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Back in the 1960s, John Frankenheimer made his loose “Paranoia Trilogy”. The first two entries are some of his most famous work, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, movies set in the corridors of power in America. The third and final movie was the sci-fi-thriller Seconds, a movie that has a ground-level look and it is now a part of the Masters of Cinema Series.
Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a middle-aged New York banker whose daughter has moved out and his relationship with his wife (Frances Reid) is distant. He has also been accosted by a man at Grand Central Station and has received a call from the dead, giving Arthur an offer to restart his life. When Arthur takes up the offer, he goes to a mysterious company which gives him plastic surgery and a new identity as an aspiring painting named Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) and starts a new life in California. Yet is starting a new life really what Arthur/Tony wants?
Seconds is a sci-fi movie in the sense that it is trying to be more grounded, underplaying the technology and keeping the world recognizable. It is more interested in the themes of identity, freedom and wish-fulfilment and it uses science fiction elements to achieve this. There is a certain suspension of disbelief considering the amount of plastic surgery needed to turn Randolph into Hudson – also having his finger prints and teeth removed and replaced; but it is completely ridiculous and the idea of characters having a new face and body has been used in various movies from the 1960s French movie Eyes Without a Face, Pedro Almodóvar’s excellent psychological thriller The Skin I Live In and even in the action genre with John Woo’s Face/Off. Seconds is partly a body horror movie as Arthur undergoes a metamorphosis and the ending is perfectly horrific.
The paranoia story and the use of a shadowy company gives Seconds the air of a Philip K. Dick adaptation. The themes of identity, reality, freedom and distrust of corporate entities are often hallmarks in adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s work, from Total Recall to A Scanner Darkly. Like Douglas Quaid in the classic Total Recall Arthur/Tony is given a chance for a new life and when Arthur becomes Tony, his new life is not all that it seems. The mediocre Irish sci-fi thriller Brand New-U also takes a lot from Seconds, using its set-up, certain plot points and themes and shows how not to make this type of story.
Seconds has a great first and third act, but it is the second act where the movie drags. After Arthur becomes Tony the movie meanders as he tries to figure out what to do with his life – and he is directionless. But Frankenheimer was too good at the portrayal of a directionless life as the movie treads water until the big reveal. The most the second act does is when Tony enters into moments of hedonism, meeting up with a group of early hippies going through strange rituals, like the residents of Summer Isle in the classic British horror movie The Wicker Man.
The point of casting Rock Hudson was that he was the typical all-American man; tall, handsome with chiselled features and a broad muscular frame – as Kim Newman said in the special features he in the perfect romantic lead and had the look to play rugged manual worker types or successful men in suits. In the 50s and 60s Hudson was the man men wanted to be and the man women wanted to be with, so perfect for a movie about wish-fulfilment. Seconds allowed Hudson to stretch himself as an actor as he plays a pained individual. One of Hudson best moments is when Arthur’s new face is shown to him and is overwhelmed by the sight.
Frankheimer also casts a number of actors who were cast during McCartheyism. The idea of the movie is people being reborn into new lives and Seconds aimed to help give actors like Randolph a chance to restart his career. Will Geer made a great villain, someone who seemed like a polite Southern gentleman, but uses these characteristics to mask a more sinister personality.
Cinematographer James Wong Howe was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Seconds. He gives the movie a very unique look, using wide angle lens for close ups and fishbowl lens. These techniques are used to distort the audience for the more sci-fi parts like the surgery and when Arthur is getting followed early on by the shadowy company. There was also a great simplicity to the cinematography at times, one moment being perfectly framed and acted such as when Arthur’s wife talks about her marriage – not realizing she is not talking to her ex-husband.
The legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith provided the score for Seconds and makes the movie sound like a classic horror movie, using organs for the first and third acts. Due to the themes of surgery and man changing himself, Goldsmith’s music kindles thoughts of classic movies like the 1930s version of Frankenstein.
Seconds is more a thriller with some sci-fi elements than a sci-fi thriller. Frankenheimer worked with a great team to make a movie that gives a slightly surreal experience. But the second act does let down the excellent set-up and ending.
Special Features: The Blu-ray re-release comes with two commentary tracks, one by Frankenheimer, the other by film academic Adrian Martin. Empire magazine Kim Newman provides a 20 minute analysis of the movie and the disc also comes with the theatrical trailer.