Note: This contains some spoilers, so proceed accordingly.
The first time I saw John Frankenheimer’s Seconds I didn’t like it. This was in October 1966 while I was undergoing basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. Sundays were a the only day off from training. Hordes of new recruits with buzzcuts, including myself, crowded the movie theater on base to see whatever was being shown. I was excited to learn that Seconds was on the schedule. I loved the Frankenheimer films I’d seen, which included The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and especially The Train (1964). I would have gone to see whatever was playing that day, because any break from the rigidity of the daily training routine was a relief, but it was bonus that it was a film from one of my favorite directors.
I had high hopes for Seconds, about which I knew little. It was a John Frankenheimer film, and that was good enough for me. As it turned out, I was confused and disappointed by Seconds that day. I don’t know what I’d expected, but it wasn’t that. In retrospect, the film may have been too alienating and depressing for someone attempting to adjust to the structures and strictures of military life.
I wasn’t alone in my initial reaction. Though it has since developed an ardant cult following, Seconds was booed at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966. It did poorly at the box-office and wasn’t released on home video market until May 1997. Frankenheimer has said, “It’s the only film I know that has gone from failure to classic — without ever being a success.” In an essay on the film in Danny Peary’s book Cult Movies 3 (1988), Henry Blinder writes, “Seconds is quite possibly the most depressing movie ever made — it is a film of unrelieved despair.” Lewis John Carlino, the screenwriter of Seconds, has said that “…it is almost too painful to watch.”
I can’t remember how many years went by before I saw Seconds again, but I was probably out of the Air Force and back in college by the time I did. The way I saw the film changed somehow. Things that had bothered me no longer did. The statements above by Blinder and Carlino are true enough, but don’t detract from the strength of the film. I’ve seen Seconds many times since then, and have come to regard it as a great film, one of Frankenheimer’s best.
The protagonist of Seconds is Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph), a middle-aged banking executive who lives with his wife in Scarsdale, New York, and commutes by train to his job in New York City. He feels that his life is empty and meaningless; he and his wife simply co-exist without intimacy; there’s little contact with the married daughter who lives in Denver. When a phone call from a friend Arthur thought dead offers the opportunity of a new life, a new beginning, he’s more than ready. It’s the lure of a second chance. Seconds is the story of how Arthur Hamilton is reborn as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) and how that works out for him. The short answer is: not well, which is hardly a surprise given the look and feel of the film from the very first frame. Seconds is a paranoid thriller, a nasty satire with echos of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alice in Wonderland, a Kafkaesque nightmare, science fiction, and finally, a horror film.
The opening credits by Saul Bass and the first few minutes in Grand Central Terminal set the tone, aided immensely by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score with its ominous organ chords.
The cinematography was by James Wong Howe, who used wide angle lenses (18mm and 9.7mm) almost throughout, which resulted in surreal and disorienting visuals. Frankenheimer said that Wong Howe’s contribution to the film was enormous. He received an Oscar nomination for his work. Frankenheimer was 35 and Wong Howe 60 when they collaborated on Seconds. Frankenheimer had also worked with composer Jerry Goldsmith extensively during his early years directing live television, so they were in sync.
The rights to David Ely’s 1963 novel were purchased by actor Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis’ production company. Frankenheimer had directed their previous film, the excellent Seven Days in May, and was hired to direct Seconds. The original intent was to have one actor play both parts, Arthur Hamilton and Tony Wilson. Frankenheimer and Lewis thought Laurence Olivier was the only actor who could pull this off. Olivier reportedly agreed to do it, but the studio, Paramount, didn’t feel he was a bankable movie star. Rock Hudson was then approached. He said he could only do the post-transformation part, which resulted in John Randolph being hired to play Arthur Hamilton. Frankenheimer said that making the transition from John Randolph to Rock Hudson was his hardest task. While I don’t think it’s entirely believable that Randolph could be transformed into Hudson through plastic surgery and physical therapy, I’m willing to go along because the performances of both are so good. A footnote to this is that Frankenheimer said Seconds was shot largely in sequence, which was a great help to Randolph and Hudson’s performances. Plus they had the benefit of two weeks’ rehearsals prior to shooting.
Telegram from Frankenheimer to Hudson after one their early meetings.
Right from start the opening credits tell us this will be a dark ride with little or no room for humor. Well, almost no room. Arthur has been given an address on a slip of paper and has to follow an absurdly circuitous route to get to his destination. Later, Mr. Ruby (played by Jeff Corey), a high-pressure salesman of sorts for the nameless company, explains to a nearly uncomprehending Arthur that his death will need to be faked using a cadaver. He can never go back. He has to walk away from everything and everyone he knows. Ruby says, “The question of death selection may be the most important decision of your life.” This seems like a joke to me. A problem I had the first tme I saw Seconds was that Jeff Corey’s character seemed too obvious, overdone. As he explains things to Hamilton, Ruby pauses several times to exclaim how great the fried chicken is that he’s eating, a meal that was intended for Arthur, who doesn’t want it. This has always seemed exaggerated to me, but I think it fits. Arthur has gone through the looking glass. Logic no longer applies.
Will Geer plays the avuncular head of the company, who sweet talks Arthur into taking the final step, in effect signing a deal with the devil. He quietly convinces Arthur that he has nothing of any value left in his life. He says, “Isn’t it easier to go forward when you know you can’t go back?”
It’s hard to see how Arthur’s new life as Tony Wilson could ever have worked. Based on something he says while under hypnosis, the company decides that Tony should be an artist, a painter. They provide credentials, diplomas, and paintings he’s supposed to have done. They decide he’s to live in Malibu, California, in a house on the beach. He’s given a new life that he has no real control over. So it’s no real surprise when it all goes haywire. His life becomes more of a nightmare than it ever was.
Tony leaves Malibu and goes back East. He stops at his old home to visit his wife, who thinks he’s a friend of her dead husband. Tony asks her about her husband and gets hit with this: “You see, Arthur had been dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room.”
Tony returns to the company with the idea of being “reborn” yet again, but this time doing it “right.” He doesn’t realize that’s not in the cards. He failed as a newborn and is now in a queue to become a cadaver when he matches the requirements of a death to be faked for a new “client.”
It’s hard to overstate how good Rock Hudson is in this film. Known up to this point mainly for light romantic comedies with the likes of Doris Day, it would have been difficult to imagine him in a part like this in a film like this. He later said this was the best work he ever did. The scene at the end, when he’s strapped on a gurney and realizes what’s happening, seems to go beyond acting. It’s truly harrowing and, as the screenwriter said, “…almost too painful to watch.”
The final scene of Seconds (8:23). Rock Hudson goes all in, nothing left in the tank.
Rock Hudson talks about filming a scene in Scarsdale. Includes footage of John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe at work. (4:18)
Article on James Wong Howe’s cinematography for Seconds.
Selection of scenes highlighting Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Seconds.
I’ll close with posters for Frankenheimer’s superb “paranoia trilogy.” Be safe. — Ted Hicks
P.S. Seconds is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.