There is some irony in the fact that John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, based on the novel of the same name by David Ely, was not a success on its initial release in late 1966 despite the reputation Frankenheimer had had built on the previous commercial and critical success of Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and the presence of Rock Hudson, a Hollywood powerhouse with a string of dramatic and romantic comedy hits to his name.
Audiences expecting the reassuring presence of Hudson to usher them into a clearly defined narrative of unambiguous morality where after an hour and a half of verbal banter he gets the previously resistant girl were to be deeply disappointed, and it is only in later years that the film has had its own second chance, reappraised as a daring departure both for the director and the star in addition to the always recognised technical brilliance on display, cinematographer James Wong Howe’s crisp black and white images nominated for an Academy award.
Opening with nightmarish images filmed by Saul Bass in a distorted reflective surface, it is perhaps not as bold as his stylised creations for Alfred Hitchcock but the actual footage is sufficiently disturbing as to require no further enhancement. Underneath this is a brilliant and provocative Jerry Goldsmith score which begins in a manner reminiscent of Humphrey Searle’s prologue for Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) before metamorphosing into a tortured keyboard theme modelled after Johann Sebastian Bach.
Goldsmith would later go on to craft majestic sweeping soundscapes for Star Trek The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, 1979) but his more experimental side evidenced here would surface again in the atonality of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and the unusual instrumentation of the percussive soundtrack to Planet of the Apes (Franklin J Schaffner, 1968).
That aural confusion suits the mood of Frankenheimer’s film which offers neither the audience nor the lead character any explanation or exposition as he is tracked through New York’s Grand Central Station to his platform, a note passed to him by a stranger just as he boards the train in a moment calling to mind the cursed runes of Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) and its finale under the wheels of a passing locomotive, his fate equally sealed from that moment.
Howe’s camera tracking over the shoulder of characters and the fast editing of the contrasting motions through the windows of the train are atypical for the era, deliberately disconcerting and disorienting to the viewer as middle aged banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is picked up at the station by his wife and driven home to their stagnant marital home in the suburbs; he makes small talk with Emily but tells her nothing of the note.
That night, the telephone rings, the same caller who so upset him the night before that he was up pacing until two in the morning, keeping his wife awake. He listens to what the caller says, but he refuses to believe who they claim to be. “Charlie Evans is dead,” he responds.
Despite their twin bed marriage there is some remaining tenderness in his marriage to Emily; she knows something is wrong but he will not confide. Instead he keeps the requested rendezvous, forwarded through a number of filters, a tailor’s shop, a meat processing plant, the carcasses strung up, once living beings now valued only as meat, before he arrives at his ultimate and unknown destination.
Thematically and stylistically similar to The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May (1964) which together with Seconds form Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy,” while the first of those focused on an outside agency working against the US government and the second elements within the government and the military planning a takeover, Seconds is a more personal affair, as Arthur Hamilton is conditioned and persuaded to give up his empty life and take a second chance – at a cost.
Giving grudging consent having been almost blackmailed into the decision he is nipped and tucked into the matinee idol form of Rock Hudson and given the name Antiochus Wilson, Tony to his friends, and a new life on the beach where Arthur’s painting hobby will be similarly transformed into Tony’s career in fine arts.
Into this scenario comes Nora (Salome Jens), a free spirit whom he meets on the beach, a new love to complete his new life. There is an honesty in Nora which contrasts his intensity, yet it is also her vitality which agitates the cracks in Tony’s new existence, she being a part of a younger generation to which he belongs only in appearance, an older man transposed into a youthful body in which he has no connection, set adrift with no anchor.
Now released on remastered Blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series along with special features including a commentary by Frankenheimer, an appraisal by critic Kim Newman and an accompanying booklet of essays, it is also a reinstated version containing footage cut from the original release, though this is in some ways a mixed blessing.
Following a gripping and entrancing first half, the film meanders in the second hour and at times verges on aimless and indulgent, and it might have kept more focused had the naked Bacchanal remained excised for reasons of pacing rather than prudence. This is a minor quibble, however, and taken as a whole the film certainly justifies inclusion on Eureka’s select list. Both Randolph and Hudson are mesmerising in their roles, astonishingly with only ten years between their ages yet feeling as though a generation divides them.
Frankenheimer had wanted to work with Randolph for some time but had been unable to because he had been blacklisted until that time for refusing to answer questions to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, so this had been their first opportunity. As Hudson was left handed, Randolph had to learn to use his left hand to give continuity to their shared character.
Two other actors in the production had been similarly blacklisted, Jeff Corey as the facilitator of the mysterious organisation, only three years before his appearance as Plasus, high adviser of Stratos on Star Trek‘s The Cloud Minders but without the beard and grey hair appearing younger though with expressions and gestures which are unmistakable, and as the founder of the organisation Will Geer, later Grandpa on The Waltons for which he won an Emmy award, here giving one of his best performances.
With key scenes of the film using tight focus on near objects on shots which extend far into the distance enforcing the themes of isolation and disconnection, it is Corey then Geer who share with Randolph a single six minute continuous take, every flicker of his eyes captured and recorded by the camera, every moment a complete embodiment of his character, hopeful, scared, trapped, falling towards his realisation of and resignation to the inevitable.
Given lead billing though he does not even appear until over half an hour into the film, Rock Hudson’s performance of a man with a concealed identity is no less fascinating, utterly atypical for a major leading man in the period it was made in and dually fascinating in that he himself was leading a double life of pretence and half truths, a rugged and eligible cinema idol desired by his adoring female fans who within the closed community of Hollywood was well known to prefer the company of men.
Less overtly science fiction than two more recent films which have touched on similar ground, Brand New-U (Simon Pummell, 2015) and Self / Less (Tarsem Singh, 2015), Seconds is a more reflective precursor to those works whose own longevity and rebirth is testimony to the collective talent of those involved and a sobering dissection of the twin pressures of modern society, unavoidable, ongoing and escalating, to need to conform and the desire to escape.