Week 13: Seconds (1966)

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Directed by John Frankenheimer
Starring Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, and John Randolph
Written by David Ely and Lewis John Carlino
Cinematography by James Wong Howe
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time 107 minutes

Before Viewing

I was once reading an article on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys when I came across an interesting tidbit. One day, back in the 60s (probably during their post- ‘Good Vibrations psychedelic phase’), feeling a bit schizophrenic, under pressure to finish an album, and under the influence of some, er, chemicals, he went to see the new John Frankenheimer film Seconds. He was a bit late, so when he sat down in his chair, the first thing he heard from the film up on the screen was ‘Come in, Mr. Wilson.’ A bit spooked, what he saw on-screen during the next hour and a half was so intense that it altered his state of mind (as well as freaked him out so badly he didn’t go to see a movie in the theatres again until E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial came out in 1982). Seconds made him so paranoid that he was convinced a rival music producer had the studio make the film to mess with his mind.

I’ve seen Frankenheimer’s other paranoid classic, The Manchurian Candidate, and really enjoyed it. With this and poor Brian Wilson’s story in mind, I thought it might be a great film to check out.

My Thoughts After Viewing

Seconds is a film that takes place in the same universe that the classic Twilight Zone used to inhabit. Being a huge Twilight Zone fan, I saw this as a good thing!  In fact, Seconds feels like a movie length Twilight Zone episode. In the film, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a middle-aged banker, is bored- bored with his life, his wife, everything. He’s not passionate about anything. During one sequence, his wife tries to initiate some romance, and it dies quickly because he doesn’t reciprocate. In a lot of ways, it’s like he’s dead already. He starts to get late night phone calls from a friend who he thought died years ago, only to find out that it wasn’t the case- his friend has assumed another identity, and he invites Hamilton to do the same. The film actually starts with Hamilton getting a mysterious message delivered to him on a train, and we are able to put two and two together- this phone call and that message are a way out for Hamilton, a way to leave his dreary existence.

Intrigued, Hamilton goes to the address, and finds out that for only $30,000, he can become a new person. The Company, as it is generically known, offers wealthy men a chance to escape.  The Company will arrange for an unfortunate fatal ‘accident’ and provide a cadaver that cannot be identified so that people will think it is the client as well as provide outstanding reconstructive surgery and a new identity. Once convinced (and not so subtly threatened), Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson, an artist living in Malibu. He’s given a nice beach home, he has a personal servant, he’s now younger and handsome…. but still not convinced he did the right thing. He seems uneasy during the whole transition.

On the beach, he meets Nora (Salome Jens), a woman he finds interesting. Wanting to break out of his funk, he invites himself to an event she mentions she’s going to, and it turns out to be a good ol’ fashioned Bacchanalia, complete with wine making, drunkeness, music and public nudity. At first Wilson is bothered and wants to leave, but he ends up in the giant vat with a naked Nora (and 40 other hippies) and has a breakthrough- this is now his life, and it can FUN. He’s joyous to the point of madness, it seems.

Everything seems to be going fine until Wilson gets drunk at a party and starts rambling about his old and new life, and we see that everything isn’t as simple as it seems to be. The influnce of The Company extends far, and we discover that everyone involved in Wilson’s new life has ties to The Company, either as a representative or as a client. Wilson deciedes he doesn’t want to play along anymore, that he wants to control his own life and make his own choices, and he makes some decisions that will pit him against The Company. He goes back to The Company and requests a new identity, but in a very effective, very terrifyinig climax, we see that The Company has other plans for him

This movie is a textbook example of how filmmaking techniques can build the mood of a film. It all starts with the immortal Saul Bass’s opening title sequence. It’s one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen, and right off the bat it makes the viewer uneasy. The distorted closeups of the human face create something both recognizable yet foreign, and the music heightens the tension (I’m convinced if Brian Wilson had been in his seat when the movie first started, he would have run from the theatre screaming). During the first sequence, while Arthur Hamilton is being tailed in the train station by the courier, the camerawork is disjointed and bizarre but effective. The camera appears to be attached to the courier, and so it glides in a odd manner. When shown from the front, part of his face is cut off, creating an unsettling effect. Later on, during what appears to be a drug-induced dream and during the aforementioned wine orgy, the camerawork is such that we become paranoid along with the character on the screen. It’s a brilliant way to use the camera and, if anything, makes the film an interactive experience. I’m sure seeingIt was one of the last major releases done in black and white, and I think it was the right call. If anything, the lack of color creates that Twilight Zone mental association.

I will say that this is the first Rock Hudson film that I’ve ever seen, and I thought he did a great job as Tony Wilson. Once he’s made the change in lifestyle, you get the sense that he’s not happy, and that’s a credit to Hudson. He’s not a man in love with the idea that he can do it all over again, but rather he’s a man with a very, very strong sense of buyer’s remorse. I would say that I would have liked a little more insight into why we was unhappy with his new life, but maybe Tony Wilson/Arthur Hamilton was just a miserable person. After all, there are people in the world like that. Nonetheless, you feel for Hudson’s character- you’re happy when he has his breakthough, and you are terrified for him when you discover what is going to become of him. In fact, everyone in this film does a great job. All the elements come together to make one of the creepiest films I have ever enjoyed.

Final Verdict.

If you love a suspenseful, paranoid, and thrilling story, you should check this out, especially if you enjoyed The Manchurian Candidate. Students of film will also learn alot seeing how camera placement and technique can assist in constructing the overall mood of the movie.