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."
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.