When Seconds premiered in 1966, several viewers vomited. While John Frankenheimer directed it, several crewmembers fainted. Seconds crowns his sci-fi thriller “paranoia trilogy” after The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May deal overtly with political conspiracy, whereas politics doesn’t figure in Seconds at all (in the sense that there is no mention of any political figures or institutions – the power-play takes place within a private corporation and within the man’s private life).
However, Seconds is just as unmistakably a Cold War film: only a film of this time could have portrayed the psychological-interpersonal struggle and the hedonistic ways in which Tony attempts to escape in such a paranoid, fragmented way. Lewis John Carlino adapted the film from David Ely’s 1962 novel. The cinematography (James Wong Howe) is icy. The score (Jerry Goldsmith) is horrific. It suggests a Twilight Zone episode shot by Godard. It was booed so loudly at Cannes that Frankenheimer boycotted the press conference. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson saw the film; it would be 16 years before he stepped foot in a theater again (when he returned to see E.T.).
John Randolph plays Arthur Hamilton, a sweaty, middle-aged banker resigned to chagrined peace and comfort in Scarsdale. He and his wife (Frances Reid) sleep in separate beds and maintain “a polite, celibate truce”. His daughter is married to a Harvard graduate. An agent hands him a slip of paper with a Manhattan address before his commuter train leaves Grand Central Station. He fields uneasy calls about it from Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton), an old tennis partner thought deceased. He resolves to visit the place.
The first scene in the station is among the most beautiful. There are gliding and uncentered jump-cuts between Arthur’s jowls, his hands, suburbs streaking past train windows. A wide-angle lens distorts him and a low one follows behind. The thick and airy pace is no illusion: an Arriflex with an 18mm lens was harnessed like a proto-SnorriCam to the agent who pursues Arthur (Frank Campanella). Cameras hid in newsstands, trashcans, and suitcases carried by cameramen. Frankenheimer pushed at least one passerby out of frame. He had Carlino and a hired crew fake their own film shoot in order to create a diversion sufficient to allow filming in Grand Central: a blonde and covered Playboy Bunny greeted a man. She stripped until a crowd drew. It is to her bikini that we owe this rolling and inert introduction to Arthur.
The address is a laundry, with hung flypaper and steaming trousers. A meat wagon carts him to a slaughterhouse, with hung cows and steaming foremen. Frankenheimer confesses that it turned him off steaks for a while. The “Used Cow Dealer” is a front for a company that stages its clients’ deaths in exchange for new identities. There are halls without ends, elevators without buttons, and doors without handles. Arthur’s tea is doped in the waiting room. He is filmed woozily raping a woman. A Mephistophelean exec (Mr. Ruby) played by Jeff Corey alternately blackmails and sweet-talks him into going under the knife. The pen probes a contract; the needle spikes a vein.
Arthur’s obituary is printed and a younger body (Rock Hudson) is grafted onto his. His teeth are extracted, his vocal cords resected, and his fingerprints and signature changed. Frankenheimer shot a real rhinoplasty; when a cameraman fainted, he finished the filming himself. Under the influence of Pentothal, caffeine, and sodium benzoate, Arthur reveals his desire to become a painter. The bandages peel, the stitches pull, and the scars fade. He is assured that he will soon be prancing around like a stud bull.
Randolph disappears entirely. He receives an identity—Tony Wilson. He has a “mildly successful” exhibition record, an École des Beaux-Arts diploma, and a Malibu villa complete with a manservant. On the beach, he meets Nora (Salome Jens), a lithe woman who takes him to a wine orgy in Santa Barbara. He is the last to shed his windbreaker and join the others in the grape vat. Jens attested that Hudson’s disorientation and fear during this scene were quite genuine.
He should be happy. He should have been happy before. He takes to drinking. At a party he alludes to his past; a ring of guests—also reborn—restrain him. Nora is revealed to be an employee surveilling his progress. Frankenheimer told Jens that he cast her because she radiated doom. The nauseous frenzy of this take owes as much to technical as to aesthetic reasons: Frankenheimer insisted that Hudson really get drunk; multiple cameras stagger about Tony as he reeled.
He violates the prime directive and visits his widowed wife, inquiring as Arthur’s friend. She claims that her husband never knew a day when he was not dissatisfied as if silence were the last vestige of resistance to a life which spent him. Frankly, it was as pleasant as a life could be. It was almost wholly wasted. The rest of the film turns about this scene. His daughter appears in one scene when Tony visits; Frankenheimer cut it from the film and lost the negatives.
Tony returns to the company, demanding a second chance. Its homey and ruthless founder (Will Geer), who had initially coaxed Arthur into submitting, tells him that “There never was a struggle in the soul of a good man that wasn’t hard.” In the gloom, his hair gathers the light as a halo. Carlino writes a film best when he stresses the questions unasked and details unknown; this scene may be the most disturbing. “I believe you,” Tony says. Even to know what one wants from the world does one no good. He’s strapped to a gurney. The film ends as it began, with mouths, eyes, and knives too close to make clear the full human form.
Frankenheimer confessed that he could have made no better decision than to hire Howe. He frames the most rotten scenes of Hamilton’s life as he woulda horror film. Indeed, Pauline Kael insisted that Seconds was a horror film: “Imagine having a second chance at life and coming back as Rock Hudson!” Arthur, for his part, betrays fear only when he cannot make love to a wife he no longer desires. The cuts shatter, the lens peers, and the sound deranges. The shots are long, wide, and canted, as though the camera itself were seized from its body. A shakey-cam crowds him with vertiginous precision. It never pulls back. The closeness itself distances him from his surroundings.
Frankenheimer started and ended his career in TV drama, and here it is apparent: he frames the undone ’60s with the leery voyeurism of the ’50s. He surrounds Hudson with character actors from the day. Among them, Corey, Geer, and Randolph were blacklisted for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Randolph learned left-handedness in order to share Hudson’s mannerisms. Hudson, after a spate of romantic comedies with Doris Day, plays the role that he was most proud of; it’s his loneliest. It proved too disturbing for Hudson fans and too stylized for science fiction fans. Frankenheimer regretted that Hudson’s wardrobe resembled a Sears ad; I think that a look so faceless and fabricated could only enrich the tone.
Frankenheimer believed that the film didn’t work. It passed from flop to cult status, all the while evading success. He intended one man to play two roles. His wife attested to his belief that only Laurence Olivier had the range to carry both; Paramount demanded a box-office star. Frankenheimer said that Hudson himself demanded a second man. He stood five inches taller than Randolph. Howe’s forced perspective shrouds it.
It seems ironic that such an unrestrained meld of canny and uncanny was the work of Howe, who was born in the previous century. He shot Daniel Mann’s The Rose Tattoo (1955), Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963); his best was his most restrained. He maintained that Frankenheimer insisted upon the fisheyes and skewed angles. The cameras were loud and close; the film was shot silent and redubbed. Howe received an Oscar nomination the last year that the Academy separately awarded color and monochrome cinematography. It was his last monochrome feature.
Elaine and Saul Bass (with whom Frankenheimer worked on Grand Prix (1966) could design an appropriately disturbing title sequence. Bass’ avuncular collaborator Art Goodman lent his face to undulating dissolutions and reconfigurations of his eyes, mouth, nose, and ears. It is as lyrical as it is terrifying. There is seemingly no orifice unviolated. They mirror the close and swirling eye-opening Vertigo (1958), also designed by Saul. The distortions are unmatched by today’s technical standards; they were shot in-camera with a macro lens and aluminum sheets. I know no other contemporary Hollywood horror film about the exploitation of the body which exclusively concerns a man (and an older one at that). Ingmar Bergin’s Persona premiered in the same year.
Art director Ted Haworth echoed the fluid distortion of Howe’s camera and Bass’ design. Some sets were built distortedly and shot with normal lenses; others were built proportionately and warped with wide angles. There is no grimmer alloy of physical and optical displacement than the company itself. Seconds who demand thirds are cadavers for the staged death of new seconds. The film ends with Tony strapped to a gurney and wheeled into the operating room. The surgeon Innes (Richard Anderson) considered Tony his masterpiece; he regrets undoing him. Car accident, cerebral hemorrhage. A fisheye mounted to the gurney curves the walls to Expressionist extremes. Goldsmith’s organ fades to a thin and drilling whine. Hudson struggles so brutally that he breaks the leather straps restraining him; professional football players are hired to hold him down. I cannot convince myself that he is entirely acting here.
The most telling scene, however, is the aforementioned wine orgy. Nora strips and joins the wreathed grape-stompers. Tony is tense, weary, and mute until he is too drunk to resist being pushed into the vat. He howls with the others. It is an act of clean desperation. He is, after all, an old man in a young man’s body. The frame nears until it pins him amid the writhing. I cannot think of the generation gap underpinning the abandon expressed in the late ’60s without thinking of this scene. At no point in the film is Tony lonelier.
Institutions turn out bodies, bodies turn out institutions. What shatters Tony is the understanding that the counterculture which spurns this is no less constricting than his middle-class malaise. To shed the dream is no less freeing than to bear it. Arthur is trapped to the extent that he remembers his past, and yet forgetting alone would doom him. Frankenheimer never determines what went wrong and where: whether Arthur’s pretension to happiness is only clear to him now after so many decades, or whether the world no longer accommodates it.
Editors David Newhouse and Ferris Webster shortened this scene per the Motion Picture Production Code. Ironically, the frantic cuts imparted upon it the sexual energy it did not previously have—less celebration and more copulation. It was a real Bacchus festival, and Frankenheimer insisted that everyone be really drunk. The walls of the vat were higher than customary, to partially cover the nudists. Howe refused to get in; Frankenheimer stripped to a pair of swim trunks, took the Arriflex, and shot the scene himself. The women depantsed him immediately. The pan whips back and forth as grape juice splatters the lens. The film received a Class B certificate from the Legion of Decency. It looked more obscene the more the priests slashed at it.
Perhaps Arthur should have known better when the company which sold him his freedom had to blackmail him to commit to it. After all, he wanted a second life because he was convinced not of its promise but of the emptiness of his given one. What was he to his estranged wife and daughter? What could the bank have meant, his friends, his summer boat? To Arthur’s silence, Mr. Ruby: “So this is what happens to the dreams of youth.” In the light of this passivity, the company seems no more soulless than Arthur; with deadpan perversion, the surgeon and salesman take as much pride in their craft as any artist would. The founder has certainly realized his dream: to shore humanity “against human misery”, however miserable the face.
Agent Arthur Axelman observed that Frankenheimer led the very life hoisted upon Tony: “It was reported when he directed Rock Hudson in Seconds that Frankenheimer was the better looking of the two. He was indeed movie-star handsome, even well into his sixties. He also had enjoyed a reputation as a lothario, with an open marriage and a multitude of affairs with his leading ladies.” Tony’s home was Frankenheimer’s home; furnishings were nearly unaltered during filming.
Pre-existing depression and alcoholism worsened after the assassination of Frankenheimer’s friend Robert Kennedy (whom he had driven to the hotel where Kennedy was shot). He moved to Paris, enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, and wondered what anything could matter if “all of the sudden it’s taken away with just one bullet.” His work for the next two decades largely withdrew from sociopolitical concerns. When he speaks of Seconds, he always stresses the same point: “If you take away your past, you don’t exist as a person.” Is there a point in life after which it is sinful to want more? Not sinful. Indulgent.
Film critic John Thomas described the pattern of a Frankenheimer film: “A protagonist, persecuted by powerful authority figures connected with his parents, finds that he has lost his freedom because his real personality has gone unrecognized. Unable to communicate his true nature to the authorities, he rebels at last to assert a personal freedom.” Seconds is not so much a contradiction of this freedom as may appear; it is all the more horrifying that the founder genuinely seeks to free Tony, and in any case, has no vested interest in repressing him. When Tony returns to the company, Geer says only that “I sure hoped you’d make it, find your dream come true.” Tony replies that he never had a dream. What would have fulfilled him, which the company could provide?
Author Andrew Johnston wrote in a Time Out New York review that “Seconds is easily one of the most subversive films ever to have come out of Hollywood: Even as it exposes the folly of selfishly abandoning one’s commitments, it also makes a passionate case for following one’s heart and rejecting conformity.” But Frankenheimer does nothing of the sort. Arthur breaks down after he follows his heart and becomes a new man. Desire naturally exceeds its object; the perversion only begins when Arthur deludes himself that he can fill this excess. His wife: “He fought so hard for what he’d been taught to want and when he got it, he just grew more and more confused.”
Seconds is one of the most subversive films ever to have emerged from Hollywood precisely because it insists that “following one’s heart” leads to the same alienation as the conformity it rejects. Even in unrestrained hedonism, Arthur’s reaction to this conformity is only ever a reflection of it. It is not for nothing that the Summer of Love, which followed the autumn of the film’s premiere, ended with a funeral. Most returned to school or found a job.
This does not mean that Frankenheimer’s masterpiece is a vague limp bid that we resign ourselves to what we have; there is an unreckonable disturbance when all of Arthur’s wants seem met and, for one white dead moment, he has no more. He has only to desire again, and the void under his feet is as earth (or gurney canvas, as the case may be). Seconds reveals that horror comes when we fail to dream lives beyond escape from the dullness given ours—beyond paint-by-numbers avant-garde for the creatively stunted, hand-me-down provocation for the sexually repressed, warm slaps on the back for the professionally soulless. It is right to want seconds—and if not right, then human—so long as we do not delude ourselves as to why.
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Farber, Stephen. Review of Seconds by John Frankenheimer. Film Quarterly 20, no. 2. 1966-67.
Johnston, Andrew. “Better living through surgery”. Time Out New York. 8-15 May 1997.
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Tenner, Edward. “A Second Life for Seconds, the 1966 Cult Classic That Made Audiences Sick”. The Atlantic. 2013.