Have you ever suffered from a bout of insomnia, and ended up channel hopping into the small hours of the morning as a result? And having done so, have you ever came across a film that you’ve never heard of, yet it exerts a near hypnotic pull over you, digging itself under your skin ensuring that you’ll be thinking about it for days afterwards? If so, then you’ll recognise the kind of film that Seconds is.
The opening credits are stark black and white close-ups of various facial parts, pulled into weird and twisted shapes by the camera focus, while Jerry Goldsmith’s harsh and brooding score booms out over the top. Even from the credits, it is clear that Seconds is going to be a hallucinatory and powerful experience.
We then join Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a businessman rapidly approaching his pensionable age, and is seemingly extremely uncomfortable because of it. However, this is also due to the fact that an old friend gives him mysterious instructions to get in touch with a company that will change his life. Intrigued, Hamilton agrees, and he finds himself on the receiving end of an incredible offer. For a quite considerable fee, the company will literally give Hamilton a new lease of life. He will undergo surgery and awake a much younger man with a new identity, leaving behind another corpse to take his old place in society, leaving only one question – where do they get the corpses from? Hamilton is unsure, after all who wants to live forever, and what about his family that he can never see again? However, the two men in charge of the company (Will Geer and Jeff Corey) demolish his argument in a most chilling scene, and Hamilton soon finds himself reborn as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). Yet, despite waking up in a body most of us probably would pick given the choice, “Wilson” is not a happy man and doesn’t take to his new existence at all.
John Frankenheimer’s career highlight is arguably The Manchurian Candidate, yet Seconds runs it very close, repeating a lot of the themes that the former film explored. It’s a film drenched in paranoia as we are in the dark about the company as much as Wilson is. We never find out who they are, where they operate from, or how the actual surgery works. The few times we see the outside world it seems strangely deserted, and in a ghoulishly ironic twist Hamilton is ferried to the company by visiting a slaughterhouse and hitching a ride in the back of a meat truck. Frankenheimer sets the film in cramped interiors filmed in gritty black and white, whilst sticking the camera into the actors faces for sweaty closeups or actually attaching it to the actors to create a nervous, edgy paranoid sense of constantly being watched. This atmosphere continues right throughout an orgy scene that is disturbing rather than sinfully gleeful, right to a crackerjack ending that sends you out with your head reeling and your stomach tumbling. It’s an ending that ranks alongside Night of the Living Dead from the same period, as one of the bleakest, yet thematically perfect climaxes that American cinema is likely to offer.
If Frankenheimer’s target in The Manchurian Candidate was politics and the media, then here it’s the wealthy classes and their never ending quest for vanity, perfection and the chance to hang on to their wealth for as long as inhumanely possible. Yes, they may be able to wake up in a new youthful body, but at what price? The 1960s was a period of great social change, but the Reborns are stuck in the past, trying to cling onto the dying of the light, and it’s not glorious or noble, but absolutely sickening. They seek to celebrate life, but instead reek of death.
Randolph’s performance is key to that, as a man seemingly terrified of passing away sometime in the next decade, but it’s Hudson who’s the biggest surprise here. A world away from the Sirk melodramas and the Doris Day romantic comedies that he’s most famous for, he gives a stunningly anguished and adult performance. Like us, Hudson is off balance and off kilter throghout as he becomes slowly aware that everyone knows more about his situation than he does, and it terrifies him, such as the tremendous scene where he goes from boorish lush to a complete mental breakdown seemingly in one take. It’s a performance that doesn’t give any easy answers to the situation, and helps give the ending the kick that it has. The whole film has the feel of a noose being slowly tightened around your neck while you lie awake at night.
With it’s edgy, paranoid energy and slippery grasp on reality, the legacy of Seconds can be seen from One Hour Photo to American Psycho, to Brazil and to Hidden. For it’s full effect, Seconds is best enjoyed late at night, with the lights out where it can work its persuasive terrors on you without interruption. The film is an unceasing nightmare that you don’t wake up from.