Prominent for years on American television, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds had disappeared by the advent of DVD and remained unavailable until the recent Criterion release. With a generation unfamiliar with any official print, the film was gone – like its central character’s appearance by the end of the first act.
With the main character’s physical transformation, through a secretive plastic surgery service, Seconds offers an experience akin to Psycho (not to mention the titles by Saul Bass), which, through more plausible means, disposes of its lead character for another. And yet Seconds remains with the identity of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) who after his youthful transformation assumes the name of Tony Wilson (now played by Rock Hudson). The connection to Psycho – which had a prominent theatrical rerelease in the mid-1960s – is apparent at the onset of Frankenheimer’s film, with the opening shot an extreme close-up of a human eye. The camera then finds an ear and nose to reflect surrealist touches delivered by Buñuel and Dali and continued by David Lynch. When the screen reveals a cloth mask (later clarified to be a bandage) we realize that the features reflect identity via appearance and forecast the mind’s (dis)connections to the body.
Psycho had, of course, introduced the vogue of the human monster in the horror film (following suit of The Bad Seed), in a genre largely populated by supernatural threats. In Seconds, humanity has grown monstrous through a body transformation technique, a device that leaves victim-participants like Frankenstein‘s Thing. This take on the “transformed” also fuels a paranoid thriller style before the Watergate scandal made it a mainstay in the 1970s (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, Marathon Man, etc.). Frankenheimer is responsible for a proto-style with The Manchurian Candidate, in which Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is occupied by Red China and the viewer in fear of such, and the anti-communist presidential coup of the Rod Serling-scripted Seven Days in May. These films, along with Seconds, offer examples of the late golden age of monochrome cinema – others were from Preminger, Kubrick, Mackendrick, and, of course, Hitchcock – a glorious sunset like silent masterworks of the late 1920s.
The transformation device in Seconds comments on identity during the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Arthur Hamilton, an aging banker whose life is drying up, gets a paper with an address from a passerby in Grand Central Station. Invoking Hitchcock’s innocent-on-the-run spy thrillers, the scene profits from James Wong Howes’ slick but clear cinematography using zoom lenses and proto steadicams, with some shots having actor Randolph standing on the camera’s moving dolly. As usual for the time (thanks largely to, once again, Hitchcock) the train suggests fate at work and a sense of paranoia as to where this encounter will lead. When Hamilton follows the address to a dry cleaners, we see lines of product that implies the kind of mass production, as in the slaughterhouse he visits next, that defines his life. When he arrives to the offices of the corporation (vaguely termed the “Company”), he experiences a nightmare in which he rapes a model against his will. Previewing his submission to come, the scene shares the same DNA as The Manchurian Candidate’s memory of a mutual nightmare, in which the Communist enemies are disguised as nice old ladies in a New Jersey horticultural club.
Hamilton’s memory of that rape, and footage played back to him of it actually happening, becomes material for blackmail by the Company. Its offer comes as a business deal: a new life somewhere else. The offer will call into question free will through the power of medical technology and capitalism. The world is yours, but it will cost you.
To create him anew, they fake Hamilton’s death with another body – a device that this film is too clever not to use again. When he learns that his friend was “transferred” in as well, he finds camaraderie in his new identity. The film’s title invokes second chances, but also that change – in life or death – is just seconds away. When the new Hamilton is revealed, as Rock Hudsons’ Tony Wilson (complete with new fingerprints), it’s from a face bandage akin to The Twilight Zone’s “Eye of the Beholder” episode, in which appearance serves up irony. For the Company, engineering appearance means engineering rebirth when 1950s conservatism was ready to drop out. If the nightmarish blackmail and surgical scenes weren’t enough to invoke his earlier film, Frankenheimer casts Khigh Dhiegh, who played Candidate’s sinister brainwashing doctor, as Wilson’s post-surgery adviser.
Wilson gets the glamorous life as a California painter. The stunt casting of his caretaker, John (played by Robert Aldrich regular Wes Addy), suggest something sinister approaching. After meeting Nora (Salome Jens), a strange though alluring chick on the beach, she takes him to the world of flower children. Though young to others, Wilson offers a square among hippies in a darker vision than I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! A grape stomping festival forces the transition further for Wilson as he, like the others (with a surprising amount of nudity, even for ’66) exposes his flesh: he feels the pleasures of youth though he hasn’t reached its fountain. Such glee leads him to excessive drink, in which he lets out his secret that other partygoers at his house, especially Nora, want him to keep hidden.
This moment leads him back to the processing plant, signalling that change comes only before the cradle and after the grave. Returning to a strapped gurney – for one of the film’s famous scenes – he becomes scrapped to foster another acquisition. As culture changes, consumerism processes identity until it’s oversold.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). He has chapters forthcoming in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film (on service comedies), The New Western (on Alex Cox), and Film, Law, Crime (on the documentary).