The biggest problem John Frankenheimer’s 1966 movie “Seconds” had at the time of its original release was having Rock Hudson in the lead role. Hudson was still a huge star (he was one of the top 10 most popular stars from 1957 to 1964), however his fans were not interested in seeing him in such a dark science fiction/psychological film, and fans of this type of film were not going to see a “Rock Hudson movie.” The results? “Seconds” died a quick death at the box office. In retrospect, while Hudson was no Robert DeNiro he does gives one of the best performances of his career in a film unlike anything he ever did before or after. Frankenheimer had been on a roll since the beginning of the 1960’s. In the previous five years, he made “The Young Savages,” “All Fall Down,” “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May” and “The Train” followed by “Seconds,” though he would soon embark on a more erratic course from which he would not recuperate from until the 1990’s with a series of excellent TV movies.
Man is never satisfied with who he is or what he has in his life. What if your family life has lost its purpose, your job had lost all meaning, and your entire life was one big disappointment. What if you were given the chance to change your life, erase it all and start all over again? What if you could live the life you have only dreamed about? For Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) this chance happens when he meets an old friend, presumed to have died year’s earlier, who arranges a meeting that puts Arthur in contact with a secret group only known as “The Company.” The Company offers wealthy bored individuals a chance at a completely new life. They will fake Arthur’s death, provide extreme plastic surgery and give him a totally new identity, in Arthur’s case, as an artist known as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).
“Reborn,” Tony is relocated to Malibu where he has been set up as a successful artist. He meets a young, beautiful, exciting woman named Nora (Salome Jens) and they become a couple. One day, they go to out to the countryside where they discover a group of young free spirited people are having a celebration, singing and drinking. There is a large vat filled with grapes on the grounds and in the spirit of wild uninhibited youth, they jump into the vat naked stomping the grapes and partying. The scene is not orgiastic but more of a celebration of freedom and joy. Tony though is clearly uncomfortable with all the nudity, he even zips up his jacket. He may be Tony Wilson, a bohemian artist on the outside, but he is still the conservative uptight Arthur on the inside and he finds the whole scene unsettling, even more so when Nora strips and jumps into the vat. Soon some of the group grab Tony and toss him, unwillingly, into the vat. At first, he is upset, an odd man out, among the festivities and joy. However, he soon starts to loosen up and begins to enjoy himself finding a sense of freedom and excitement that he never experienced.
On another occasion, Tony is encouraged to host a dinner party where he gets drunk and begins to unexpectedly rant on about his old life as Arthur Hamilton. Nora tries to calm him down but to no avail. Some of the guests drag him into a bedroom to sleep it off, but it is during this incident he discovers that many of his “friends” are just like him, “reborns” who are keeping an eye on him. It also turns out the Nora works for “The Company” and their relationship was just a set up so they can keep watch on his progress.
Against the orders of “The Company,” Tony visits his wife from his earlier life, telling her he was an acquaintance of Arthur that they met not too long before he died. He discovers she was aware of Arthur’s discontent, that success had not brought him the peace and happiness he was seeking. Tony also begins to realize his new life has not made him any happier. He decides to tell “The Company” he wants to be “reborn” again. They seem agreeable to this however, what Tony discovers is there are no second chances. Unsuccessful reborns become the next corpse for future clients of “The Company.”
Seconds” is an amazing film that was way ahead of its time. It is based on a novel by David Ely and adapted for the screen by John Lewis Carlino. Next to “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seconds” is arguably John Frankenheimer’s best film, though Frankenheimer himself did not think the film worked (see “A Conversation with John Frankenheimer with Charles Champlin” Pg 95). “Seconds” is an intricate, intelligent, downbeat work of paranoia, part thriller, part science fiction and part a depressing examination of the failure of the American dream. Consider what we are constantly bombarded with today, an out of control obsession with extreme makeovers, plastic surgery, botox, hair transplants, and liposuction. Imagine the success a firm like “The Company” would have today. Tony was not alone in wanting another makeover; they had quite a few failures. However, the failure of their process was not in the physical makeover but in the psychological alteration. They could not make you forget your past. You may be a new person physically on the outside but on the inside, you are still you.
“Seconds” remains revolutionary in its cinematic technique with its use of the camera and sets. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is remarkable; his use of wide angles lens, fish eye lens and handheld camera shots were innovative, disturbing and today still way ahead of much of what we see on screen. Howe was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in this film. According to Frankenheimer’s commentary on the DVD, the entire film was redubbed. This was due to the use of the Arriflex hand held camera for many scenes, which was relatively new at the time and noisy. Frankenheimer handled the Ariflex himself in the grape stomping scene. None of the camera operators were willing to jump into the vat with the nude cast, so Frankenheimer dressed only in a swimsuit with his Ariflex in hand got in and shot the scenes. As he notes in the commentary on the DVD some of the women in the vat quickly relieved him of his swimsuit.
The version that has been released on DVD has the nudity during the grape stomping scenes intact. When originally released in 1966 the production code though starting to breakdown still had enough influence to forbid nudity. Frankenheimer and Editors David Newhouse and Ferris Webster had to edit bits and pieces of usable film together so while there was the appearance of nudity, nothing sensitive was seen. In its edited form, Frankenheimer felt it looked more like an orgy, which was not the intent. In it full length uncut version the scene reflects more the celebration of free spirit he intended. “Seconds” is the third of a loosely connected paranoia trilogy made by Frankenheimer, the others being “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May.” Though not perfect, it is never really explained why Tony was unhappy in his new life, “Seconds” is an excellent film, a Kafka like dream and one of the most sophisticated films you will see.
Note: A couple of years ago I did a series of reviews for Halo-17, an Australian music and arts website, which from what I can tell is no longer out there in cyber space. In the past I linked these reviews back here to Twenty Four Frames. Now it seems all the links lead to an internet void; subsequently I have occasionally been posting these reviews here in updated versions. “Seconds” appearz here now in its entirety for the first time.