Overlooked Gems: Seconds (1966)
John Frankenheimer cut his teeth as a director in TV, working in plenty of live TV and anthology series. Yet, one program he never worked on is perhaps the benchmark example of the great anthologies, The Twilight Zone. It’s a shame he never had an opportunity, because the morality questions mixed with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror would have been a perfect fit. However, if there were ever a film which felt like a feature film version of a Zone episode, it would probably be Frankenheimer’s the long forgotten sci-fi/horror film Seconds.
The premise alone feels like a classic Serling scenario: a dissatisfied suburban man craves a new life and to get it, is willing to undergo sinister experiments. In the film, John Randolph plays the bored man, with Rock Hudson stepping in as his new face. And both actors give performances which could have been considered their tour de force…if the movie had been released widely and found an audience. Seconds’ only notable success when first released was the deserving Oscar nomination it received for best Black and White Cinematography, by James Wong Howe.
Howe’s cinematography (only enhanced by Criterion’s recent release) on display in Seconds is truly a showcase for the talent which allows him to utilize the black and white film to evoke horror, science-fiction, and gritty realism all at once, with a look reminiscent of Orson Welles most experimental films. The movie never falls into the world of a cheap B movie nor does it take on the look of serious kitchen sink film of the 50s. Small and intimate, the look of Seconds provokes the serious comments being made by Frankenheimer and screenwriter Lewis John Carlino without becoming “pretty” or cliche in appearance.
And that dance between genre film and issue film is truly what makes Seconds a standout. Genre films have always dealt with big social issues, and in 1966, audiences were already familiar with the ideas of pod-people and body snatchers. But these threats usually came from the other world, not from within a well-organized business. The concept of an “organization” that makes money to alter a person’s body, staging deaths, and creating new identities was far from a common theme in such films. And it also isn’t as far from what we know is possible.
The Company in Seconds is similar to the witness protection program, erasing past lives, starting new ones over with full back stories. Even the fact that those who won’t assimilate to their new identity or break rules by making contact with the past, have to be “dealt with.” Nor is the suggestion that one could have such extensive plastic surgery they would look like a new person is not an unbelievable premise. It’s all very realistic for horror/sci-fi, and plays into everyone’s paranoia about what it means to have an identity.
Hudson is remarkable in his performance because of the way he can make even the most philosophical subject matter seem like they are being said by his characters rather than just reading a preachy writer’s words. Hudson’s acting abilities were always overlooked because of his good looks and strong persona. But he was also one of Douglas Sirk’s go to stars and in many ways, Seconds offers an example of what it might have been like if Sirk had made a horror or sci-fi film. The characters talk about issues like the meaning of success, identity, and conformity with an almost unnatural ease, which in the wrong actors’ hands could be grating.
Seconds is never grating and more importantly, has something very profound to say about the nature of identity which is very still very relevant to audiences. But it also is a snapshot of Hollywood on the verge of a cultural revolution. At times, Seconds recalls the last great studio pictures of the late 50s, while also showing clues of what is to come when the young Hollywood Revolution would finally launch. Frankenheimer was a godfather of the young filmmakers who would be a part of that movement, and Seconds might be his greatest contribution into the new cinematic styles to come.
Seconds is available on DVD/Blu-Ray/On-Demand through the Criterion Collection.
A Gallery of Images from Seconds
Watch the Seconds Trailer