I’ve been trying to get back into the very healthy habit of watching as many films as I possibly can. I have watched a ton of Italian crime films from the 1970s, a genre known as poliziottesco, and I’ll have a longer post about those sometime this month. But for now I just wanted to get a quick post out about a Criterion Blu-ray I picked up a while ago, but just got around to watching for the first time: John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966). One of the things that immediately struck me even before watching the film was the short essay about the film, “Reborn Again,” that was included as part of the packaging. What struck me immediately was that it was written by professor and film critic David Sterrit whom just so happened to live in my neighborhood in Baldwin, Long Island during the late 70s and early 80s.
Baldwin is a suburb of New York City that, interestingly enough, is not entirely unlike the one the main character in Seconds was trapped, but instead of Grand Central it’s Penn Station or the Long Island Railroad versus Metro North. I hung out with his sons for a while, and I remember his office was in the basement of their house—right across from the 1st Precinct police station. I played Lode Runner for the first time on their Commodore 64, probably the same machine he used to write film reviews and quite possibly one of his many, many books about film. Strange how close the late 70s and early 80s seems to the setting of Seconds when looking back from/with 2020. The film is a total treat, and as Sterrit suggests, rather than focusing on the youthful optimism of the decade, Frankenheimer focuses on…
…the decade’s darker side—the sour aftertaste of McCarthyism, the expanding military-industrial complex, the growing sense that technology might be controlling us instead of the other way around.
The last bit resonates for many, I’m sure, but the aftertaste of McCarthyism is baked into the film in some interesting ways. For example, the first of the two actors that play Wilson, namely John Randolph, had been black listed as part of the Red Scare running rampant in the entertainment industry. Seconds would be his first film role in almost 20 years—the film is all about second chances on and off the screen. So Frankenheimer’s casting was a political act in and of itself that makes the content of the film that much richer.
But it might help at this point to provide a quick plot summary, can you help me Wikipedia? Keep in mind, if you haven’t seen the film yet there is a bit of a spoiler below:
Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a middle-aged man whose life has lost purpose. He has achieved success, but finds it unfulfilling. His love for his wife has dwindled and he seldom sees his only child. Through a friend, Charlie, whom he thought was dead, Hamilton is approached by a secret organization, known simply as the “Company”, which offers him a new life. He ruminates on the proposition as he rides a commuter train on his way home. His wife meets him as he arrives home, but it is apparent that he is alienated from her.
Hamilton arrives at a meat-packing plant for a meeting. He is given workman overalls and hat, then exits the facility by a different door and is seated inside a truck that takes him to another building. He disappears into a large complex filled with dark, empty hallways, where he awaits his transformation. The Company gives Hamilton the body of a young man (Hudson) through plastic surgery, and a new identity, namely “Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson.” He later discovers this identity has been taken from someone who recently died.
He is resettled into a community filled with people like him who are “reborns.” Eventually, Hamilton decides the new life is not what he wants. He contacts the Company, letting them know he wants a different identity, and they agree, taking him back to wait for his new identity. There, he meets Charlie, who has also wished to go under yet another “rebirth.” Charlie is chosen and walked away from the waiting room. Later during the night, the owner of the Company discusses his original purpose for founding the organization, and assures Hamilton that the issues he has brought up will be looked into. Hamilton realizes as he is wheeled into the operating room, before being sedated, that he is to be killed. His body will be used as the catalyst (corpse) for a new patient to be reborn. The film ends with the camera panning up to a surgical light as a drill is brought down: as he loses consciousness, he has a memory of two figures walking along a beach; the image distorts and loses resolution.
Seconds is referred to as the third and final installation of Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy – the other two being The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). Paranoia films would become a full blown genre in the 70s with classics such as The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), and The Conversation (1974) to name a few, but Seconds has a lot more in common with the TV roots of the genre, namely The Twilight Zone, than most of the Hollywood takes to follow. From the sets to filming in black and white to quoting Twilight Zone’s “Eye of the Beholder” with an elaborate bandage unveiling—many parts of the film read like an homage to Rod Serling.
The film plays like a prolonged Twilight Zone episode, but with pointed cultural commentary that was reminiscent of Serling’s Patterns (1955), particularly when Wilson finds himself in the wood-paneled corner office awaiting his appointment.
But the most compelling scenes for me were the ones that were cut from film when it was released in theaters, namely the 9 minutes featuring the hippie wine-making festival.
They were cut from the theatrical release due to nudity, but the real insanity for me was the psychedelic footage suestive of a bacchanalian orgy wherein our protagonist is meant to be liberated by this alternative lifestyle, only to find he is simply being duped by a manufactured movement that is an elaborate corporate distraction. Frankenheimer’s film can be read as a full frontal attack on the burgeoning hippie movement suggesting how empty the selfish pursuit of fulfillment at the expense of engagement truly is. Interestingly enough, Frankenheimer has noted that the cutting of he scene required by the film commission made it play more erotically:
Paradoxically, by shortening and deleting shots, the festival sequence picked up a sexual energy. “The result was that it looked like an orgy, but it wasn’t supposed to be and I didn’t shoot it that way,” Frankenheimer told Champlin. “The irony is that it was much more innocent in my version than in the one you see after the Code guys got through with it.
According to the above linked article Frankenheimer jumped in the wine vat to film the non-actor revelers in his underwear, which were quickly torn off:
After realizing the emptiness of his pursuit as a hippie artist in Malibu Wilson wants a re-do. But the company does no do refunds, and can not afford loose ends. You either have to bring someone else into the Panzi scheme to warrant another chance (or maybe just buy some time). But in the end, here are no real second chances. The final scene has a very Twilight Zone-esque twist wherein the misguided longings and selfish motivations of the individual crash headlong into the relentless capital machinery of shareholders and profits. The companies titular head plays powerless in the face of his client, and his jocular way almost convinces Wilson and the viewer everything will be all right … almost.
It’s a compelling film on many levels, and legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe’s photography provides a real distinctive element that adds depth and texture to the sense of surreal paranoia pervading the whole film. If you find yourself looking or something to watch, I highly recommend it, and the Criteion Blu-ray gives you the added bonus of Frankenheimer’s commentary.