After a career working in the early years of television, directing episodes of live plays during the brief period in which they flourished, John Frankenheimer turned his attention to cinema in the 1960s. he directed a string of great films for which he is still best known for today: Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate (both 1962) and seven Days in may (1964). in 1966 he had one of his first major critical and commercial failures with Seconds, but time has been very kind to the film and it is now finally becoming recognised as one of the most innovative and chilling sci-fi films of the Sixties.
John Randolph stars as Arthur Hamilton, a man with a successful career but a rather strained relationship with his wife and daughter. He’s unhappy, bored and wondering what life could have been like if he had done things differently. he has been receiving phone-calls from someone claiming to be an old acquaintance but who died years ago. he dismisses them as pranks until receiving enough information to begin wondering if maybe the man on the other end is telling the truth. He’s encouraged to go to an address that was handed to him by a stranger earlier and uses the name “Wilson.”
He winds up in a shady building in a concealed location and discovers that he now has the opportunity to act upon those ruminations of what life could have been like if he made different choices. The Company – as it is referred to rather ominously – will fake his death using a cadaver, perform extensive plastic surgery, and give him a whole new identity, one established with all the papers and past qualifications for him to begin a new life immediately.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with the film has probably heard that it stars Rock Hudson, which is true, but the man doesn’t show up until around 40 minutes into the film – as Hamilton’s new face. Hudson is credited as “Antiochus Wilson” (the name given to Hamilton by the agency) and should be commended for giving such a complex performance, picking up on all the subtitles that Randolph had already instilled in the character.
Wilson is happy with his new life at first, meeting a wonderful woman and experiencing a very liberating, and energetic pagan wine festival that he would never dared to or dreamed of experiencing before (I’m told this scene was heavily cut in the original theatrical, clearly due to its abundance of nudity, but it has been restored on all DVD versions). The high of living a new life doesn’t last forever, though, and those same “what if?” thoughts come creeping back, only this time he knows how to act on his desires to become new again.
One of the most remarkable aspects to this film is its creative mix of genres, particularity that of sci-fi and horror, while always remaining grounded in reality. Altering one’s body has always been a staple of science fiction, but the methods here are strictly within the realms of possibility – though adding The Company’s existence remains a great piece of speculative, conspiracy fiction.
The horror elements are alluded to immediately in a fantastic credit sequence designed by the incomparable Saul Bass. As the opening wavering notes set an uneasy tone, we see a heavily distorted image that warps until it reveals itself to be the extreme close-up of an eye. While revealing the cast and crew details in plain, white Helvetica, we see more body parts warping in and out of being: a chin, a nose, an ear – it’s very disturbing and it sets the tone for the entire film. perhaps it is no wonder audience stayed away.
Cinematographer James Wong Howe received the film’s only Oscar nomination (Best Black-and-White Cinematography), and his work definitely stands out. for two sequences, one with Hamilton, one with Wilson, the camera is clearly attached to a rig that the actor wears, so part of their body remains stationary in the frame, but the background moves sharply and violently behind them – a technique also used extensively in another grounded-in-reality horror film, Requiem for a Dream. Combined with many Dutch angles, and close-ups of actor’s faces with a wide angle lens, these flourishes keep the film unsettling, disturbing and incredibly memorable.
Seconds has been developing the cult reception it deserves in the many decades that have passed and I’m more than happy to add my voice to those who have found it a chilling tale of what can happen when man tries artificially altering his place in the world.