in Criterion Month, Review

Seconds (1966)

My favorite dramatic show of all time is The Twilight Zone. The chic black and white style, the nightmarish sci-fi, and rich social commentary. The theme song is even my ringtone! Scares the hell out of me every time. So of course I loved John Frankenheimer’s 1966 sci-fi horror cult classic Seconds. The only thing I’m trying to wrap my head around is how did this movie happen?

I’m not that familiar with John Frankenheimer. I know his name and saw part of Prophecy on late-night TV once. If you don’t know, that’s a film with a mutant bear and Armand Assante playing a Native American. Yes, the same guy who made acclaimed dramas like The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate made a mutant bear movie.

That’s the thing with Frankenheimer. I find it hard to pinpoint a style, which is strange considering Seconds feels like such a stylized and intimate film, hardly the work of a journeyman director. That being said, there are three films in Frankeheimer’s almost six-decade career that paint the portrait of a deep and socially conscious man.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and Seconds (1966) are today considered Frankenheimer’s “Paranoia Trilogy”. All three films reflect some form of social, political, or personal paranoia. “Who can you trust?”, “What’s being hidden from me?”, “Can I even trust myself?’” Though only Seconds adds the Rod Serling-esque tinge of sci-fi. Which is wild considering Rod Serling wrote Seven Days in May. All of these components are hovering around things I love. Which is why I loved this movie.

Seconds is surprisingly simple. I’d say I could explain it to you in seconds but my words-per-minute speed sucks. John Randolph (Tom Hanks’s dad from You’ve Got Mail) plays Arthur Hamilton, a middle-aged New York banking executive knee-deep in a mid-life crisis. He barely speaks a word to his wife, Emily (Frances Reid), and never sees his daughter anymore. Things change when Arthur gets a mysterious phone call from an old friend, Charlie (Murray Hamilton–who played Death in one of my favorite Twilight Zones, “One for the Angels”) believed to be dead.

Charlie tells Arthur that he changed his identity through an organization known as “the Company” and recommends Arthur for the same procedure. Arthur takes a hard look at his life and agrees, traveling to a meat packing warehouse where the Company hides its operations. There, a man named Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey) tells Arthur they will fake his death and give him plastic surgery, a new life, a new career, a new everything. He will become a “Reborn” as the company refers to them.

Arthur agrees and through some creepy surgery scenes–a lot of fish-eye lenses btw–Arthur is transformed into Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson) a painter living in Malibu. The transition from John Randolph to Rock Hudson is smooth with both characters nailing a sense of uneasy sadness.

Arthur or should I say “Tony” has trouble adjusting to his new life. He struggles to find himself as a painter and struggles with loneliness. He befriends another reborn named Nora (Salome Jenkins) and they go to a hippie party with nude people and grape stomping. Tony starts to loosen up, a little too much, as he starts to disclose details about his old life while drunk at a party.

Tony tries to reconnect with his wife Emily by telling her he was a friend of Arthur’s. Though as Emily discusses how she and Arthur drifted apart and that he’d been “dead for a long time” he realizes there’s no point. Tony returns to the company requesting to be reborn again but the Company has other plans for him. It’s a real shocker that I won’t disclose here because it’s truly worth experiencing firsthand… I mean watching the film… Not going through the procedure.

The script was adapted by Lewis John Carlino (The Great Santini) from David Ely’s book of the same name. Earlier I asked “Where did this come from?” and though one would think the information I just provided would be clear enough, it still puzzles me. John Frankenheimer had a string of successful high-budget films. The same year (1966) he made the 179-minute Super Panavision racing movie Grand Prix. Why did he make Seconds? Why does it look so bizarre?

I can’t say why Frankenheimer was drawn to this story but I can at least answer why the film looks so amazing: James Wong Howe. One of the few prominent Asian-American cinematographers of his time, Howe was a two-time Oscar winner (The Rose Tattoo, Hud) and a renowned master of shadow and deep focus. In Seconds (for which he was also nominated), Howe employs a series of complex lighting setups for closeups. He does a great deal of POV and doesn’t skimp on the fish eye lens. Simply put, it’s one of the most visually striking movies of its time.

Seconds has all the trappings of a bizarre ‘60s art film but with a grounded story and an engaging performance from Rock Hudson. It’s hard to not examine the film on a metatextual level when you consider that Rock Hudson lived a double life for years hiding his homosexuality from the spotlight until his tragic death from AIDS in 1985. Such a talent was taken from us far too soon.

So if you, like me, love the Twilight Zone and movies where people take their faces off then Seconds is the movie for you. I was gonna end this with a Rod Serling monologue but that guy’s a genius and I only have an attention span of seconds… eh?