Seconds is, as its director John Frankenheimer put it, a movie that went straight from failure to classic status without ever being a success in between. It was a colossal flop upon release but was to become a major cult movie and is now very highly regarded indeed. It is, by a long way, Frankenheimer’s best film.
Seconds is an unconventional science fiction movie. In fact it’s unconventional in almost very possible way and was made in a very unconventional manner. It is a science fiction movie about getting a second chance in life, and it’s a movie about why getting a second chance in life can never work.
Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a middle-aged banker who is dissatisfied with his life. He’s not quite sure why he’s dissatisfied but he knows that his life is not what he had hoped it would be. Then he gets a strange telephone call from a dead friend. A dead friend who assures him that he is not only not dead, he is more alive than he has ever been. He offers no further explanation but urges Hamilton to go to an address in New York.
Hamilton immediately finds himself in a series of bewildering situations, culminating in his arrival at the headquarters of a company that offers a very special service. It offers rebirth. Of course before you can be reborn you have to die, but arranging deaths is all part of the company’s service. The themes of death and rebirth will recur throughout the movie. After his death his wife will remark that Arthur Hamilton had been dead for a long time before his actual death.
Arthur Hamilton dies in a hotel fire. But Arthur Hamilton is not dead. A corpse provided by the company is the corpse found in the hotel room. Arthur Hamilton is undergoing rebirth. After a series of complicated medical procedures Arthur Hamilton becomes a new man, Tony Wilson, a well-known and successful artist. At this point in the movie Rock Hudson takes over the lead role. If you’re going to be reborn you might as well be reborn as Rock Hudson!
The company has explained to Arthur Hamilton that it will take a while to adjust to his new life as Tony Wilson. Helping clients through this adjustment is another of the company’s services, although at this stage he doesn’t realise just how extensive this service is, or what it will involve.
Tony Wilson is now young, handsome and successful, and with no responsibilities. His life is whatever he wants to make of it. Now he has his second chance, a chance to be what he always wanted to be. It is certainly an opportunity worth dying for. It is a dream come true. Or is it a nightmare? Tony Wilson has everything. Everything but a past. But can a man live without a past? As Frankenheimer says on his commentary track to the movie, the point of the story is that we are what our past made us. Without a past we are not real.
And a sense of unreality pervades the entire movie. Nothing is what it appears to be, no-one is who they seem to be. The sense of unreality is achieved by a series of bold and innovative technical choices. Virtually the whole movie is filmed using wide-angle lens, often very wide-angle lens. There are tilted camera angles and distorted sets. Sometimes literally distorted - one set was built in two versions, one conventional and one wildly distorted. Low-angle shots abound. The framing of shots is bold and unconventional.
Frankenheimer very generously gives a great deal of the credit for the film’s style to cinematographer James Wong Howe. Howe was one of the truly great cinematographers and this movie is one of his greatest achievements. Howe not only came up with many of the visual ideas, he also did much of the photography himself, actually operating the camera. The movie was made in black-and-white, something that I’m sure must have been very satisfying to Howe, one of the great masters of black-and-white cinematography.
Frankenheimer is equally generous in acknowledging the contributions of other members of the crew, including editor David Newhouse (whose editing is as bold and original and Howe’s cinematography).
Lewis John Carlino wrote the screenplay and had the very pleasant experience, for a writer, of having his screenplay filmed almost entirely as he had written it. Despite the complexities of the plot the movie holds together perfectly without the necessity of irritating explicatory scenes. This is a movie that trusts the audience to understand what is going on without having things spelled out.
Rock Hudson considered this to be his finest performance, and with good reason. He has to play a character who is constantly ill at ease, uncomfortable not only in his new life but uncomfortable in his own skin. Which of course is not really his skin at all, since Tony Wilson does not really exist. He is a manufactured person. Hudson conveys all this very effectively and very economically. There are scenes where he has to cut loose, to go over the top, but for the most part he underplays the role very expertly. Hudson’s style of acting was unfashionable at the time. This was the era of the Method, when actors were expected to go about emoting all over the carpet. Hudson’s style is old-school, and the movie is all the better for it. This was the role of his career, and he carries it off with supreme confidence.
This is a science fiction movie, but it’s also a horror movie, although it’s an existential style of horror. The horror of Hamilton/Wilson’s predicament is Kafkaesque rather than gothic.
Frankenheimer’s commentary track included on the DVD is particularly valuable since this movie was made so unconventionally. It helps a great deal to know how Frankenheimer made it and why he made it the way he did. Almost everything was done in a manner contrary to accepted Hollywood practice. Virtually all the dialogue was post-dubbed. An unusual amount of time was spent rehearsing scenes. The movie was shot mostly in sequence, even when this necessitated calling back actors who had played scenes with John Randolph as Hamilton and later had to play scenes with Rock Hudson. Most scenes were shot using two, and sometimes three, cameras. Even though there are many scenes that take place in moving cars no process shots were used. They were all filmed with cameras mounted on the side of the car. Even a brief scene in an aircraft was shot in an aircraft in flight, even though this required the producers to charter an airliner to do it. Much of this was at James Wong Howe’s insistence. Howe’s determination to get things right even went so far as to insist that the entire crew turn up on a beach at four in the morning so that a scene supposed to take place at dawn could be filmed at dawn rather than at dusk as was the usual practice. The operating theatre scenes are also real and were difficult to shoot since almost every member of the crew present fainted apart from Howe and Frankenheimer.
The insistence on doing things realistically in a fundamentally unrealistic movie was I think a stroke of genius on the part of Frankenheimer and Howe. The whole movie has an air of unreality, but they realised that the use of process shots would have, paradoxically, diminished that feeling of unreality. The unreality is organic to the movie, rather than the contrived unreality of process shots. And it makes the movie feel different, in every sense, from a standard Hollywood production.
Criterion’s DVD release looks superb and includes a host of extras.
Seconds is a strange and disturbing movie which richly deserves its cult status. Very highly recommended.