STARRING: Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Salome Jens, Will Geer, Richard Anderson, and Murray Hamilton

1966, 107 min (re-release: 1996), Directed by: John Frankenheimer

Seconds 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 happy before.

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.

Frankenheimer directs 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


# 87
of the
Top 100 Sci-Fi Movies
of all time



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