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Criticwire Classic of the Week: John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: John Frankenheimer's 'Seconds'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled
out for attention. 
This is the Criticwire Classic of the

Dir: John Frankenheimer
Criticwire Average: A+

John Frankenheimer is best remembered for his string of paranoid thrillers in the 60s, starting with “The Manchurian Candidate” and continuing with 1964’s “Seven Days in May.” But the third film in Frankenheimer’s unofficial “paranoia trilogy” isn’t political in nature, nor does it feature an entirely concrete allegory to correspond to its strange narrative. Yet “Seconds” is perhaps the most striking and most unsettling of the three films because it makes both the mundane and the exotic into stifling, even deadly environments for its protagonist.

That protagonist starts the movie as the middle-aged Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a man trapped in the middle of an unfulfilling marriage and career who’s half-convinced and half-blackmailed by a mysterious organization known as “The Company” to switch identities and bodies through an exhaustive plastic surgery and rehabilitative process. He comes out the other end as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a talented painter with a more lavish lifestyle, a manservant and a beautiful girlfriend, but he’s just as unsatisfied and visibly uncomfortable here as in his old life, and he finds that failure to conform with The Company’s policies leads to terrible consequences.

“Seconds'” mood of existential terror and paranoia begins with Saul Bass’ opening credits, a warped view of eyes, faces and teeth that turn the human face into something alien and creepy. That extends to domestic scenes in both the Randolph and Hudson halves of the film, where James Wong Howe’s camera is either pulled back to a degree that turns potentially inviting environments into sterile ones or, alternatively, pushed in to deep focus close-ups that isolate its protagonist from others, echoing his inability to connect to others or to his lifestyle. Still, those are almost respite from the fisheye-lensed sequences of Randolph being drugged in The Company’s base of operations, or a clearly uncomfortable Hudson amidst naked grape-stomping bacchanalia, or a final sequence where Hudson’s nerve-shredding, semi-muffled screams fall on the deaf ears of his disturbingly calm persecutors. 

Hudson was still in the closet when he made “Seconds” (and would remain so up until his death from AIDS in 1985), but it’s difficult to watch “Seconds” today without turning that extratexual knowledge into a metatexual reading. Like Hudson, Wilson is forced to play a role that didn’t fit him, lest he be persecuted by the disapproving role-players around him. There’s a streak of desperation in his performance here (particularly in a drunken confession scene that sees a really-drunk Hudson looking like he’s cracking as much as his character) that’s deeply revealing of Hudson as a performer and person. “Seconds” touches on a number of other roles played in the 60s – husband, working man, artist, member of counterculture – but it’s given new weight with another several decades of context, a career-defining movie about a man whose ultimate fate and secret life is now inextricable from his movies.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

In playing the increasingly self-loathing Wilson, Hudson seems to be laying his soul naked onscreen for all to see. Tony Wilson, a Reborn (as he and other subjects like him are called in “Seconds”), can be read as a metaphor for actors playing a new part, sometimes immersing themselves in the kind of hobbies and lifestyle they believe would best delineate their role until their roles become second nature to them. But when you apply Wilson’s characterization to Hudson’s closeted private life the parallels are even more pronounced. Read more.

More thoughts from the web:

Sam Adams, The A.V. Club

It’s not hard to read the story as a parable of gay existence pre-Stonewall—note the scowling disapproval rained down on Hudson’s character by his fellow “reborns” when he’s tempted to reveal his secret—but like “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers,” “Seconds’” central allegory is too fluid, too audacious to be pinned to any particular meaning. In the commentary track attached to Criterion’s Blu-ray, Frankenheimer keeps a running tab on how many of the film’s actors had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. And the film’s dual worlds—one composed solely of stern-faced men in hats, the other governed by the libertinage of the surging counterculture—mirror the battle between Organization Man conformity and hippie indulgence. Read more.

David Ehrlich, Film.com

“Seconds” is comprised of three rather distinct chapters, but Frankenheimer’s direction allows the film to unfold as a single coherent narrative, his compositions (almost) always rendering mid-60s America in a way that feels at once both honest and unnervingly suspicious. Howe’s camera, whether gliding through meat racks or bumping into the slick chest of an orgiastically happy wine fetishist, allows the picture to maintain a blunt reality that’s coming undone at the corners, like the back of a sticker that’s irresistibly begun to peel. This tonal consistency allows “Seconds” to become one of the rare films that doesn’t hit a speed bump when it swaps actors in a main role, Frankenheimer’s story – for all of its hectic cross-country action – always orbiting around the same idea: we are never more than our context. Read more.

Dana Stevens, Slate

“Seconds” is a blistering assessment of the cultural politics of the mid-1960s, equally bleak in its view of the establishment and the counterculture. The existential freedom supposedly afforded by Arthur’s reinvention as Tony proves to be little more than hollow solipsism—but was there really anything more substantial about his abandoned marriage, which Arthur’s widow describes in a devastating late scene as “a polite, celibate truce”? Read more.

Scott Tobias, The Dissolve

At times, Howe’s black-and-white photography emphasizes the drab grays of Arthur’s suburban manse, but from the opening-credits sequence (by Saul Bass), “Seconds” mangles and distends the windows of perception until viewers get immersed in his sweat-soaked nightmare. The film tells the story of a man who tries to change his identity, but the elasticity of science isn’t matched by the elasticity of consciousness. For an individual to truly change, without leaving any psychological residue behind, is impossible—to quote Confucius via “The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai,” “No matter where you go, there you are.” Read more.

Bill Weber, Slant Magazine

If Seconds” never again casts quite the same spell, it’s partly because the tour de force of its opening act is driven by the spectacular black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe, utilizing fish-eye lenses, canted camera angles, and a variety of Manhattan locations and studio interiors that run the visual gamut from documentary-like spontaneity to claustrophobic and agoraphobic effects, evoking “The Trial” and the work of Orson Welles in general. Read more.

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