Trauma abounds in dull, self-important conspiracy thriller Seconds
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Rock Hudson (Tony Wilson), Salome Jens (Nora Marcus), John Randolph (Arthur Hamilton), Will Geer (Old Man), Jeff Corey (Mr Ruby), Richard Anderson (Dr Innes), Murray Hamilton (Charlie Evans), Karl Swenson (Dr Morris), Khigh Dhiegh (Davalo), Frances Reid (Emily Hamilton), Wesley Addy (John)
In the 1960s, John Frankenheimer directed a string of conspiracy and paranoia thrillers, the most famous of which was The Manchurian Candidate. Seconds follows on in that genre, but where The Manchurian Candidate is first-and-foremost an adventure story with a deeper soul, Seconds is a self-important piece of overt arty cinema that quickly outstays its welcome.
This is particularly annoying as, on paper, this is a great story. A business makes its living from selling new, younger bodies (and new carefree lives), known as “seconds”, to old, rich people so they can start afresh. One such man is depressed banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who is reborn as artist Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). The one rule? They can’t tell anyone about the procedure or about their old lives, and must leave everything behind. Needless to say, the prospect of a new life is a hell of a lot better than actually getting it.
Seconds really should go from there into a fascinating exploration of truth and identity: instead it swiftly gets bogged down in arty camera shots, self-important philosophising about the nature of identity, and tediously over-extended sequences of Hamilton/Wilson trying (and failing) to come to terms with his new life. The entire film never shakes the feeling that it believes it is stunningly important and everything it does is making crucially important, profound points, and it quickly loses the audience.
The basic problem with it, above all others, is that we are given no reason at all to care about Hamilton/Wilson in either of his two personae. John Randolph is so effectively beige as the original Hamilton, you genuinely end up not caring what happens to him. Nothing in either his life or personality sparks any interest, or any sense of loss. Pile onto that the fact that it seems to take an age for him to commit to having the operation in the first place and you have a rather slow, dragging half-hour opening with a character you care very little about. And that’s just the first act.
The point the film wants to make is that changing your face and your life cannot always change the man inside: that the basic unhappy discontent of Hamilton/Wilson isn’t going to be fixed by giving him Rock Hudson’s face. Sad people are going to be sad whatever. The fact that I have summed up all the ideas of the film in a few short lines tells you everything. The film takes over an hour to make the same statements, with Wilson as tedious a lead as Hamilton was. In fact, one of the main problems is that the most interesting characters by far are those on the edge of the film – from Will Geer’s seemingly benign, but deeply sinister exec running the business to Wesley Addy’s scarily omniscient butler, these side characters all offer a lot more interest than our lead.
Wilson ends up in a beach community, filled with a host of suspicious-looking people and staffed by company representatives determined to make sure Wilson doesn’t disgrace himself or blow the gaff. Hudson makes a decent fist of the job – many commentators have made the rather clumsy point that the famously closeted Hudson probably had more understanding of what it was like hiding your real identity than any other Hollywood star around at the time – but it can’t change the fact that he’s basically not that strong or compelling a performer. Or that, even in the new body, Hamilton/Wilson is still a pompous and dull stick-in-the-mud.
So even in a new skin the character is not one you can feel any investment in. The community sequences are as slow and overplayed as the opening half hour. We are never really clear what exactly Wilson/Hamilton finds so terrifying and unsatisfying about the community, or why he finds the idea of other “seconds” so deeply traumatising. The sequence is also cursed with a bizarre “grape crushing” ceremony, that plays out like a sort of Woodstocky orgy. I imagine it is meant to convey the sudden appeal of free living – but it’s so skin-crawlingly awkward and embarrassing in its staging that it makes Frankenheimer feel like a stuffy dad attempting to relate to the sexy young kids.
Seconds is basically too dry and empty the majority of the time to really care about or enjoy. Frankenheimer – and in particular his cinematographer James Wong Howe – shoot the film with an inspiring and trippy inventiveness as well as a disconcerting surreality. The woozy black-and-white photography constantly mixes unsettling angles, disconcerting zooms and intense POV framing to leave you uncomfortable and on-edge while watching the film. While this artiness and theatricality does sometimes make the film feel like it’s trying too hard (and makes it feel very of its time) it does at least offer most (if not all) of the interest in the film.
Maybe part of the problem as well is that Seconds is an almost unbearably depressing film, with possibly the most horrifyingly grim ending you can imagine, shot with intense horror by Frankenheimer (I’ll also say that Hudson’s desperation and fear as he realises the final fate the company has in mind for him is brilliant). It’s not exactly fun viewing, but it’s so intense you have to admire it even while finding it terrifying. It’s one of the few moments where the film’s pretensions, and pride in itself, really pay off with the final product.
It’s the problem all over with Seconds. There are moments in there you can admire – and you can totally see why it has been reclaimed by many now as a lost classic. However, it’s also really easy to understand why the film was a box office bomb, unloved by the cinemagoers and why it’s not very well known today. There is so little in there for you to feel an emotional connection to – its lead character is a bore and a cold fish, his love interest sinister, and huge chunks of the story are delivered with a puffed up pride at how clever the whole thing is. It’s a huge disappointment, considering its potential.