Release Date: October 5th, 1966 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Frankenheimer Actors: John Randolph, Rock Hudson, Murray Hamilton, Jeff Corey, Will Geer, Richard Anderson, Salome Jens, Wesley Addy
istorted close-ups of star Rock Hudson’s face, paired with gothic organ music (by Jerry Goldsmith) – and topped off with eerie black-and-white photography – give “Seconds” a Grand Guignol feel, even as it primarily plays with several other subgenres. Off-kilter or extreme camera angles and frames that cut out portions of visages (along with cameras attached to moving figures or gliding low along the ground), coupled with stark lighting and nervous characters, impart noirish tones and avant-garde experimentalism, while the premise itself (based on the novel by David Ely) is unmistakably science-fiction. At the same time, “Seconds” is also a thriller, a mystery, a drama, a horror film, a tragic character study, and a striking examination of second chances at life.
Banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) receives a slip of paper from an unknown man just before boarding a subway car. The phrase “34 Lafayette St.” is written on it, dawning great consternation on the businessman, who can’t reveal to his wife (Frances Reid) what concerns him so. That night, a man named Charlie – who is supposed to be dead – calls on Arthur, who is prompted to visit the given address (a dry cleaning shop) the following day, and to use the alias “Wilson.” Although Charlie recounts specific details about their tennis days at Princeton, Arthur can’t believe that the man from his past could still be alive.
Bouncing around town in something of a wild goose chase or a devious game, Hamilton eventually arrives at a meat-packing facility, only to be ferried in the back of a truck to an alley, where he’s then ushered into a quiet study and given a cup of tea. Just as he grows impatient enough to wander out of the building, Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey) steps in, to begin detailing the complicated procedure of how to fake Hamilton’s own death – including the selection of a method of expiry, the costs of obliterating a body to just the right degree so as not to rouse the suspicions of investigators (including $30,000 to the Cadaver Procurement Section), and devising paperwork to ensure settlements for his family. Rebirth is painful but rewarding, insists an old man (Will Geer), who inexplicably materializes in the study, as Hamilton realizes that he is to become a client for this mysterious company, in need of starting his life over with a fresh identity.
“Try to be patient.” Brilliantly constructed with slow answers and sorrowful musings, the film introduces numerous roles with fleeting details to pull the viewer into a labyrinthine plot about drastic reinvention. In rare form, “Seconds” doesn’t even introduce the starring actor (Rock Hudson) until about 40 minutes into the picture. Mind-boggling yet astounding, the story and the storytelling techniques are ahead of their time, revealing ever so gradually the fantastical components of the fever dream (and, during one memorable scene, an orgy of grape-crushing revelry) that could, at any moment, turn out to be nothing more than a nightmare sequence.
Glaring lights, sweaty faces, abrupt transitions, discomforting close-ups, bizarre camera perspectives, claustrophobic sets, and hallucinatory visions all work wonders for “Seconds” as it unfurls its macabre tale of transformation, identity, isolation, and freedom. Obvious parallels to director John Frankenheimer’s previous suspense masterpiece “The Manchurian Candidate” (including drug-related psychological manipulation, cracking under pressure, the metamorphosis of purpose, and a tragic romance) also crop up, particularly as themes of unfulfillment, human misery, free will, and paranoia work their way into what could be interpreted as a realistic (or earthbound) take on the central notion from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” As Wilson looks in from the outside on his former existence (perhaps like a dark twist on a key moment from “It’s A Wonderful Life”), and elements previously witnessed are revisited for clarity, “Seconds” shifts into a morbidly penetrating realm of psychological horror, like “1984,” “Brazil,” “Soylent Green,” and “The Wicker Man.”
– Mike Massie