Seconds was one of two films made by John Frankenheimer in 1966, the other being Grand Prix, as different from Seconds as could be. Grand Prix was better-known and financially successful, but Seconds was the more interesting and influential film. Masters of Cinema’s dual-format Blu-Ray release redresses the injustice of its out of print status in Europe, a great follow-up to the US Criterion Blu-Ray a couple of years ago. This is one to buy: Seconds is a great film, from the surreal, nightmarish opening credits by Saul Bass to the shock ending. As well as having a fantastic plot and excellent performances, it is technically brilliant, a fine example of style as substance. That style is down to the collaboration between Frankenheimer and his director of photography on the film, James Wong Howe.
Seconds is based on a 1963 pulp novel by David Ely, in which banker Arthur Hamilton (played in the film by john Randolph) is told by a friend that a secret organization referred to as “The Company” can help unhappy wealthy people create new lives for themselves. He goes through the process and his death is staged. It is successful, with his family believing the corpse found is his, and he is transformed into a different person: Tony Wilson, played by Rock Hudson. Once a straight-laced businessman, he becomes a pseudo-bohemian painter (in the book this aspect of his identity is elaborated upon, with Wilson stating he always wanted to be a painter but lacked confidence.) He gets a beach house in Malibu, and begins a relationship with a young woman called Nora, played by Salome Jens.
However, everything starts to go wrong when he gets drunk at a dinner party and starts talking about his former life. He learns that his new neighbors and girlfriend are also all “reborns” or “seconds” like himself, sent to spy on him during his adjustment to his new life. He then breaks the rules by visiting his ex-wife, who of course doesn’t know it is him, learning that the marriage failure had been his own fault. He wants another new identity, and discusses this with the person who talked him into contacting The Company, Charlie Evans. Evans is played by Murray Hamilton, an actor well-known for his work on The Twilight Zone, to which Seconds can and has been compared too. They both say they have found themselves stuck in a purgatory-like existence, using hobbies to occupy their time while they wait to find out what will happen to them next. Wilson finds out at the end when he thinks he will get a new identity but as he is wheeled towards the “operating theatre,” a priest arrives to give him his last rites and he realizes that he is instead going to be killed to make the next person’s faked death look realistic.
Seconds is essentially a great film about 1960s paranoia. In Seconds a sinister corporation gives people the chance to start over. This seems to be a comment on consumerism and how a lot of products are sold because people are discontented with their lives: being sold a whole new life is sort of the ultimate purchase, but since The Company is the one really making the choices it’s all somewhat fake, and the consequences are negative. Discomfort about consumerism is a theme it shares with films like Zabriskie Point or The Stepford Wives . It also explores aspects of the mid-life crisis, such as the wish people often have to start their lives over, feelings of having made the wrong choices in life, and the stability of individual identity.
The issue of honest identity, whether it was gay or left-wing identity or some other aspect, was the other side of concerns about false identity the 1960s. Many people were questioning what they had been told about how they should live or what they should think, coming out of the very conformist 1950s. It is significant that Hudson’s character chooses to be a bohemian painter in California, trying on a kind of identity that many people might secretly wish for. It is also interesting however that this identity doesn’t work out for him: Seconds is a dark film where things are not neatly wrapped up in a happy ending. What the characters think they want seems to be as empty as what they left behind and maybe even more so. As Wilson says to Evans at the end of the film: “The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important. That I was told to want. Things, not people or meaning, just things. California was the same. They made the same decisions for me all over again, and they were the same things really.”
Frankenheimer makes big business the villain of the story, selling his characters a false idea of a better life and even murdering them. This fits with the questions many people were asking about business at the time, and this concept is later explored by Alan J. Pakula in The Parallax View (1974).
Seconds also in a less direct way talks about political and sexual identity, as exemplified by his cast and crew choices. Rock Hudson has stated Seconds was one of only two films he made that he was proud of. His sexual orientation was well-known in Hollywood, even though it was kept a secret from everyone else until he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, and he had been forced into fake dates and a fake marriage to cover it up. There is a strong subtext in the film about closeted gay life. For example, in the party scene most of the people Hudson makes contact with are men, and the one woman he speaks with is talking about how she changed her sects, which he mistakes for how she changed her sex. Hudson pursued the role himself rather than being Frankenheimer’s first choice, but the director agreed that he turned out to be a very good one. Hudson was better known for romantic comedies, and although today he can be seen as a really inspired casting choice because placing him in this role must have been very unsettling for the audience.
Seconds is at root a science fiction film because the plot revolves around a non-existent technology, but does not fit into the usual confines of that genre. I believe that Frankenheimer deliberately used and then broke genre conventions to unsettle audience expectations. This interpretation fits with his cast and crew choices, the film’s cinematography, and the score, all of which seem to be done with that plan in mind. Unlike most other science fiction films, the solution to the film’s core dilemma is not presented as a better technology, a hero or an escape plan. Because the real problem is inside Wilson, or inside consumer society, there is no escape possible. So although there are sequences that focus on how the transformation is done (the surgery scenes) and descriptions of how the person starts a new life, there is also a focus on Wilson’s internal life and this is where the “horror, neo-noir, psychedelia” part shows up on-screen. Possibly the closest comparison thematically is with the books of Philip K. Dick, which have a similar focus that combines fluid identity, suburban life not being quite what it seems, and business/government conspiracy against the individual who dares to question.
It is a unique take on the science fiction genre that asks deep questions about corporate greed, and the fact that you can’t change your past. Frankenheimer suggests that while you could change your life, you cannot do it by buying something from a company. Science fiction is always really about the present, even when stories purport to be about the future, and Seconds is certainly a film that’s along those lines. Its stylistic influence on films like Eraserhead or The Game is undeniable, and it has achieved a small cult following that should increase now that this version is available for a new generation of viewers. It was also practically remade this year as an action film with Self/Less and there were attempts to remake Seconds in the ’90s by Roger Avery and Gus Van Sant.
The Blu-Ray is also packed with special features, including two full-length commentaries including the old laserdisc commentary by John Frankenheimer. The new commentary is by film scholar Adrian Martin who does into much more detail about the film and it’s themes than Frankenheimer did. Kim Newman does an interview where he talks about the film and it’s influence on many films that come in its path. Rounding things up are the theatrical trailer and a new booklet with essays by critics David Cairns and Mike Sutton are included.