John Frankenheimer’s 1966 thriller Seconds is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of their Saul Bass centennial,and his distinctive opening title sequences, and good golly Miss Molly, Saul is putting in work from frame one here. The images are smeary and distorted, disturbingly tight close-ups of eyeballs and ears and other body parts, accompanied by a Jerry Goldsmith score that sounds, at first, like a parody of horror movie music – all organs and sharp trills – before evolving before our very ears into a big orchestral soundtrack of terror. The best opening credit sequences tightly capture the essence and feel of a picture and prepare us for what’s ahead, but some are almost too good, writing a check the following movie can’t cash. Seconds cashes it.
Frankenheimer’s narrative – adapted by Lewis John Carlino from David Ely’s novel – is far more frightening if you go in cold, so if you’d like to bookmark and come back, feel free. (Promise to come back.) But the way it unfurls is truly ingenious; rather than giving us a painful exposition dump, Carlino and Frankenheimer stage an extended walk-through, with the inciting device revealing itself to the audience as it’s revealed to the protagonist. Put simply: wealthy people can take advantage of a service where they are “reborn,” their deaths faked to remove them from the lives they’ve grown up with. Plastic surgery alters their appearance (and de-ages them to boot), and they’re placed in a new life they’ll more fully enjoy.
Our protagonist, recruited by an endorsing old friend, gets the hard sell (the cut from his pen signing the contract to the plastic surgery incision is one of the most sinister single edits I’ve ever seen), and at the forty-minute mark, nearly halfway into the movie, the bandages come off and we meet its star, Rock Hudson. He is now “Mr. Wilson,” shuttled out to the California coast to pursue his true passion of painting. (There is, of course, considerable subtext in Rock Hudson playing a man pretending to be something he’s not.) He meets a nice woman out there, a divorcee who also walked away from her picture-perfect life. “You wouldn’t understand,” she shrugs. “I think I do,” he replies.
Because it’s California in the mid-1960s, they eventually find themselves at a wild outdoor ceremony – part wedding, part drunken bacchanal, part naked orgy, with extremely proto-hippie (and, frankly, proto-Manson) energy. People wear white robes, chant, and disrobe. Mr. Wilson looks extremely uncomfortable – our first hint that one must beware what one wishes for – and when his date tries to join in the nude revelry, he tries to pull her back, begging her not to join, until he finally goes in himself, smiling and dancing and yelling “YES!” The entire sequence is stunning, with Frankenheimer going full-on ‘60s weirdo semi-verité. But it’s not just style for the sake of style; he’s staging a vivid visualization of this man shedding the last of his middle-class pretensions and inhibitions, and giving in.
Before he’s sent on his journey, Wilson’s handlers advise him, “You’ve got what almost any middle-aged man in America would love to have: freedom.” Seconds is a lot of things – science fiction, body horror, paranoid thriller. But most of all it’s social commentary, a pointed snapshot of this exact moment, this hinge of the 1960s, and the ennui that led so many (especially older) people to embrace the counter-culture. They’re capturing a tangible undercurrent in the American psyche, of feverish uncertainty and vague dissatisfaction. When he’s interviewed about his life early in the film, by the owner of the company that performs this service, his marriage barely warrants a mention – “We get along. We hardly ever argue” – and he seems reluctant to even discuss it. Prompted to think about what he has to look forward to, he feebly mentions a possible promotion, his boat… his friends? Maybe? “There’s nothing anymore, is there?” asks his inquisitor. “Anything at all?” And there really isn’t; it’s all pretty vapid and empty when he stops to think about it. The spoils of the 1950s American Dream don’t add up to much after all. “Time for a change,” purrs the salesman. Much of America was feeling the same way.
Ultimately, however, he can’t live with whatever he becomes, and in the turns of the third act – in which Wilson goes back to the ‘burbs and realizes what he’s lost – Seconds risks becoming a conventional “be thankful for what you have” story. But there’s nothing conservative about the filmmaking; Frankenheimer and his cinematographer, the great James Wong Howe (or “Jimmy,” for you Inherent Vice fans), use an arresting, experimental visual language to mirror their protagonist’s overall mental and psychological unsteadiness. Right from Jump Street, the look is bizarre and disorienting, full of strange compositions, cameras mounted to actors, and fish-eye lensing. It’s as if Frankenheimer made a conscious decision to take all the crank paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate – not an altogether subtle picture to begin with – and crank it up to maximum volume here. This holds particularly true when the company turns the screws on him to sign up, a sequence that combines waking nightmare, rape fantasy, and blackmail material. “It’s easier to go forward when you know you can’t go back,” he’s told. No kidding.
Seconds famously tanked when it hit theaters in 1966, and it’s frankly understandable; general audiences probably weren’t quite ready for this kind of penetrative, accusatory commentary and borderline surrealist imagery, and they sure as hell weren’t ready for this ending. It spoils nothing to say that the rawness of what Rock Hudson is doing in that final scene, the genuine and unguarded terror, is some of the finest and most upsetting acting of his career, and that Frankenheimer, Howe, and editors David Newhouse and Ferris Webster, in the photography and cutting, somehow render it even more disturbing.
The closing lines – “You were my best work, Mr. Wilson. Sorry it all has to end like this” – are haunting, but after the credits rolled, I found myself remembering dialogue from much earlier. “You know what I’m saying is true,” he’s told. “There’s nothing anymore.” Whether they meant to or not, the makers of Seconds were summarizing the state of the nation in 1966. And in 2020 too.