SECONDS. The science fiction film that can make you question more than you ever wanted

Many people have watched Seconds over the years that it took to update the film’s status from the poor critical reception of the 1960s into its current prominence.

Darek Kuźma

3 November 2022

The daunting question that looms over many a person at least once in a lifetime – the benumbing, forever vague what if…? – makes perfectly unsettling basis for the eerily effective John Frankenheimer’s existential horror Seconds. Though the tension is palpable, the danger and the dread derive not from something external but the eternally broken human nature. Be warned, the film can make you question more than you ever wanted.

It may be profoundly ironic that I dedicate so much online space to a film that is, to a certain extent, about the utmost importance of living your life in direct connection with the physical reality surrounding you and the people that crowd it, instead of confusing yourself with self-pleasing fantasies and alluring simulacra. But there is nothing I can do to liberate my imagination from John Frankenheimer’s film’s painful lessons and suggestive imagery, hence the necessity to let it all out in one way or another.

Since the first time I saw Seconds, and it was only last year, it has been continuously making me think and feel and doubt like rare films do. I will probably never be able to exist completely outside of my online bubble, even though I am trying to live in the moment as much as I have the opportunity to, nonetheless not a week goes by without Seconds¬-inspired thoughts crossing my mind. To say it had, and still has, a profound effect on me is to say nothing at all. For me, it is one of a kind. And the thing is, I am not alone in this view, as Seconds is rightfully considered one of the forgotten masterpieces* of American cinema.

Still from “Seconds” – opening credits

From the Saul Bass’s opening credits, composed entirely of distorted, morphing images of an unidentified man’s partially bandaged face, looking as if it was only slowly forming out of plethora of smaller pieces, Seconds is an unsettling experience. The sequence, complimented by Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie, otherworldly music theme, is a work of art in itself (watch it here isolated from the rest of Seconds), ultimately mutating into the film’s first frame – an image of New York’s Grand Central Station at its busiest. But this shot is inexplicably ominous too, even though it definitely depicts reality any audience member can easily recognize; this being the first of Frankenheimer and cinematographer James Wong Howe’s array of ingenious compositions and visual experiments with which they make each viewer actively participate in the protagonist’s bizarre and harrowing journey.

We meet him right there, at the Grand Central, a man called Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), an affluent, middle-aged banker routinely preparing to return to his suburban house after a hard day’s work. He seems perfectly unextraordinary in his smart mundaneness, but there is something special about him. You see, although he is not yet aware of this sad fact, Arthur is another real-life version of Chicago’s John C. Reilly’s Mr. Cellophane character, a perfectly bland individual without a single characteristic that would make him ‘visible’ to other people. The kind of a person who in the movie business is usually degraded to a small supporting part, or acts as an extra, unless it is a film about such an ‘invisible’ character. Arthur lives in Scarsdale with his devoted wife for whom he does not share any kind of affection. During the next couple of scenes we get to know the terrible truth about him: his day consists of a series of programmed responses and monotonous solutions to routine problems; a lifeless life of a human machine designed to fulfill its social and consumer purpose and die without making a fuss.

John Randolph, still from “Seconds”

Suddenly, Arthur is made painfully aware of his own plight, and at the same time he is offered a new life by a mysterious, corporate-like organization. Quite literally ‘new’; faking his death with the use of a carefully prepared cadaver, shaping a surrogate identity according to his conscious wishes and subconscious desires, replacing the dreary suburban life with exotic Californian fantasy, and finally getting a younger, fitter, more handsome body for his mind and soul to occupy. Arthur realizes his whole life was a labyrinthine lie he had been telling himself so long he actually forgot why he had ever invented it. He agrees to the terms and conditions presented to him, dies a quick, painful death certificated by the media, and begins a new life as Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson (Rock Hudson). Happily ever after?

Not so much.

The main problem is exactly what you would have to be afraid of if such a sci-fi concept as exchanging bodies should ever existed. Arthur becomes Tony externally, John Randolph is transformed through another series of unsettling images and clever cutting into Rock Hudson – at first looking like a Frankenstein monster seconds after the lightning struck, but in time becoming the Rock Hudson women dreamed of and men were envious with – but internally he stays the same. The face is new, so is his athletic body, heart capable of pumping blood into the whole organism so fast every workaholic banker could only fantasize about, but his mind and soul stay as poisoned as they were before. Out of the myriad novel possibilities the impressive Tony gets the opportunity to consider, the desperate Arthur inside never examines even a single one.

Rock Hudson and Richard Anderson, still from “Seconds”

He just is, an entity without a purpose, wandering hopelessly through empty Californian beaches during the spectacles of dawn, his existence consisting now of countless seconds of time wasted on thinking what he should do, or be, to fulfill the potential that was given to him by forces he does not even comprehend. I will not reveal anything more plot-wise as it is essential to experience what happens next, well, unprepared. You should only know that what Arthur manages to accomplish in his new incarnation is putting to the test one of the prevalent human fantasies, or at least Western fantasies: the murky-and-seductive what if…? for which many people lost their mind.

Admit it, you have thought about it at least once in your lifetime. I know I did, even though I am perfectly happy about my life and could not imagine having a more fabulous family. That is so because the (again, Western) culture we live in employs such wish-fulfillment tricks as cheap motivational speech promoting the only proper way of life based on aspiring to be like everyone else, and feeling lacking and inadequate if you do not manage to become such a person. Obviously, the message is supplemented by the infinite flow of the overwhelming white noise of images emphasizing it.

My initial response to Seconds, as you might imagine, was a poignant reflection on the fragility of the carefully constructed social and ideological illusions many of us built for and around ourselves, thinking they are more or less lasting, not to mention safe. But the film is much more than that. While the former Arthur progresses into the world that should provide him with everything he ever wanted but never had the time, the courage or the freedom to pursue, to be the man he always thought he really was or could be, John Frankenheimer proposes a strikingly cinematic meditation on the nature of human identity.

Rock Hudson, still from “Seconds

This might sound clichéd and trivial, in the popular anti-establishment, anti-capitalist mode that in recent years has become a misrepresentation of its original intent, but it is not so in Frankenheimer’s presentation of the story. It was not in 1966, it is not so now. I would even risk calling it more timely and topical now than ever before. You see, Seconds was made during the time of McCarthyism and the paranoia it so methodically poisoned the United States with. It was also a sort of reaction to the ever-growing corporate culture of interchangeable ‘human resources,’ as well as to the dissatisfaction with the 50s that produced the youth revolution. That is precisely why there is an almost-tangible feeling of uncertainty pervading each and every shot of Seconds, be it a series of absurd conversations between Arthur and the people fixing him a new identity, or a party sequence during which Tony gets to feel the loneliest ever in his whole life while standing in the middle of the crowd of happy people.

The way I see it, we have not made much progress since then. The obvious parallel is the ever-growing infatuation with youth and rejuvenation via countless beauty pageants, artificial reality-shows and the media-approved imagery of how beautiful people should look like, resulting in the rapidly developing field of plastic surgery that nowadays can put Frankenheimer’s then-sci-fi concept to shame. But the real problem is the progressing fragmentation of human identity being constantly shattered with billions of worthless images, the sociopolitical changes that made 2016 a truly subversive year in recent history, and the truth, or a truth, becoming a commodity anyone can hustle according to his or her desire, never mind everybody else. You know, to achieve the success everyone seems talking about and aspiring to achieve, and have a good life. Sort of.

Frankenheimer was obviously not the only one who predicted such turn of events, but Seconds is still, after fifty years, remarkably attuned to the current reality. To the point that, just as the Arthur Hamilton in Rock Hudson’s perfectly bland interpretation, we lose sight of who we really are and what we really want. One of Seconds’ most memorable and poignant scenes depicts a group of unidentified men, let us call them ‘whatifs,’ occupying a spacious room within the organization’s premises, awaiting their turn at having their lives forever changed by receiving a chance to show who they could have been. A true achievement of staging and framing, I can compare it only with the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street when a very similar group of anonymous men and women wait for Jordan Belfort to tell them how to be successful and thus happy. Two films made almost fifty years apart, very different in so many aspects but also having so much in common; we, as a species, never learn the lesson, do we?

Still from “Seconds”

As it happens, John Frankenheimer was 35 when he made Seconds, only a couple years older than I am right now, the age when you begin to question some of the things you took for granted before, some parts of your life you never cared to analyze. This is something that you do not, or at least should not, feel in your twenties, only when you are old enough to say ‘no’ to some things you previously considered important, and be able to do at least partially honest examination of your conscience, of the things you did, achieved, or missed. I think that is one of the reasons I am so much drawn to Seconds, even if each subsequent viewing is like experiencing a disturbing nightmare anew. I am perfectly aware of that distressing voice that whispers ‘what if…?’ in your ear and lingers on callously in your head, making you think of things you would never have suspected yourself of thinking. Like, I would do things differently if I had the same mind in a younger body, for youth is wasted on the young. Right…?

What for me and many of you stays a theory, a barely audible whisper, a shadow of a doubt that could have been but never was, for Arthur Hamilton was a promise he grasped to so hard he would never let go. I have only empathy for the man and his decision, I know that under slightly different circumstances, many of which I can easily imagine, it might have been me. It is as simple as that. There certainly is an easier option, simply to bury such thoughts deep beneath with the hope of them never finding a way out to the open, but I prefer to face them head-on. And Seconds, believe me, is a perfect film to do so.

That it was done in such a memorable, visually mesmerizing way is a testament to Frankenheimer, James Wong Howe and others (screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, editor David Newhouse, art director Ted Haworth to name just a few) fully understanding the substance of the story they were telling. Beautifully lit and shot in gorgeous black-and-white, the film is thus even more unsettling. Deep focus cinematography framed with extreme wide-angle lenses mixed with normal-sized lenses and low-angle shots confront the viewer with a feeling of hysteria creeping into the protagonist’s mind. Additionally, it was shot mostly handheld and cut to the rhythm of the workings of a mind of tormented man. The list goes on, especially considering the filmmakers’ knack for experimenting with visual ideas. There is no exaggeration in saying Seconds is a wonder to look at, listen to and experience. I still cannot believe that it is not widely considered a classic, though at the same time I am a good example of a person who considers himself in love with cinema and not knowing about the film for a long time.

Rock Hudson, still from “Seconds”

All this results in an ambivalent, brutally honest, intelligent and multilayered film that perfectly suited its times and at the same time was way ahead of them, a universal masterpiece of both form and content, one of those films that make you feel, think and wonder while simultaneously telling you something about yourself and the complicated, maladjusted world that surrounds you.

I say we all owe ourselves watching such films as often as possible.

*As accurate as this statement is, a disclaimer should be made about the tricky usage of the word ‘forgotten.’ You see, many people have watched Seconds over the years that it took to update the film’s status from the poor critical reception of the 1960s into its current prominence. Nevertheless, Frankenheimer’s masterpiece is still relatively unknown to audiences worldwide, even amongst film lovers the tendency being to cherish the director’s critical successes, The Manchurian Candidate, French Connection II or Ronin, or reminisce morosely the disaster of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Frankenheimer said himself during recording his director’s commentary for Seconds’ LaserDisc edition, now also available on the best DVD and Blu-ray editions, that the film went from failure to classic without ever becoming a success.