In the hands of lesser craftsmen, Seconds might have made for a chillingly effective episode of The Twilight Zone padded out to feature length. But the perfect storm of creative talent – director John Frankenheimer, cinematographer James Wong Howe, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and editor David Newhouse, not to mention a uniformly stellar cast – came together to enrich and deepen the material into a hauntingly affective work of art. Seconds signals its off-kilter approach straightaway with a memorable title sequence designed by Saul Bass that superimposes the credits over distorted funhouse-mirror images of a bandage-swathed head. In a striking image that eerily anticipates Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, the director’s credit seems to emerge from the anonymous figure’s wide-open wailing mouth.
The first act cunningly crafts its predominant mood of discontent through visual means: off-center compositions and distorting fisheye lenses keep the viewer off-balance. After an unnerving encounter during rush hour at Grand Central Station, middle-aged banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) receives a phone call from a friend he thought dead, persuading him to keep a mysterious assignation with a shadowy (and nameless) Company, where bushy-browed Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey) offers him the titular second shot at happiness. By this point, Seconds has given sufficient reason for his acceptance, illustrating the void in Hamilton’s life in one wrenching scene with wife Emily (Frances Reid) that moves inexorably from routine interaction to one last desperate attempt at tenderness before finally settling on cool indifference.
Of course, the price to be paid for such a radical transformation is rather steep, but then there’s a death to fake, an extensive regimen of plastic surgery and physical rehabilitation to undergo, and an entire new existence to fabricate out of whole cloth. Though it should be said that Hamilton’s decision isn’t entirely voluntary: The Company slips him a mickey, then stages and films a surreal rape sequence whose topography owes a debt to Alice in Wonderland. And then there’s the Old Man (Will Geer), a perverse blend of homey wisdom and smirking contempt, whose ruthless interrogation of Hamilton reduces the experiences of a lifetime to scorched and fallow earth.
Frankenheimer, who has always evinced an interest in the concrete mechanics that govern a situation, takes great delight in tracing out the details of Hamilton’s metamorphosis. The most memorable moments in the sequence involve discomforting footage of a real rhinoplasty and the jovial presence of Khigh Dhiegh (the Chinese brainwasher in Frankenheimer’s equally unsettling The Manchurian Candidate) as a kind of glorified guidance counselor. The man who emerges on the other end is professional painter Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson). The Company sets Wilson up with a Malibu beach pad and personal assistant, John (Wesley Addy). They also arrange for him to meet Nora Marcus (Salome Jens). When Nora soon tells Tony that she walked out on her marriage and children, we begin to wonder whether she, too, works for the Company. Fears are momentarily allayed during an excursion to a riotous bacchanal – a scene that was heavily edited for the film’s domestic release owing to its copious nudity – only to resurface in Tony’s drunken binge at a cocktail party he’s thrown. To his horror, he learns to what extent his new life has been stage managed by the Company.
Seconds moves into its increasingly melancholy and ultimately tragic final act as Tony tries in vain to “go back” and discover where his life went wrong in the first place. But, as anyone who’s read Thomas Wolfe knows, you can’t go home again. Although there are still Kafkaesque hells to inhabit in the film’s awfully poetic anticlimax, Seconds’ true epicenter remains Tony’s long conversation with Emily Hamilton about her recently deceased husband, whom she remembers more for his ever-lengthening silences than anything else. Few American films of the period – or any other, for that matter – have so evocatively illuminated the discontent and insufficiency that sap the foundations of misspent lives.
Generically, Seconds was advertised as another paranoid thriller from the director of The Manchurian Candidate (to which the film is too often compared unfavorably). More than that, though, it’s one of those freewheeling “rough beasts” of the mid-‘60s – Arthur Penn’s Mickey One is another – that assimilates the formal experimentation of various European New Waves, especially the exploration of existential discontent that epitomizes the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. Seconds harnesses those innovative techniques to some distinctly American social satire, with the suburban social elite getting it in the neck. But the film towers head and shoulders above other works in its elegiac sense of desolation and loss. Ultimately, the film stands as a cautionary rebuke to the national myth of self-renewal, the simplicity of starting over. Where our consumer culture extols the virtues of an existential extreme makeover, Seconds draws a line in the sand with Sartre’s maxim: “You are nothing more than the sum of your actions.”
[This article first appeared in issue #177 of Video Watchdog.]