John Frankenheimer's head-trip points to a future filled with grifters falsely promising a better life.
ertain works of art seem completely disjointed from their moment. Although Seconds came out in 1966, its atmosphere and style feel so radically out of step with most U.S. cinema of that time: it features explicit nudity, queasy violence, and a pitilessly morbid tone. (The top-grossing film from that year was The Bible. The big Oscar winner was the stately Thomas More biopic A Man for All Seasons.) One of the darkest and most disquieting investigations into the American compulsion toward personal reinvention I’ve ever seen, Seconds could easily have been released into theaters today.
Sad-sack Scarsdale banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is offered a chance at a fresh start when a stranger in Grand Central Station presses a slip of paper with an address into his hand. He receives a call from his Harvard chum Charlie (Murray Hamilton), whom he previously believed to be dead, urging him to grab the opportunity for a blank slate. (On the phone, Charlie talks like a parody of advertising copy of the time: “I’m alive! More alive than I’ve been in the last 25 years!”) Arthur warily enters the offices of “The Company,” which will stage his death, give him a surgical makeover, and provide him with his ideal life somewhere far away. He quickly accepts the offer.
In a brilliant, discombobulating move, director John Frankenheimer and writer Lewis John Carlino drop the audience directly into this outlandish scenario. There’s no preamble establishing Arthur’s malaise; instead, he receives the paper slip immediately following the opening credits. It’s clear Charlie has tried to reach him many times before. Who knows how long Arthur has been contemplating going to that address? Even before he elucidates his dissatisfaction with his life to a Company handler, the audience learns all they need to know from his stilted, banal interactions with his wife. Randolph excels at playing a walking slouch who speaks as if his brain is stuck on cruise control. Seconds implicitly asks the question, “What would happen if a John Cheever protagonist abruptly found himself in a J.G. Ballard short story?”
After a lengthy series of surgeries—which includes footage of a real rhinoplasty; supposedly, Frankenheimer had to take over for his cameraman after he fainted—our man is given the name Antiochus “Tony” Wilson, now played by Rock Hudson. The Company fabricates a backstory for him, including a preexisting corpus of paintings (he’s supposed to be an artist), and sets him up in a chic house on the beach in Malibu. At first, it’s all he hoped for. With the encouragement of neighbor-turned-beau Nora (Salome Jens) and a raucous Santa Barbara bacchanal, Tony embraces his fresh environs and all the possibilities they offer. But then a revelation about his neighborhood sours the experience, and he quickly finds himself just as dissatisfied with his new life as he was with his old one. It turns out that Tony can repeat the procedure and start over once again, as long as he procures another prospective customer for the Company.
It's in this last stretch that the movie reaches new heights of audacity. For all its eerie opaque procedures and seemingly bottomless resources, the Company turns out to be nothing more than a pyramid scheme, on par with the horde of scams that would proliferate throughout the U.S. in the decades to come. Seconds grasped the hollow nature of ventures promising spiritual rejuvenation. Despite the mystique of “the West” as embodied by California in the mind of a daydreaming East Coast office stooge, one can no more escape a fundamental sense of longing over there than here. Frankenheimer and Carlino were skeptical of both the free-spirited hippie-adjacent lifestyle and the suburban drudge. If you try to run away from yourself, you’ll find you’re on a treadmill. It’s all the same America.
Frankenheimer and cinematographer James Wong Howe employ a number of ahead-of-their-time techniques to keep the viewer off-balance. Befitting its vibe of a forgotten mid-century short story, Seconds is the rare movie to adopt a sort of third-person limited point of view, placing itself within both Arthur and Tony’s subjectivity. David Newhouse and Ferris Webster’s frantic editing personifies the mindset of someone who can’t help but keep looking over their shoulder. During the party sequence, which sees more and more guests stripping nude to stomp grapes together in a giant tub, Frankenheimer continually ramps up the dizzying feeling with increasingly frantic cuts crescendoing in a flurrying montage of bodies in ecstasy, flinging off clothes and mashing feet. The camera gives itself over to the moment in the same way that Tony lets go of his inhibitions. However, that subjectivity can also be harrowingly confining, as in the film’s surgery scenes during which Arthur/Tony is strapped down and we can only helplessly stare at the faces of doctors. This style hits its abstract apex in the final sequence, which imagines death in a purely cinematic way, leaving the audience gobsmacked.
Although Howe was nominated for an Oscar, Seconds failed to strike a chord with audiences, crashing at the box office during its initial release. Notably, it was released in a compromised form, as most of the party scene was cut due to the graphic nudity. (The full version of the film would not be seen in the States until a re-release more than 30 years later.) For some time, the film was perhaps best known for supposedly scaring Brian Wilson away from going to the theater. As the story goes, he happened to enter a screening right as a character said, “Come in, Mr. Wilson,” which spooked him something fierce.
It took some time for Seconds to find its devotees. It might be that its unorthodox filmic techniques alienated theatergoers of the time. Perhaps they simply weren’t interested in watching Rock Hudson try to stretch beyond his typecasting. Or maybe such a cold critique of both the American Dream and its countercultural opposite left the film without a supportive demographic. But Frankenheimer and Carlino’s suspicion proved prescient, as grifters promoting wellness continue to find purchase in the States. The Company and the Esalen-esque lifestyle it sells are a prophecy of decades of scams to come. “You’ll be alive! More alive than you’ve been in 25 years!” might as well be emblazoned on a nootropic banner ad or a Goop webpage. But Seconds doesn’t think there’s a new man beneath the bandages; just rot.
Seconds is available to stream for free on The Internet Archive. It's also available to rent and purchase from Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV, and Redbox.
Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and editor.