilation and survival that others seem to possess so effortlessly. It’s based on mid-life crisis and, as Kim Newman says, on a wartime generation that felt they had missed out on all the fun the youth culture were just about to enjoy. As a kid, I venture that this was unnerving me as it tapped into the suspicion that life would not be the constantly upward curve I was promised. The idea of wanting to do your life over again, of wanting a second chance, of being an outsider not quite fitting in, are not likely to go out of vogue.
It’s the kind of scenario you might find in ‘The Twilight Zone’: Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a rigidly unhappy and unremarkable soul when he receives an odd offer from an old friend - one he presumed dead - to be “re-born”, of starting life over. It’s an offer of a second chance, to be what he never was but wanted to be. To this end, the mysterious company who orchestrates this seems quite accommodating – after they have snared him staging him with a false rape, that is. He is reborn as Rock Hudson in an idyllic Californian location. The trouble is: once an unhappy soul, always an unhappy soul.
Based on David Ely’s novel and populated by a cast of faces that would become familiar but weren’t so much at the time of casting – it is very well cast and notably Frankenheimer went for a lot of previously actors black-listed in the McCarthy era – ‘Seconds’ was never popular and greatly derided. As Brian Eggert says, “Frankenheimer himself noted how the film “went from failure to classic without ever being a success.’” There’s a truth and poeticism when Landon Palmer calls ‘Seconds’ the loneliest films of the 1960s.
With James Wong Howe’s crisp black and white cinematography, Saul Bass’s disturbing credits sequence, the distortions by fish-eye lenses, a seasoning of psychedelic sensibility and undertones of body-horror, there is something always off-kilter in this world. Even the early scenes of Hamilton’s humdrum life alternate from claustrophobic close-ups and agoraphobic wide-shots, creating unease immediately. Not only the accentuated camera techniques but the bedrock of plastic surgery, identity theft and over-reaching corporations were ahead of the times, as Edward Tenner notes; and perhaps its seemingly contemporary backdrop fooled people and contributed to the backlash. Maybe if it had looked more like ‘Fantastic Voyage’, it would have been more obviously a genre piece and audiences may not have felt so threatened, have recognised such a clear attack on their culture.
It’s a world of the mid-life crisis, where post-House of Un-American Activities Committee paranoia is paramount and the film attacks commercialism, bourgeois privilege, arty pretensions and free-love hedonism equally, seeing in it all a phoniness and tapping into our fear that our whole life is performance and our surroundings staged for us, that everyone else in on it. As Eggert notes, ‘Seconds’ offers as a solution neither conformity or escapism – but perhaps “escapism” is the wrong word and hedonism is more appropriate. And yet, rather than a criticism, it seems more a cautionary tale and a warning that happiness lays not within what you are told by corporations and social movements.
Will Greer gives a sublimely genial folksy old man performance as the apparent owner of this somewhat bizarre and mysterious firm which is both sinister and weirdly empathic (hey, they seem to go out of their way to upgrade your second life). Rock Hudson cracking up is the attention-grabber, but John Randolph’s sad-sack performance is equally haunting. This is a far cry from the action inclinations of mainstream genre fare. Indeed, the science isn’t credible at all, but that’s not the point: this is the kind of science fiction whose vigorously bleak attitude shows that the phenomenon of progress will always be susceptible to human weaknesses. With a greatly disturbing finale to top off this haunted tale of a lifetime of dissatisfaction, ‘Seconds’ is uniquely disturbing.