Review by Aaron Cutler
Posted on 25 January 2010
Source Paramount DVD
Seconds is an example of how even the finest technical elements - rapturous camerawork, fine and subtle editing, a stunning Saul Bass credit sequence - can’t turn an underwhelming script into a masterpiece. The 1966 film, starring one of Hollywood’s biggest movie actors, Rock Hudson, at the height of his success, is a sci-fi/horror/character study, and it flopped spectacularly upon its initial release (on his DVD commentary director John Frankenheimer says it “went from failure to classic without ever being a success”). The narrative points cryptically in several directions without ever settling on one, confounding not just possible meanings and interpretations but the highways and byways that viewers take to find them. We know that the story is a pointer, but we’re unsure of precisely what it points to.
Seconds’ two halves read like two different movies. The film begins with a shaky, off-kilter view of Grand Central Station, as businessman Arthur Hamilton gets a slip of paper handed to him by a mysterious man. Later that night Arthur receives a phone call from an old friend that he believed to be dead. The friend tells him to go to the location written down on the paper. Arthur goes to an office building, where a genial businessman shows him footage of him drugged and trying to rape a girl. The “company” (the film’s lone name for this mysterious group) gives Arthur an offer: either it exposes him, or he pays $25,000 to have reconstructive facial surgery and a faked death. After some consideration, Arthur writes the check.
John Randolph plays Arthur for the film’s first 40 minutes; Hudson takes over playing him post-surgery. He gets a new name (Tony Wilson), a new home in California, a new vocation as a painter and a new girlfriend (played by husky-voiced Wisconsin native Salome Jens), but fails to find comfort in his new surroundings, even after a party where he learns that all his new neighbors are “reborns,” too. A brief, incognito visit to his wife teaches him that his old life is truly gone forever, and he asks the “company” heads if he can start over once more. They agree. Hamilton/Wilson is tied down to a gurney and carted into an operating room; a surgeon lowers a drill towards his skull, and as he screams we realize where the “company” gets its spare corpses from.
It’s possible to read Seconds at least three different ways: the first revolving around Randolph, the second Hudson and the third both. Randolph was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist that had been broken six years prior, as were Will Geer and Jeff Corey, the actors playing the “company“‘s two chief executives, and Ned Young, a screenwriter (he wrote Frankenheimer’s The Train) who appears as a guest at Wilson’s party. Hamilton’s life with a different face under a different name can be seen as a metaphor for the way in which blacklisted artists continued to work behind the scenes in Hollywood by taking on different identities. This sometimes led to extreme scenarios, as when Carl Foreman, the blacklisted screenwriter of The Bridge on the River Kwai, credited his script to a writer who couldn’t speak English (awkwardness ensued when the screenplay won an Oscar). Hamilton’s paranoia and sense of being watched throughout the film’s first half mirrors the persecution that covertly practicing communists felt during the witch hunts, and Wilson’s discomfort with his new surroundings similarly suggests the way in which many were forced to “go straight.” At his party, Wilson makes the mistake of talking about his old life, which makes the other guests dislike him—they all know about each other’s true identities, but are supposed to ignore them (and even play along at being good Americans, as when Wilson jokingly asks a guest who says she’s joined a group, “Nothing subversive?”).
Yet the Communist subtext seems an imperfect fit, as evidenced by contradictions involving the “company.” On one hand, its blacklisted authority figures and covert nature (“We can’t exactly advertise in the newspaper,” one leader says) suggests the Communist Party; additionally, the casting of Khigh Diegh, who also played the villainous psychiatrist in Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate four years earlier, as a “company” executive recalls that film’s brainwashing Communist authorities. On the other hand, the way in which members are coerced into giving up names of viable surgery candidates mirrors McCarthy’s scare tactics that forced people to name names of practicing Communists. Toward film’s end the Corey character tells Wilson that the “company” will give him a new life if he gives them a new victim; Wilson refuses to do so and is possibly killed for it, a potential metaphor for the way in which artists who refused to give McCarthy names were exiled from America.
While Randolph’s presence gives Seconds a political context, Hudson’s gives it a sexual one. Hudson’s homosexuality, like many Hollywood communists’ political leanings, was an open secret in the industry, and one that his perpetual casting as a romantic lead tended to play upon rather than ignore. From 1956 to 1964 Hudson ranked among the top ten most popular American movie stars, a major reason being that films like those he made with Douglas Sirk and Doris Day satisfied audiences’ desire for (hetero)sex while keeping it offscreen (in 1961’s Lover Come Back, he even gets Day premaritally pregnant). Hudson’s masking his homosexuality with a heterosexual persona (at one point his studio even arranged a show marriage) was an exaggerated example of the way in which Americans were told to hide their sexualities, period. Hamilton sleeps in a separate bed from his wife and stares horrified at the film of him drugged and trying to assault a girl, unable to connect his repressed longings to his waking life; Wilson, by contrast, goes with Nora to a hippie festival where people dance naked in a tub full of grapes, and after much demurral finally disrobes and joins in the fun (and boy, has hippie culture dated).
The sense of a man being forced to confront his buried sexuality mirrors the way in which Hamilton’s staid American business culture of the 1950s gave way to bohemia and sexual freedom in the 1960s, yet Wilson seems uncomfortable in his newer, freer home. Wilson’s line, “Nothing subversive?” can be taken sexually as well as politically - he misunderstands the woman’s response, “We change sects” as “We change sex,” and it visibly unnerves him. Once Wilson leaves California, Nora mysteriously disappears from the film, and when Wilson chooses to go back to the “company,” he’s placed in a holding cell filled with men in ties sitting at desks with pencils and papers - in other words, a stand-in for office culture (the lack of women in the room suggests another difference between the ’50s and ’60s). Hudson was about a decade younger than Randolph, and the juxtaposition of the men implies an uneasy contradiction—an older mentality literally trapped in a younger body. Wilson is unable to accept his new life and dies as a result, and so the film’s buried message may have been to get with the times.
Frankenheimer originally wanted Hudson for both personas and only cast Randolph after Hudson declined. It’s a good thing he did, not just because Randolph gives the movie’s sweatiest, most desperate and authentic performance - Hudson, despite some nice moments, is mostly stiff and awkward, and in a drunk scene is embarrassingly bad - but also because of the extratextual meanings that the differing leads add. I haven’t read David Ely’s source novel, and so cannot say what social commentary the original story offered, but the film’s political and sexual commentary comes as much from the actors’ relation to the material as it does from the script itself.
The juxtaposed leads create a third commentary on the Hollywood star system, then in a transitional phase. Once all-powerful, the studio system had been challenged by the influx of foreign cinema in American theaters and alternative, lower-budget works, like John Cassavetes’s Shadows, and had thus begun eroding to make way for the independent film movement. Hamilton is played by a character actor, but once the character undergoes plastic surgery, changes his name, moves to California and becomes an artist he is played by a star. Studios were notorious for running their stars’ lives and then dispensing with them if they became troublesome. Once Hudson takes over, Randolph is never seen again; Wilson can never again have a “normal” (i.e., anonymous) life, but fails to understand this, refuses to take what the “company” gives him and, again, dies for it. Stars had carefully constructed, studio-controlled images, and to defy the studios, as a figure like Orson Welles did, was to be cast out of Hollywood.
It’s both a virtue and a flaw that Seconds simultaneously invites and contradicts all three meanings; each suffices, but none satisfies. The Manchurian Candidate is a cracked hall of mirrors that makes fun of all political persuasions—the film’s McCarthy figure makes up a list of 57 Communists based on the number on a ketchup bottle, but his liberal opponent also bleeds milk. Though more limited conceptually and less explicit in its targets (and, it must be said, nowhere near as funny), Seconds is similarly disconcerting. Unlike Candidate, though, whose power mainly derives from George Axelrod’s biting script and its uniformly fine performances, Seconds’ impact comes primarily from its cinematographer, the great James Wong Howe, who also photographed Hud and Sweet Smell of Success. Like those films, Seconds is in black-and-white, and like his other films (Success in particular), Howe shows a mastery of contrast between light and shadow, in particular the way they play across peoples’ faces (the demonic lighting of Wilson’s butler, John, might have influenced Gordon Willis’s lighting of Don Corleone). In contrast to a film like The Third Man, which uses persistent Dutch angles to suggest an off-kilter world, Howe varies his visual strategies to disorient the viewer, shooting from a variety of high and low angles and switching between traditional mounted setups and more jittery handheld work, even getting the actors to carry cameras over their shoulders. Although Howe lost the Oscar that year to Haskell Wexler’s work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? _, _Seconds is among the best-looking black-and-white movies ever made.
Seconds’ plot has been said to resemble an episode of the ’50s TV series The Twilight Zone, a fair comparison in that its structure resembles a Twilight Zone mainstay—an average person enters an alternate universe, is enchanted at first, then grows disillusioned and tries to escape, only to find out in a twist ending that he’s trapped. Many of the best episodes, like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” take place in contemporary America, suggesting Hell on Earth. Reviewers generally don’t cite any episodes in particular, but Seconds most reminds me of “Eye of the Beholder,” in which a bandage-swathed woman prepares to undergo plastic surgery so that she can look “normal.” The doctors’ and nurses’ faces are all hidden in shadow; at episode’s end, they are revealed to look like demented pigs, and we see that the woman is traditionally beautiful. Beauty, we learn, really is in the eye of the beholder. After Hamilton becomes Wilson, he realizes that he was happier with what he had before; Seconds’s moral may be about beauty, too.
Although he never directed a Twilight Zone episode, Frankenheimer cut his teeth on over 100 live episodes of TV shows like Playhouse 90 that taught him a basic craft and attention to detail that shows in his films—not just his “paranoia trilogy” of Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and Seconds, but also straight dramas like Birdman of Alcatraz and action movies like Ronin. He didn’t write the screenplay (although he did change Lewis John Carlino’s original ending, replacing Hamilton/Wilson’s family reunion with a grimmer, more oblique shot of an about-to-be-lobotomized Wilson dreaming about a man and boy walking on a beach) and yet Seconds seems to have had some kind of autobiographical meaning—like Hamilton, Frankenheimer once dreamed of being a professional tennis player, and the California house that Wilson lives in was Frankenheimer’s actual home. He was friends with many blacklisted artists, saw the ’50s turn into the ’60s and knew the studio system well, yet one-to-one parallels can only frustrate. On the DVD commentary he says that the film’s message is that, “In life, you are the result of your experiences, you are the result of your past. If you try to take away your past, you deny yourself as a person. He [Hamilton/Wilson] tries to deny his past, and that’s why it doesn’t work.” For this gorgeous and maddening movie, that’s the most that we’re going to get.