Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Salome Jens, Will Geer, Richard Anderson, and
1966, 107 min (re-release: 1996), Directed by: John Frankenheimer
is like an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a farfetched sci-fi
notion is rendered unsettlingly plausible. Like a good Twilight Zone
episode, the implications of the fantastic gimmick are more important than the
mechanics of the gimmick itself. More than a futuristic thriller, Seconds
turns out to be a character study, or an examination of happiness, consumerism,
and the American dream.
It is also a brilliantly-told
parable, from the great John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate,
Ronin) whose use of long shots, long takes, wide-angle lenses, and
always-just-a-little-skewed framing gives Seconds the uncomfortable
feel of a Kafkaesque nightmare.
The movie begins with a man who
should be happy but isn’t. His daughter is married to a Harvard graduate and he
and his wife live comfortably off his work as a bank official. But he is
distracted and uninterested in his life around him, so when a mysterious voice
from the past offers him a chance to be young again, and to start a new life,
he accepts it.
How this takes place I’ll leave
for the movie to explain, except to say the entire process is a cross between a
trip to the doctor’s and buying a new car, rather than a tremendous spiritual
discovery. In his new life the man is an artist, with a beachfront house and
a manservant, and soon he has an attractive girlfriend, willing to take him to
bacchanal festivities. He should be happy but, then again, he should have been
What’s most unsettling about
the entire experience is how it’s treated like an ordinary consumer product. In
deep hypnosis, the man reveals his desire to become a painter. So he is set up
as an established painter, who has already given shows, sold paintings, and
established himself. If a new life can become the ultimate pre-packaged consumer
product, then why not pre-package creativity to go with it? The man becomes as
unsettled as we are, and launches himself on an odyssey to discover where his
two lives went wrong, but his steps are shadowed by other “re-borns.”
"The uncomfortable feel of a Kafkaesque nightmare . . ."
The man is played first by John
Randolph and then, once he enters his new life, by Rock Hudson. The two men look
somewhat alike, and adopt the same mannerisms for the film (Randolph learned to
do every left-handed, like Hudson).
In both phases, he is a quiet
man who keeps his own counsel and his own thoughts. He is seemingly freer in his
new life, but finds himself always apologizing for his outbursts of joy, and
always being told “this isn’t like you.” In a revealing scene, in which Hudson
visits Randolph’s aging wife, she implies that she had an inkling of his
dissatisfaction all along, as if his withdrawn silence were a protest against
the American dream he won, only to find it an empty victory.
Seconds as the nightmare that it is, with many of the same wonky camera
angles he used in The Manchurian Candidate. He is completely comfortable
in the long shot and the close-up, as well as in long, unbroken takes, and
several fantastically-edited, angst-ridden sequences. A veteran of television’s
early days, Frankenheimer surrounds Hudson and Randolph with reliable character
actors from the 1950s and 1960s, who are able to sketch their roles with quick
professionalism. Among them is Murray Hamilton, one of cinema’s great cuckolds
(he was Mr. Robinson in The Graduate) and the embodiment of inept local
government (he was the mayor from Jaws).
Seconds also features
some great technical credits, with rich black-and-white cinematography and
deep-focus from James Wong Howe. His hand-held work on many sequences, including
two parties, combines that great, unkempt feel of the ‘60s and ‘70s with the
more self-conscious, meticulous camera movements of cinematic voyeurs like
Hitchcock. There’s also an eerie score from Jerry Goldsmith, and the sound,
well, there’s one brief, hardly noticeable sound effect of a drill near the end
that’s just perfect.
In the end, Hudson is not
satisfied with his new life, and is contemplating another re-birth that we can’t
imagine being any more successful than the last one. I tried to imagine who
might be adaptive or philosophical enough to be truly happy with a completely
new life, separate from his old one. But all I could think of is someone who was
happy with the first one.
Note: The R-rated
version of Seconds available on DVD includes footage of the uninhibited
grape-stomping festival that was not shown in the original American theatrical
release. In the feature-length commentary, John Frankenheimer remarks that
the censored American version implies that there is an orgy, whereas the
uncensored director’s cut, packed with nudity, is actually less obscene. The
director’s cut does not, however, include the missing footage in which the
Hudson-Randolph character pays a visit to his grown daughter. Frankenheimer
regrets cutting the scene from the original release, and regrets even more being
unable to locate the negatives for the DVD.
The Friday &
Saturday Night Critic
Top 100 Sci-Fi
of all time