A New, Personal Paranoia: John Frankenheimer’s Seconds

What would happen if you were presented with the possibility of starting life over at the midway point? Would you embrace it fully, shedding story and skin to take new chances? Or would guilt and regret pull you apart in your attempts to reset yourself? John Frankenheimer, in his film Seconds, examines such possibilities, subjecting Rock Hudson to a surreal body-swapping experiment with terrible, grim results. From its opening credits (directed by Saul Bass), a human face under close inspection, the screws are set and tightened fitfully with each minute.

The setup is swift. We know the situation almost immediately. A bored man, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), finds no joy in his day, daydreaming at work and trapped at home with a loving, yet stifling, family. Arthur is pulled out of his ordinary life with an offer from a (presumed) dead friend: start life over. The opportunity comes via a late-night phone call, startling his ennui. Arthur is taunted, night after night, by the absurdity of the call. His restlessness, caught in close-ups so forward they seem to be pressed into the actor’s faces (via James Wong Howe’s severely claustrophobic cinematography), weighs on all of his interactions. His wife, coming in close for an intimate moment, is shown as an unavoidable monster, lurching at Arthur’s soul. Once accepted, he’s swept away to foreign locales: a sweltering dry cleaner’s storefront, then to a butcher and once more to the dank processing plant behind. Treated like a hostage, blindfolded, he’s shuffled off, passed along, until he reaches an empty office hallway.

Seconds then takes on a Lynchian spin, subverting the commonalities of Arthur’s life (the executive boardroom, nameless office hallways) with distortions wildly amiss. Arthur receives the sales pitch, details omitted, by an unnamed man in a suit. The Old Man (Will Geer) eats a plate of fried chicken, mid-spiel, with ravenous vigor while Arthur sweats, stares. Dead meat in his hands, dead meat in the chair in front of him. The message of the slaughterhouse scene earlier, its lifeless bodies up on hooks and stamped for processing, resonates as the Colonel-esque man promises something radical. Arthur’s life could become new if he simply accepts the offer. Everything – the finances, the staging of his “death”, the soon-to-be-grieving family – would be wrapped up cleanly. Arthur still refuses, but heeds the equally mysterious tone of Mr. Ruby, a second associate, who shows Arthur a film of rape and rampage, a staged PR nightmare — a woman’s body, empty bottles, unknown substances and a spinning, twisted hallway (which, to the viewer at least, seems to be adjacent to Lynch’s Red Room) and Arthur in the midst of it all. There are too many questions to answer, too much at stake at this point, so away he goes.

The surgery transformation from slovenly banker to stunning Rock Hudson shocks, even years after its release. The cameras fixate on open flesh and sharpened knives, plunging the viewer in deep. Knowing that Frankenheimer decided to film an actual rhinoplasty instead of a staged shot makes the sequence even more bizarre. At least one cameraman feinted during the sequence, leaving its director and a skeleton crew to shoot the sequence by hand. What studio head approved this? Seconds came far before the opening shots of independent American cinema, later in the 60s, but its release surely should be considered a warning of weirder ways to come, a runner toeing the line before the gun.

A still from Joel Frankenheimer's 1966 film "Seconds."

Hudson’s new visage, carved fresh and concealed under bandages, is startling in its blankness. The imagery here is reminiscent of other famous masks in cinema, including those found in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face or Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another. Unlike those movies, however, the mask conceals Rock Hudson, certainly not a marauder or ghoul.  The shots hold a strange foreignness, Hudson’s transformation from bandaged freak to chiseled heartthrob comes in a fury of gauze, pencil marks, mirrors and salient double images. When the reveal comes, the end-product of surgery, you understand Hamilton’s shock

Reborn Tony Wilson, a successful painter, he is set free into a new life, vastly different from the former’s rigid conformity. He’s now handsome, with a beach house and a community of like-minded individuals all around him, seemingly already assembled. Life flourishes at first, filled by the mysterious woman, Nora (Salome Jens), who appears on the beachfront soon after his arrival. However, his hope for some kind of relief, some psychic subsistence he can digest, never comes. He grows uneasy with his new gig, his ambivalence steamrolling into full-bore guilt at a party. Failing to contain it, Tony loses his cool and the community turns on him. If he blows his cover, exposing his fraudulent origins, they’ll be uncovered as seconds as well. Wilson’s fear envelops everything, the camera spinning and nameless faces closing in on him – “Goddamn you!” – as he again fails to realize what’s at stake.

Freedom, or its lack of, is always the focus of Seconds. As a successful but boring banker, Hamilton had a life built to please any drone – a wife, well-furnished house and a cushy position. But he always pined for something more, the elusive allure in being someone (or even just somewhere) else, away from responsibility and reason. When presented with this chance (ignoring the true costs – someone else’s corpse, someone else’s grief, like a true white dude), he still recoils. The stereotypical hippie freedom, presented here at a wine-making orgy in the woods, causes Tony to pause, even as he’s invited into the heart of the party. Frankenheimer makes a damning case against illusionary freedoms. He has no respect for the guilt-free, thoughtless and ultimately selfish “hippie” freedoms found in the fields. The naked revelers simply ignore the actualities of the day-to-day world. Tony, still uneasy in his skin (a literal example of the cliché), can’t embrace what he’s been given.

Yet he also can’t give into the secured freedom provided to him by the Company, a new scripted life, paid for and plush. He’s haunted by the loss of his family, realizing his selfish absence must trouble them. He’s increasingly paranoid, too, in classic American fashion, fearful someone is always around the corner watching, waiting and ready to take it all back. His personhood is a sham, provided by a mysterious corporate entity, but that doesn’t mean he can’t covet it with a fierce passion. Tony doesn’t realize how indebted he is to the group, how tightly his fate is held in their hands.

All of this scheming, the dramatic reveal of conspiracy, strikes as other classics of the time, including Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Frankenheimer’s other film The Manchurian Candidate. The message here remains relevant to the modern day, too. Our most relied-upon digital services, for example, run on, let’s count: 3, 4, 5 major corporations? Lives would halt without their engineers and programmers, a delicate balance reliant on brands and drones. New opportunities and options are presented to the public everyday but are dangled overhead by just a few mammoth multinationals. Frankenheimer can see this coming, showing both the allure of the new and comfortable but also the hidden horror, the stick behind the dangling carrot. Wilson could do anything in his new life, but he’s so overwhelmed by choice he can barely accomplish anything. When he makes the wrong choice, his stunning lack of freedom becomes evident. He can do whatever he wants, as long as the choice is approved and vetted by someone else. His world, open again from drudgery with extreme technological achievement through surgery and science, has been carefully sealed off.

Given one more chance, essentially, he keeps up appearances for a time. However, his depression and complete loss of family haunts him without pause. He sneaks off the beach, finds his way to his old suburban life and reintroduces himself – Tony Wilson, friend of the deceased Arthur Hamilton —  to his former wife. She pines for her husband, however dull he may have been. He (Wilson) breaks at her willingness to remember fondly despite his (Hamilton’s) neglect, selfishness, stubbornness.

Determined, he (Wilson, again) plans another reset, going back to the company for the next start. Others are waiting as well, including his former colleague who initiated Tony’s chance at a new life. Hours, days, weeks – how long exactly? – passes silently while all of the men wait for their, uh, second second chance. When he realizes what his chance will entail it’s too late. Another fool needs a new visage, a new life. But what about their corpse? His payment suddenly becomes clear. A gurney (with a claustrophobic fisheye lens shot as Wilson is wheeled down at the hallway!) Last rites. The knives come out again as the doctor bemoans the loss of his greatest creation.

I expected Seconds to revel, like other films of the period, in potboiler Cold War anxiety. In most of those topical films, the paranoia remains firmly fixed on the ever-present Other, the Communist or unknown foreigner lurking in the dark. Here, Frankenheimer embraces the paranoia but turns it inward, drilling into the empty spiritual and psychological crises of Americans at the time. He passes out true freedom from, well, everything, to his character and then presents the consequences. Wilson’s core emptiness reveals itself, causing a total inward collapse. Up against strong foes: faceless corporate powers, the will of Others, his hero caves and fails. It’s nightmarish at its best, loudest moments and completely unsettling at its quietest, the waves always rushing back to destroy the calm.

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