“The question of death selection may be the most important decision of your life.”
—Mr. Ruby, Seconds
Just four years after 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer produced a film so thick with distrust of modern America that it makes that more controversial film look like a run-of-the-mill thriller in comparison. Something of a cult item that’s now finally available in a sharp new long-awaited Criterion edition, Seconds is about a depressed banker who tries to buy himself a fresh new life only to discover things are a little more complicated than that. It was the third Frankenheimer film of the decade to play with assumptions about American society and institutions.
The Manchurian Candidate toyed with the notion that run-of-the-mill citizens could be turned into robotic servants of one ideology or another and that elections were mere buntings-and-balloons gimmicky orchestrated by the country’s real masters. In 1964, Seven Days in May imagined a Pentagon plot to overthrow the presidency in order to wage war on the Soviets; vilifying the war-mongers in the military establishment years before popular anti-war sentiment made it chic.
A bleak and noirish Frankenstein thriller whose DNA is threaded with zeitgeist-heavy satire, Seconds attacks an American myth more cherished than the vaunted inviolability of its democratic institutions: the belief that everybody can start over. It takes a science-fiction concept—advanced surgery transforms somebody’s appearance so completely that they can live life as an entirely new person—and turns it into both terrifying existential drama and black comedy. While those earlier Frankenheimer films channeled the anti-establishment distrust gnawing at the postwar American consensus, Seconds tweaked the pretensions of the post-Beat, proto-hippie self-awareness movement that promised to wipe away all the problems of modern life in a blaze of enlightenment and spiritual rebirth.
Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph, a blacklisted TV actor who brings marvelous candor and restraint to this role) is a successful banker who has it all but can’t stand one more minute of the life he’s boxed himself into. First spotted slumping through the crowds of Grand Central, he’s one of those glum salarymen getting on the train back to Westchester whose pulse never seems to rise above dead.
His wife Emily (Frances Reid) is waiting patiently for him to come out of his mid-life, but he stonily rebuffs every opportunity she offers up for comfort. Then: the call from somebody claiming to be his old friend and presenting him with an unspecified opportunity to make things right. “But Charlie Evans is dead!” Arthur shout-whispers into his phone in the dead of night. And then that shot from the beginning of the film when a shadowy man presses a slip of paper with a downtown address into his hand starts making more sense. There’s a secretive company whom he can hire to literally provide him with a new face and a new life. The only catch he can see is that he has to agree to be declared dead first; a possible technicality, given the zombie-like drone he currently resembles.
Although Seconds heavily informed later, paranoia-as-puzzle, 1990’s thrillers from David Fincher’s The Game to John Woo’s Face/Off, it doesn’t get hung up on the mechanics of Arthur’s regeneration. The focus of Lewis John Carlino’s screenplay (from a popular novel by David Ely) is on the sales pitch as psychological entrapment. From the moment Arthur steps inside the never-named company’s discreet office suite, he’s swept along like any other rube of a consumer, advised to leave the details to the experts and to just sign there and there. When Arthur balks at never returning to his current life and face, the kind of cannily avuncular Southerner used to sell everything from products on TV commercials to an improbable defense to a jury is wheeled out to flick his insecurities. “Nobody’s going to miss you, are they?” he asks Arthur, intuiting his mid-life crisis and flicking at those insecurities with the sugar-coated cruelty of the born advertising man (played masterfully by Will Geer) who will resort to out-and-out blackmail when it’s needed to seal the deal. “This is what happens to the dreams of youth.”
After a spot of surgery (the footage shot by Frankheimer was of a real rhinoplasty operation), a corpse left in a hotel fire that’s identified as him, Arthur is reborn with a new identity and face, now inhabited by Rock Hudson. The fantasy life provided by the company, based on some shoddy-seeming therapeutic analysis, is straight out of the Playboy style manual: Sweet Malibu beach pad, Ivy League pedigree, career as a mildly successful painter, swinging bachelor wardrobe, movie-star looks, blonde beach bunny Nora (Salome Jens) who can’t wait to show him around, and even a diffident butler to handle his every need. “Freedom, real freedom,” the company assures him, it’s what “every middle-aged man in America” wants.
Just as Fitzgerald warned about there being no second acts in American lives and Matthew Weiner explicated decades later in Mad Men (whose Don Draper California escapades seem to be heavily playing off Seconds’ ironic take on the West Coast scene), Arthur realizes too late that new face or not, he is still the same person. Hudson isn’t quite up to most of the dramatic heavy-lifting needed in the film’s chaotic and unconvincingly histrionic second act. According to one of the interviews on the Criterion edition, Frankenheimer wanted Laurence Olivier to play both roles. While Olivier the chameleon was not surprisingly delighted with the idea, the studio balked, wanting a star like Hudson to carry a difficult story like. Given that the film was ultimately seen as a failure, they may as well have gone for Olivier; if nothing else, the histrionics would have been superb.
Hudson does, however, convincingly carry the slumping existential weight of a defeated older man inside his more robust frame. The scene where he returns to his wife in Westchester, pretending to be a friend of the late Arthur’s, and hears her blunt assessment of his old self—“he’d been dead a long, long time”—is a shattering one that Hudson ably handles. No matter how many martinis his Arthur swills, or paintings he tries to create, or grapes he stomps at the Fellini-esque bacchanalian festival Nora drags him to in a desperate attempt at shell-cracking, he can’t escape the same spiritual emptiness that sent him fleeing from a successful life in Manhattan to another successful life in Malibu.
From that moment on, the film narrows into an ever-shrinking hall of mirrors. Frankenheimer and his cinematographer James Wong Howe (who justifiably won the Oscar) are operating in full baroque mode from the shadowy, off-kilter crowd scenes in Grand Central. Wong’s canted, expressionist angles and lusciously dark and pinprick-sharp depth of focus—which recall the great and sinister work he did on Sweet Smell of Success and is superbly rendered by the Criterion transfer—become even more overpowering in the film’s third act, as Arthur is kicked back into the company’s infernal machinery. He failed to remake himself as an all-new kind of American and so is now meant for the scrap heap like every other worn-out cog in the machine.
Within a few years, the capitalist and consumerist critique that Seconds put to such thrilling use would be more commonplace in a film industry desperate for counter-cultural cachet. But unlike many of those rebel statements against the mainstream, Frankenheimer’s film understood that there were no easy answers to Arthur’s kind of despair.