Seconds -- The Fretful Nature of Human Soul

                                            Paranoia, deceit, shame, and tragedy haunted the American politics from the 1960’s to early 1970’s (from Kennedy’s death to Nixon’s resignation). The ensued bundle of political gossip and public drama gave us one of best sub-genre in movies, called ‘paranoid thriller’. From Coppola to Roman Polanski many great directors gave cinematic rendering to the fears and distrust of that era. John Frankenheimer was one of those prominent film-makers, whose movies were drenched in paranoia. He targeted the delusions of the powerful politicians and media barons in “Manchurian Candidate” (1962) and “Seven Days in May” (1964) and got loads of critical acclaim. However, his bold and downbeat flick, “Seconds” (1966), which was a commentary on the social excess and suburban existence of the 60’s, didn’t get much attention as viewers failed to connect upon its theme in the initial release.

                                        “Seconds” is a cautionary tale about the perils of wanting too much or dreaming the wrong dream. The cult classic is simply based on the saying, “be careful what you wish for; it might come true”. The film’s credits run in a backdrop of stark black-and-white close-ups of different facial parts that are twisted and pulled to create a hypnotic feel. The musical score (by Jerry Goldsmith) is also brooding and little harsh. Then we see a middle-aged Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) trudging through the metro station with a feeling that some is watching over him. When he hops inside the train, he receives a slip of paper from a mysterious stranger. Later that night he gets a mysterious phone call from a friend, who had long been dead.

                                       Arthur is a banker and could be termed ‘successful’ in terms of wealth, but he has grown distant from his wife (Frances Reid) and the life he has created for himself. The bored Arthur follows the voice of the caller and goes to meat-packing plant, where he is escorted to a sinister company that specializes in giving the wealthy men a second chance. Arthur is offered a re-birth. His death is faked by the Cadaver Procurement Unit, and he goes through extensive, radical plastic surgery. After the operation Arthur emerges as a much younger Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). By exploring his dreams, the company gives him an identity of a wealthy painter. He was set up with a beach-side home in California and with a faithful servant (Wesley Addy). Tony even finds a free-spirited acquaintance in Nora (Salome Jens). But Tony’s new wild life starts to battle with old Arthur’s conscience.

                                      “Seconds” demands some suspension of disbelief to fully understand its themes. It rises a ‘what if?’ question, and so the procedures involved with surgery and giving new identity may be riddled with plot holes, if it is closely scrutinized. It hauntingly explores an individual’s conscience amidst a culture that dramatically changes from one era to another. Director Frankenheimer powerfully displays the cultural divide between the liberated youths and their conservative parents in the beginning of American 60’s. Arthur, the protagonist, once dreamed of being a liberated youth but his job and marriage has given him a conservative life. But, he still holds to his early dreams of emancipation. His new identity, which is filled with radical art and free love, is a dream comes true. However, it turns out that our old Arthur hasn’t dreamt the right dream. The reality of his fantasy only makes Tony/Arthur more uncomfortable.

                                        Only during the aggressive sequence of wine orgy, Arthur/Tony lets his old-self and enjoys the seditious things, but soon after that scene he goes back to being a man stuck in mid-life crisis. Sexually voracious women and free-spirited artist eventually turns into a nightmare from which he can’t awake. This whole identity-changing procedure gradually showcases restless nature of human soul, which is constantly in pursuit of something unattainable. It’s a perfect choice from Frankenheimer to cast the handsome Rock Hudson in the role of Tony Wilson. Although John Randolph (Arthur) and Hudson has no single physical resemblance, the choice once again stresses the point that even when you polish your external identity, you can’t escape from your own internal persona.

Title Sequence by Graphic Designer Saul Bass

                                        Rock Hudson, who has known for his roles in melodramatic and romantic comedies (“All that Heaven Allows”, “Pillow Talk” etc), has taken a vital acting departure in the film “Seconds”. He was a matinee idol whose success was highly dependent on the perception of him as a clean-cut, traditional male. As Tony Wilson, he perfectly displayed the inherent frustration and dullness of alter-identity, Arthur because he has really experienced the wearisome routines of an uncomplicated man. Through Rock Hudson, the director has finely explored the surging desperation behind good looks or star persona.
                                      Apart from the impressive on-screen performances, the talking point of “Seconds” is the flawless, unique visual style created by John Frankenheimer and cinematographer James Wong Howe. The black and white cinematography constantly employed various tricks and stylistic flourishes to adjust us to the primary character’s subjectivity. Howe was one of the first to use snorricam devices in the scene where a nervous Arthur moves through a crowded train station (and later when Tony goes through mental breakdown). Scorsese used a Snorricam shot in “Mean Streets” and the shot was extensively employed in Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” (in the walk of shame sequence) and “Pi”. All these hand-held camera work and weird tracking shots (for that period) immediately created a sense of paranoia and dread even among the not-so dreary atmosphere.   

John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe

                                       The script from Lewis John Carlino, based on the novel by David Ely, slackens a bit in the second act. The relationship between Tony and Nora also felt too contrived, but the compelling ending firmly brings back the feeling of unease.  The ending may be one of the bleakest in Hollywood cinema, but it’s a thematically perfect one.

                                       “Seconds” (107 minutes) is full of slippery, paranoid energy that’s infuriating as well as honest. It is one of the underrated classic of American cinema which showcases the diabolical goings-on of the era it was made. 


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