A Second Life for Seconds, the 1966 Cult Classic That Made Audiences Sick

John Frankenheimer's would-be blockbuster was booed at Cannes and failed commercially, but its twisted tale of a mid-life crisis was ahead of its time.
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Gibraltar Productions; Joel Productions; John Frankenheimer Productions Inc.

The release of Blu-Ray and DVD restorations of John Frankenheimer's film Seconds in the Criterion Collection is long-awaited justice for an obscure masterpiece.

Seconds is different from most "cult" films. The director was still young but at the height of his fame, having made the political thrillers Manchurian CandidateSeven Days in May, and The Train, each with Academy Award-nominated work. The cinematographer, James Wong Howe, was one of Hollywood's most original directors of photography. Rock Hudson, cast against his usual light-romantic type, gave an often strikingly intense performance (requiring professional football players hired as extras to hold him on a gurney). The score from Oscar-nominated rising star Jerry Goldsmith was eerily apt. Sets blended with striking and sometimes bizarre location shots, including an actual slaughterhouse that advertised itself as a "used cow dealer." (The experience turned Frankenheimer off steaks for a long time, he tells us in the running commentary.)

In other words, it was a mainstream Hollywood product with every prospect of making money.

For all this, as Frankenheimer puts it, Seconds went from failure to classic without ever becoming a success.  One reason was the casting. As the Criterion extras make clear, art-house audiences seeking European-style existentialist or expressionist film were unprepared for Rock Hudson, while Hudson's fans didn't want probing philosophy.

In the film, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a bored, 50-year-old New York banker in a loveless marriage who is persuaded, and coerced, by a mysterious organization to assume the identity of the artist Antiochus Wilson (Hudson) after extensive plastic surgery and a faked death. (The Mephistopholean organization is represented to perfection by Jeff Corey as "Mr. Ruby," a high-pressure salesman alternating blandishment and threats, and Will Geer as the kindly and homespun but ruthless founder.) Resettled in Malibu, California, he appears to find true love with Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) until a crisis gives him second thoughts about his decision. His attempt to go back leads to a stunning revelation and conclusion.

The emptiness of suburban materialism and the middle-aged male crisis were hardly new ideas in 1966, but they're expressed by Seconds in original ways.  As Emily Hamilton (Frances Reid) tells "Wilson," when he visits in his new identity late in the film, posing as a friend: "He fought for what he was taught to want, and once he had it, he didn't know what to do with it." 

Viewers in 1966 weren't ready for early 21st century technology. Frankenheimer shot an actual plastic surgeon performing a nose operation, and even members of his own crew fainted at the sight of blood.

Seconds may have been poorly received in the 1960s because it was so far ahead of its time. The title sequence by Saul Bass (which used a flexible polished-metal mirror), and James Wong Howe's 9.7 and 18 mm wide angle lenses, accomplished effects in analog black and white that can stand up to today's best computer-based work. Actors wore harnesses that achieved a look similar to later Steadicams. Social engineering accomplished what software might do later. To film in Grand Central Terminal, Frankenheimer created a fake unit featuring a Playboy Bunny to draw commuters' attention from the real action.

Viewers in 1966 weren't ready for early 21st century technology. Frankenheimer shot an actual plastic surgeon performing a nose operation, and even members of his own crew fainted at the sight of blood. Many initial audience members, too, were physically ill, and the film was actually booed at the Cannes Film Festival. Of course surgical rejuvenation is so routine today that a standing joke of South Park is the existence of a shop called "Tom's Rhinoplasty."

Identity theft, likewise, was still an almost unknown concept in the 1960s, but in Seconds it's clear that there was a real, modestly successful artist named Antiochus Wilson; Hamilton's surgical makeover is accurate enough to fool a longtime friend of the real Wilson who accosts him in an airport. Today there are services in Japan called yonigeya ("fly-by-night arrangers") that create new personas for those fleeing loan sharks and abusive spouses. (To my knowledge, they don't have staff surgeons or "cadaver procurement departments" like those in Seconds.)

Seconds was advanced in yet another way: It was a paranoid film about the appropriation and transformation of the body by sinister authority figures. In Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1972) each body was that of a young married woman, and the villains were not only their respective husbands but obstetricians and a dentist in the first, and an engineering entrepreneur in the second. Unlike The Exorcist (1973), these and Seconds are deeply horrific in their appeal to the imagination, and all three are shot with dark humor.

Another way in which technology has been on the side of Seconds is in the reproduction itself, especially in rendering depth of field and sometimes-excruciating facial closeups.  In home theater, Blu-Ray does the creators justice for the first time. Part science fiction, part thriller, part horror, part film noir, part black comedy (watch for the crispy chicken scene), Seconds is a period piece that is more contemporary than ever.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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