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Film Review: Seconds (1966)


“Middle-aged banker Arthur Hamilton is given the opportunity to start a completely new life when he receives calls from his old friend Charlie. The only problem is that Charlie is supposed to be dead. Hamilton is eventually introduced to a firm that will fake his death and create an entirely new look and life for him. After undergoing physical reconstruction surgery and months of training and psychotherapy, Hamilton returns to the world in the form of artist Tony Wilson. He has a nice house in Malibu and a manservant, a company employee who is there to assist him with his adjustment. He finds that the life he had hoped for isn’t quite what he expected and asks the company to go through the process with surprising results.”


Seconds (1966) is director John Frankenheimer‘s most overtly science fiction film, based on a novel by David Ely, about a middle aged businessman (John Randolph) who is approached by a mysterious organisation and is offered the chance of living most of his life over again – for a price, that is. He pays the required sum, which is huge, and undergoes a series of operations that restore his youth and leave him looking like Rock Hudson (who takes over the role at this point). He is also provided with a whole new lifestyle, becoming part of a community of wealthy young bohemian swingers who live in a series of luxury dwellings on a Californian beach and who are all, it is suggested, recipients of the so-called ‘youth treatment’.

He enjoys his new life at first but then begins to feel guilty about his abandoned wife, who is under the impression he is dead. He has been told that it is forbidden to have any contact with the people from his former life, but he disobeys this rule and pays a visit to his wife, though he doesn’t reveal who he really is. The visit so affects him that he asks for the treatment to be reversed, but they inform him there’s no going back. He should have known the treatment was doomed to fail, because the head of the enigmatic organisation is an old man (Will Geer). The film ends with him being killed in an operating theatre, knowing that his body will be used as a replacement corpse for some new client.

Frankenheimer’s cold and calculating direction, along with James Wong Howe‘s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography, creates an effective mood of ever-increasing paranoia which culminates in the final operating theatre sequence, all of which helps rejuvenate and disguise what is essentially an old and worn-out science fiction plot. Amusingly, Frankenheimer and his scriptwriter Lewis John Carlino seem to be under the impression that youth can be restored merely by what appears to be a series of operations amounting to little more than a series of extensive facelifts.

Seconds is one of the most depressing science fiction films ever made, certainly one of the most provocative. If you don’t detest this film, then chances are you’ll greatly admire it. It has an enormous cult following despite being quite difficult to find. The acting in the film is first-rate – John Randolph is particularly effective – and Frankenheimer’s direction seems appropriately audacious, if a little self-indulgent. The moody music is by maestro Jerry Goldsmith, the creepy credit sequence by Saul Bass, and Carlino’s script actually improves on Ely’s erratic novel – for instance, he provides Hudson’s character with a love interest (Salome Jens). The moral of this particular story seems to be, a boring purposeless man who is given a second chance will remain boring and without purpose.

But the real star of the film is Howe’s photography, who uses an assortment of lenses and camera angles to create the most surreal and sinister atmosphere the genre has ever seen, like putting the camera with a wide-angle lens on a wheeled suitcase carrier while Randolph walks through Grand Central Station, and using a fish-eye lens for the horrifying final shots of Hudson’s last seconds of life. Ironically, Howe didn’t like working with Frankenheimer, who insisted on hand-held shots and zooms without any specific reason.

Commenting on both the hedonistic youth and the discontented bourgeois of the sixties, Seconds may be the most terrifying and downbeat indictment of corporate service culture ever produced in the USA, which probably accounts for its lack of success, along with the fact that audiences didn’t want to see Rock Hudson in a movie this edgy. He had, after all, carved his cinematic career as the ultimate romantic Hollywood leading man. It’s with this thought in mind I’ll request your persistence…I mean, presence next week when I have the opportunity to present you with more unthinkable realities and unbelievable factoids of the darkest days of cinema, exposing the most daring shriek-and-shudder shock sensations to ever be found in the steaming cesspit known as…Horror News! Toodles!

Seconds (1966)

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