Seconds, 1966, 107 mins, Blu-Ray
John Frankenheimer’s Seconds is a very odd film- partly its a meditative study of mid-life crisis and the seductive temptation of second chances, but its also rather something more. Its also a drama about not fitting in, of hidden identity and feeling ‘outside,’ something only amplified by the casting of Rock Hudson, who was at the time an homosexual masquerading him as straight in order to maintain his career in Hollywood (albeit I understand it was something of an open secret within Hollywood circles). Its also a cautionary sci-fi parable akin to some (better-made) Twilight Zone episodes. Its also a bonkers sci-fi horror hybrid which makes little sense, predicated on a ridiculous premise (that plastic surgery can transform John Randolph into Rock Hudson). Yet, something about the film resonates, so much so that one can easily forgive the film its flaws. There’s a sense of an underlying ‘truth’ in its feelings of regret, mortality and lost youth.
The overwhelming melancholy of the film is enhanced beautifully by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, which is how I came to learn of the films existence in the first place. Its one of those instances of listening to a score first, ignorant of its film; I think I bought the CD in a sale alongside another purchase back when the shipping costs etc didn’t make such blind purchases as prohibitive as they are now. I think cited comparisons to Goldsmith’s Freud score had caught my attention, a score I adore and had itself come upon due to its use in Alien. Connections within connections, one film leading to another, like the spider diagrams you might see in murder mysteries/police procedurals.
But it took a few more years, until now, having finally bought the Eureka Blu-ray, to finally see the film itself.
Arthur Hamilton (John Rudolph) is a middle-aged man in a comfortable, affluent life – married, with a good job, a spacious house out in the suburbs, and a daughter… but the marriage is passionless, the daughter has grown up and left home, and the job is empty and unfulfilling. The ennui of this midlife crisis quietly dominates everything, albeit it is unrealised, his ignorance is, while not bliss, perhaps making things tolerable.
This ignorance is shaken when he is offered, by a secretive, nameless company, the chance of a new life – they will fake his death and give him a new face, a new body and identity, a new life. A second chance, full of all the marvellous opportunities that the company suggest. It begins to dawn upon Arthur that nuisance phone-calls from a stranger claiming to be his friend who died several months ago might be genuine. Arthur’s curiosity is ill-met, however, when he is drugged and later shown footage of him sexually assaulting a young woman – blackmailing him to go through with the procedure despite his reservations. So Arthur signs the contract, his death is faked and he is later ‘reborn’ following months of surgeries, as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).
Elements of Corporate machinations, a secret company operating ‘under the grid’ outside of governmental controls selling a faulty product that doesn’t actually work (as it later transpires) likely resonates more profoundly today than it ever did back in 1966. What may have seemed incredible to audiences back then seems almost matter-of-fact today. Where the film really falters is in its proposition that simple surgery might transform John Randolph into Rock Hudson – in hindsight it might have been better to have resorted to some technical device, actually transferring a persons intellect from one physical body to another, i.e. a manufactured clone, which is essentially just as ridiculous for a film set in the mid-sixties but maybe more credible than plastic surgery to us today.
But if one can turn a blind eye to the implausibility of the science, and accept the film as some manner of fable (the implausible science just a means to an end) then the film rewards hugely with its considerations of second chances, identity and roots and regrets. Its really quite fascinating although perhaps one of the most depressing films I’ve ever watched, with a genuinely chilling conclusion. I think the first section of the film possibly works best (Rudolph is brilliant) but that’s not to say that Rock Hudson is not a revelation. I think its fair to say that the name Rock Hudson does not fill film fans with much anticipation but this film is utterly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen Hudson appear in. It seems clear that Hudson recognised something in the role that mirrored his own situation regards his hidden sexuality, and certainly suggests he might have thrived in better, more challenging roles although its probably true that this films failure to garner any critical or public appreciation likely ruined any such opportunity. John Frankenheimer joked that Seconds was the kind of film which if you rang a theatre owner to ask what time the film starts, he’d reply asking what time you could get there.
The rest of the films cast offers notable mentions: Jeff Corey, Will Greer, both disarmingly chilling performances, and Jaws‘ Murray Hamilton and The Six Million Dollar Man‘s Richard Anderson in support.
Considering there is so little music in the film (I think the score is barely over twenty minutes in length minus source cues) its clear that Goldsmith was rather judicial regards the spotting of music, but thats the genius of it, as when it comes in, it really works magnificently. Goldsmith’s score really is like a major character of the film, keying into the mood and sensitivity of the story. Its really one of the composers best film-scores (it must be, because I’m double-dipping with a new CD release featuring newly remastered sound recovering the music from dialogue bleed due to impaired source), and I’m reminded how Goldsmith suffered by how some of the films he worked on either weren’t as good as his music deserved or failed to find an audience (he never scored a Chariots of Fire or Titanic, at any rate, and few would recall films like The Boys From Brazil particularly kindly).
I think the most obvious problem for this film is in regards its length, as unfortunately it has the feel of an overlong episode of The Twilight Zone. Its a good fifteen to twenty minutes too long, floundering somewhat in its middle section, but that being said, with judicious editing I think it would have benefitted from a longer first section (more focus on Arthur) and a shorter second section (less focus on Tony, if only to tighten up that part to make it function better) but regardless of that, I think Seconds is a good, surprising and contemplative film that deserves more attention: maybe it deserves a second chance of its own? I also think its curious how similar it feels to Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, in its tone, mood and re-evaluation of the American Dream, and as The Swimmer is one of my favourite movies of the 1960s its inevitable that I found Seconds so enthralling. One of those films that few people like, but those that do, rather love, like some guilty cinematic secret.