This would have to be one of the most horrifying films ever made. Not in a conventional horror-film type of way, but in a horror that we can all recognise inside ourselves. Often regarded as Rock Hudson's greatest performance, Seconds will stay with you, whether you love or hate it by film's end. Initially booed at the Cannes Film Festival years ago, director John Frankenheimer's paranoid gem has gone on to take it's rightful place as a classic piece of cinema from any genre. Seconds also has one of the most gruelling endings to be found in any film, let alone one from 1966.
Middle-aged everyman Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) lives in a suffocating, repetitive rut. On one of the days in his travels to and from his dull banking job, a mysterious man - of whom we only see the top half of his face as photographed by the brilliant James Wong Howe - gives him an address on a piece of paper, nothing more. Arthur soon finds himself taking calls from someone he insists is dead, an old friend college friend named Charley. Arthur's wife Emily (Frances Reid) quizzes him about the late-night calls, but he gets defensive and uncommunicative. At one point Charley asks him 'what have you got now?' to which Arthur, defeated, doesn't know. He agrees to go to the address Charley's been pushing him to go to. He soon finds it's just a detour, but the old guy running what looks like a laundry business gives him the right address, at a meat- packing plant. Of course, it's just a front for something much much complex and mysterious. While waiting to meet the proper people, Arthur falls into a delerium-dream where he attacks a young woman. Later, seemingly waking up, Arthur's met by an old man who explains just what this company, in fact offers.
In exchange for a sizeable amount of money, the company provides you with a faked death - supplying the corpse which the public will think is you - as well as extensive plastic surgery and an exercise regimen, the sum total of which will leave you a completely new person, with a new life to start over. As Arthur hesitates, thinking about his life and what he will be leaving behind, the old man (Will Geer) shows a film of him attacking the woman for real! Drugged and compelled by autosuggestion, Arthur has created his own source of blackmail. Though furious, Arthur is soon convinced to sign into the procedure, breaking down as the old man reassures him it is the right thing to do. After months of plastic surgery - including a new voicebox and fingerprints - and bizarre exercises, Arthur emerges with the identity of Antiochus 'Tony' Wilson, a successful artist living in a Malibu, California beach community. Now he's played by RocK Hudson, who's actually a good match for John Randolph. It's not that much of a stretch to see them as the same person and apparently Hudson studied Randolph's mannerisms to make the changeover seamless. We learn that 'Tony's' faked death was caused by a fire in a hotel as relayed by the newspaper.
It's a strange new life for Tony as he has little effort to make, and a manservant supplied by the company to ease him into things. On the beach he meets Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) who takes him to a wine festival. As the revellers get steadily more drunk and end up jumping naked into a vat to crush a multitude of grapes, Tony disapproves when Nora disrobes and jumps in with them. I was quite startled by the amound of nudity shown for a big-budget film of 1966. Eventually he gets dragged in, and ends up having the time of his life, which is quite touching when you think of what a clamped-down life the man lived. Sometime later he and Nora get closer and Nora professes her love for him. Tony throws a cocktail party for his neighbours but due to his steadily drunker state - apparently Hudson got genuinely sozzled for this scene - he lets slip bits of information about his past and refers to a man named Hamilton. This stream of forbidden truths causes two unhappy revelations. Nora gets furious with him and asked him who the hell he thinks he is. A group of revellers carries him away and holds him down in an attempt to quieten him. It seems that these neighbours are 'reborns' as well, and Nora is also working for the company, just a now-hostile employee that was meant to ease him into his second life. Tony is heartbroken by this and we can't help but feel his pain - Hudson's acting is excellent in this scene.
Tony/Arthur is now one mixed-up person. Against the rules, he visits the wife he left behind, claiming to be a recent art friend that she never met. The conversation becomes personal and Emily ends up mentioning that Arthur was 'dead' long before the actual death, and that the marriage had basically been an empty one. Tony now approaches the company to go through the whole process again, to gain yet another new face and this time get it right, making his own choices with the new persona he wants to adopt. The company basically agrees, as long as he supplies the name of a new dissatisfied person who will be become their next customer. Tony refuses, knowing this will slow down his own 're-birth'. He meets up with Charley (Murray Hamilton), whom at first he doesn't recognise. Charley confesses that he too made a mess of his second life and is now waiting for a third. Tony tells Charley that all his life people have taught him what to want and feel, including all the meaningless material possessions that cluttered his world. That the pattern repeated itself in his reborn life because the company made all his decisions for him. This time it will be different. Charley is led away to an uncertain fate.
That night, Tony wakes up to find the old man - the boss of the company - at his bedside. He says how sorry he is that Tony couldn't make his dream come true. Tony says that maybe he never had a dream, and the old man concurs - that maybe that was the problem all along. The man says that they have a spot for him in the operating area, that they're ready for him now. Tony protests that he's not ready, that he hasn't planned his new life yet. The old man is comforting, yet suddenly a priest comes along to read his last rights as he's strapped to a stretcher and wheeled away. Screaming and struggling, gagged with a rubber hose, Tony knows just what's about to happen, remembering that the company always needs a supply of corpses ... What follows is probably one of the most harrowing endings of any film. Yet it's also one which, even for just a couple of seconds, allows us to see the dream that perhaps Arthur Hamilton should have had all along, but realised far too late.
John Frankenheimer has made one hell of a film in Seconds. There aren't many people who won't respond to it in some manner. Who can't relate to wanting to start life all over again and get it right this time? The early scene where Arthur and Emily begin to make love and then just stop, completely losing heart in the passionless act, is uncomfortable to say the least. John Randolph seems to have a permanent sheen of sweat in his Arthur Hamilton scenes, displaying his inner turmoil through his eyes. Arthur Hamilton/Tony Wilson's nightmare is one we can all become involved in because we probably all want a happy ending. Maybe some of us, put into this situation, could make a go if it, who knows? Yet Tony is ultimately an empty person and can't get it right with a new face and new lifestyle. How many people undergoing plastic surgery still feel as self-loathing on the inside when they recover from the surgeon's blade? The acting from all concerned is bravura on all fronts. Rock Hudson will send chills up your spine, I promise. Whether it's the sorrow of losing someone you thought loved you to the pain of realising your past life was empty, to his final agonising fate - it's almost too hard to watch some of these scenes. Salome Jens as Nora, and Frances Reid as Emily Hamilton also impress with their small, but pivotal roles as almost polar opposites.
Technically, Seconds is a wonder as well. Jerry Goldsmith's score is supremely chilling, experimental and haunting. James Wong Howe's magnificent black-and-white photography, with its fish-eye lenses, bizarre angles and distortions, should leave no doubt what an artist the man was. Saul Bass's frightening opening credits are as menacing and twisted as any I've seen - with close-ups of bandaged faces, eyes, mouthes and noses all spiralling and mutating over Goldsmith's musical terror. Frankenheimer directs with full force on all fronts, taking us to lovely highs with Tony meeting Nora, to plumb the absolute depths of human experience. No man is as lonely as Tony, a failure over two lives, being wheeled out to face his final fate.
It's funny, I can watch films where chainsaws dis-assemble people into their constituent parts and walk away thinking about the evening's dinner, yet a thriller with deeply human drama such Seconds still leaves me rattled when I think about it. It's a horror film which contains true horror, a personal terror most people wouldn't even want to think about for too long. I guess one of the main purposes of art is to confront it's audience, and this film does that in spades. So I call Seconds a nightmarish work of art, and I'm glad to finally be able to write about it after all these years. Not a film you'd watch on an annual basis for the good feelings it evokes, but if you love pure cinema, well worthy of your collection.
© Boris Lugosi, 2010.
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