starring Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Salome Jens, Frances Reid
screenplay by Lewis John Carlino, based on the novel by David Ely
directed by John Frankenheimer
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. For the longest time I wanted to write a book about John Frankenheimer, the crux of which would be a closer look at the relationship, if there was one, between the declining quality of his work and the assassination of his buddy Bobby Kennedy. It would be a cultural study, see, this way to tie the death of the Sixties with a director who for me definitively speaks to the rises and valleys of that decade, and who paved the way for the despairing paranoia flicks of the 1970s. In the end, I was defeated by the prospect of dealing with Frankenheimer's later films--not because they were all as bad as Prophecy (or that any of the others are near as bad as Prophecy, or that anything could be), but because many of them are really, really good in really, really difficult ways to quantify. Closer to the truth of his output post-RFK assassination is not that it's terrible, but that it's all Seconds again in some form or another: diaries of personal apocalypses and the constant threat of the dissolution of identity. Besides, I think there might be an entire book in 52 Pick-Up alone.
Read Seconds as the ultimate generational horror flick, too, the one that says there's no dread the equal of living too long. Indeed, where the film lands once Hudson enters the picture following a lengthy prologue resembles a great deal the provincial façade of an H.P. Lovecraft, mining the same chthonic chambers. It describes the limits of technology in addressing yearning (making it the precursor to Charlie Kaufman's science-fiction platform), and in that it ties itself ethereally, but powerfully, to young Judy Garland in the King Vidor-directed segment--the "Over the Rainbow" number, in particular--of The Wizard of Oz. There is an essential shared component of wanting to escape one's reality and realizing, too late for one of them, that there's no place like home, that there's a little Oz in Kansas if you're open to seeing it and prepared to live authentically. There's sympathy, too, in that both films are at heart based on lies and deception, on a seduction into an unreliable world populated with unreliable elements. The other point of juncture is, poignantly, that Judy and Rock were both tortured souls, dead before their time--no ruby slippers for either.
The themes of the picture are laid out during Saul Bass's astonishingly uncomfortable title sequence: a series of extreme closeups of a man's face, distorted by a rolling reflection, ending with the image of Édith Scob's eternal surgical subject in Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face while bookending Bass's own then-eight-year-old titles for Vertigo. It's a double echo of the start of the whole mess--the whole "medium cool" generation of filmmaking that began with Psycho and ended somewhere on the road with Bonnie & Clyde or Ben & Elaine. Bass juxtaposes a giant closeup of an eye for the literal "I," the ego of the picture, against Rock Hudson's billing and a distorted, freakish version of the same eye on Frankenheimer's credit. Discomfiting? At the least. Nightmare-inducing, more like, what with the remainder of the sequence's devotion to diving into every opening in the face--into the caverns of the ears, the nose, the mouth at last, once a maw, teeth and all, but now a bandaged slit. These main titles speak to the pain of transformation, suggesting deformity, perversion, made all the more horrible by the intimacy of the images. The second time Frankenheimer's billed, it's over an open mouth, and then the movie proper announces itself with an actor-mounted camera rig pursuing, stalking, our hero, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph, returning to his acting career after being blacklisted), in Grand Central, giving him knowledge he hasn't asked for before watching him again, facing the wrong direction on a train, sweating. Claustrophobic, surreal in no way that's easily identifiable as such, Seconds, only minutes in, is almost unbearable. The walls are closing in, that much is already clear.
Arthur (John Randolph) is an aging bank exec with everything he could ever want, and he's exhausted from living. He receives a call from a thought-dead friend telling him the yellow brick road to the Emerald City is through a company that can arrange for Arthur's "death" and rebirth into a different, radically-manipulated body, life, personage. And before he can decide he doesn't want to do it, the Company makes sure that he does. He's "reborn" as Rock Hudson--as artist Antiochus ("Tony") Wilson--and relocated to a beach house in a bohemian commune, where he meets beautiful young Nora (Salome Jens) but remains, at his core, miserable old Arthur Hamilton, beset by ennui and terrified, if you want to know the truth, by the youth culture. So Tony complains--something must have gone terribly wrong, a signal must have been crossed, la dolce vita ain't what it's cracked up to be. In truth, the problem is that Arthur's vision of utopia is something that probably never existed, or if it did, certainly doesn't exist anymore. Coming as it does in 1966, two years before the summer of assassination, three years before Woodstock and Altamont, Seconds is a prescient declaration that the idealism of the looming Summer of Love was doomed even in the womb--not because this is a political film that understood anything special about hippies, but because it's an anthropological film that understands a great deal about the zero sum game of yearning.
In other words, Seconds isn't about the emptiness of the Free Love movement, it's about the emptiness of wanting something you don't have. It says the world is already too old and corrupt to suffer starry-eyed dreamers--there is no place for them, only corporations and other loci of power that wish to sell you on aspiration. Tony talks too much in his new life and discovers that he's surrounded by "seconds," others who have sold their old lives and bodies to become new again, here, in this imaginary place. Nora tries to pacify him by throwing herself at him, but sex isn't enough for long enough--his freedom, such as it is, is contingent on his conformity (does Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner", debuting a year after this film, owe some of its premise to Seconds, or is it just the spirit of the age?) and his acquiescence to his situation. Of all the stories about the making of the film, the one I like best has legendary DP James Wong Howe, a very proper Chinese man and veteran of the studio era, embarrassed to be shooting the "orgy" sequence. It's the one I love best because I can visualize it, but also because it parallels the problems presented within the text: tension between the old and the new; losing sight of what is valuable as opposed to finding value only in what is permitted. The genius of Frankenheimer during the end of this, his most fulsome period, is that his energy for outrage is channelled inward and ambiguous, sometimes contradictorily. He rails in Seconds against the old man wanting to be young, and the young harbouring within them the corruption and venality of the old. It's a snake swallowing its own tail--a hopeless ambition, and an eternal one.
The loneliness of yearning, the isolation of it, is what Seconds most effectively nails. Look at how Frankenheimer shoots Arthur in his study when his old dead pal calls him again in the middle of the night: extreme closeups of his eyes, bespectacled, fatigued; hard cut to his whole face now, perspiring lightly; hard cut again, and we see his upper body. But over and over, the man at his desk is completely alone and completely vulnerable. There's almost no moment more lonesome in '60s cinema, though, than when Arthur kisses his wife (Frances Reid) and feels...nothing. It's a scene echoed, compounded, redoubled when Arthur visits his wife as Tony to find only the vague memory of himself mourned: "See, Arthur had been dead a long, long time before they found [his body]," says Mrs. Hamilton. He is the hollow man.
Frankenheimer pulls out all the stops here: surrealism and television documentary realism, German Expressionism and noir. Stylistically, the picture is as complex as anything in Hitchcock. (And I dare say it's more stunningly awful, sleazier, than anything in Hitchcock's oeuvre, save the unremittingly dark Frenzy.) Together with Saul Bass's use of a flexible mirror and the integration of a 9.7 mm "bug-eye" lens--there is some debate over who convinced who to employ it in "Jimmy" Howe's only collaboration with Frankenheimer--into Frankenheimer's "deep focus" repertoire, Seconds was the far future in 1966. I don't know that there would be a more daring mainstream American release until Blue Velvet exactly twenty years later. Yet when I think of the film, and I think of it often, I think of Jeff Corey as an efficient pencil-pusher, the first line of indoctrination into the Company, eating a piece of fried chicken a bit too enthusiastically as he offers Arthur the choice of faking his death in a hotel fire. And I think of Will Geer as the mad scientist behind the whole racket, the very image of the deranged father: "This is what happens to the dreams of youth," he consoles. "Time for a change." Jesus wept. Seconds operates with scalpel-sharp instruments. The incisions leave cold behind.
The end of the film is Tony returning to the Company and demanding he be remade again into something else, anything else--and the Company, in an act of what I now read as mercy, correctly identifies that there is nothing it can offer Tony/Arthur other than the release of death. There's real dread that we'll revisit the graphic, terrible, actual surgery (a rhinoplasty) of Arthur's transformation into Tony, that the Company will do as Tony asks instead of shut the ungrateful old fucker up like we want them to by this point. It's a neat trick. As Tony is strapped onto a gurney and wheeled down the long corridor to his execution, there is something I'm inclined to believe is purposeful and, if it's not, it's the most fortunate continuity error in film. The scene shows Tony in closeup, struggling mightily as only Rock Hudson in this role could struggle--and in long shot it shows Tony lying there placidly, rolled quietly to his doom. It's that question of whether to fight or surrender at the end--I mean, protest all you want, but things are what they are, and the powers that be, were. As Anne Sexton says in her "Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator," the end of the affair is always death. What I initially understood in Frankenheimer as a thunderbolt at the Ambassador Hotel is, in reality, merely the sad literalization of the hopelessness he expresses in Seconds. The air is already out of the bag when it happens; the demise of the dream is just the confirmation of Frankenheimer's suspicions that there's no Emerald City or Kansas, only maelstrom.
The Criterion Collection brings the R-rated uncut version of Seconds to Blu-ray at last in a spectacular 1080p transfer, struck from a fresh 4k scan and presented at the late Frankenheimer's preferred aspect ratio of 1.75:1. I thought to compare it to my Paramount DVD to find little things--like the quick reflection in the glass of Tony's place as he first enters it, or the ends of the sutures holding his new face together--brought into satisfying relief. The film invites attention to superficies (mirrored surfaces, skin textures, the brick on Tony's lanai), and this fine-grain image rewards it; dynamic range is nothing short of awesome. Every bit the video's equal is the attendant 1.0 uncompressed soundtrack. Because the cameras were often in close proximity to the actors, much of the film was shot silent and dubbed in later, like they used to do it in Italy, but there's a technical finesse to the ADR that's at last been given its due. Voices are crisp and resonant, while Jerry Goldsmith's infrequent but unsettling score--part Satanic fiddle/part Satanic organ--sounds positively infernal. Originally recorded for LaserDisc, Frankenheimer's 1997 audio commentary is meanwhile ported over intact, recalling his warm style as he generously doles out credit, reveals that most of the shots at Grand Central were stolen with a decoy--a PLAYBOY Bunny--standing offscreen to distract the insensate public, and notes that Randolph was such a pro that he learned to do everything left-handed so that Rock didn't have to learn to do everything right-handed.
"Alec Baldwin on Seconds" (14 mins., HD) demonstrates why TCM has tabbed him to be a sometime guest host and programmer. He tells tales of his relationship with Frankenheimer, offers a nice critique of Hudson's performance, analyzes the grape-stomping scene in the context of time passing, and along the way sort of accidentally implies just by his empathy for Arthur that Baldwin, with his tortured public persona and genuine personal demons, may be our very own Rock. Baldwin relates, too, how Frankenheimer could be manipulative--how he may have tugged on a few private strings of Hudson's to get the performance he needed. It's a surprisingly essential extra. "A Second Look" (19 mins., HD) is a contemporary documentary featuring interviews with Frankenheimer's widow Evans Evans and actress Jens that talk about the genesis of the project, from David Ely's source novel to casting to production. Jens speaks of her strangeness helping her, while Evans recalls how the initial concept was to have one actor play Arthur and Tony. She also remembers Frankenheimer's reluctance to cast Hudson, persuaded only by Hudson's interpersonal savvy and, ultimately, by Frankenheimer's dedication to giving Randolph a juicy role. There's also a funny story about getting a baby to cry on cue. "Palmer & Pomerance on Seconds" (12 mins.) is a video essay that provides an overview of Frankenheimer from a political perspective whilst identifying the director's loose "paranoia trilogy"--a term that would be resurrected in the '70s to describe Alan Pakula's triumvirate of Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President's Men though here referring Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds. It's a dry, rehearsed piece I have a hard time getting enthusiastic about, although it's not a bad primer for newcomers and does a nice job of dissecting the Wilsons' early domestic tailspin.
Archival interviews with Frankenheimer from 1971 (10 mins.), upconverted to 1080i, see the director discussing his style and career to that time (hopeful, in contravention to my beliefs about the director post-1968); and 1965's "Hollywood on the Hudson" (4 mins., 1080i) is a quick interview with Hudson from during the shooting of Seconds in which he describes the film and his work on it as "different" and Seconds itself as a "horror movie." David Sterritt writes an excellent, if broad, essay for the case insert that offers the usual analysis of the film, which, while not wrong, is less than Sterritt is capable of. Of real note to me is that during Frankenheimer's commentary, the only thing he says at the moment of the "bad edit"--the aforementioned continuity glitch between Tony's struggle and Tony's surrender--is praise for the editing of that sequence. It suggests to me that it wasn't an accident--and that the despair of the sequence and the movie proper is all of a piece. This is filmmaking at its bleakest, preserved in an archival edition so good it almost makes you want to revisit it sooner than is probably healthy. One of the great feel-bad movies, for sure, Seconds is also one of the great movies, period. If you haven't seen it for some reason, you're incomplete.