Seconds (1966)

John Frankenheimer | 1hr 47min

Most citizens of the world will only get one chance to live their life according to how they envision it, but for the elite few who go under the knife at the enigmatic ‘Company’ in Seconds, rebirth into a new body and life does not need to be some intangible, far-flung dream. In this absurd, Kafkaesque nightmare, plastic surgery has advanced far enough to transplant one’s entire life, and banking executive Arthur Hamilton is the latest to take up the offer, being immensely dissatisfied with his passionless marriage, tedious office job, and estranged relationship with his grown child. What sounds like the basis of a high-concept science fiction story is effectively transformed into a psychological horror under the steady hand of John Frankenheimer, whose intrusive, distorted camerawork carves out existential musings over the source of human misery.

This eerie tone is set right from the opening credits that visually warp extreme close-ups of an unidentified man’s facial features to the ominous sound of an organ and strings, breaking them down into fragments disconnected from his vague identity. In Arthur’s everyday life too, it remains equally difficult to orientate ourselves, continuing to isolate parts of his body by tracking his face, legs, and back of his head through a subway station, though this time with a wide-angle lens that places him at the centre of a world he no longer feels part of. Time, wealth, and ennui has turned him into a solipsist, absorbed in his all-consuming self-pity and showing little regard for others, making him a prime candidate for the Company’s procedure of rebirth. All it takes is a recently deceased doppelganger to be dug up and their death staged to appear as if the client themselves has perished, effectively ‘killing’ their previous identity and creating a new one.

Eerie, extreme close-ups setting an unnerving tone over the opening credits.
Frankenheimer carries through with the extreme close-ups here too, though this time pairing them with rigid tracking shots.

The path to the Company’s hidden headquarters is itself laden with misdirection, leading Arthur to a dry cleaner, an abattoir, a truck, and eventually a misshapen hallway of patterned walls and checkered floor tiles, looking like a scene ripped straight from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Even more broadly though, it is Orson Welles’ absurdist quest for nonsensical answers in The Trial which exerts an influence here, with James Wong Howe’s deep focus photography heightening the impact of his low angles and tracking shots through bizarre set pieces to his final destination.

This journey to the Company isn’t far from the endless wandering from one location to the next in Orson Welles’ The Trial – completely Kafkaesque.
German Expressionism in the absolute madness of this distorted hallway’s warped lines.

Inside the Company’s operating theatre, the man we once knew as Arthur Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson, and the dashing Rock Hudson takes the place of the slightly older John Randolph in the role, fluently adopting his constrained mannerisms. During his recovery, mirrors surround him everywhere he goes in the facility, reflecting his freshly constructed, Frankenstein-like visage back at him before the stitches come off and he is released back into civilisation. His dreams of becoming a painter are closer than ever, and a beachside community in California becomes his new home, finally wiping his slate clean for him to embrace a new, carefree life on the other side America without the baggage of his old one.

Fantastic work in Frankenheimer’s mise-en-scène, surrounding Arthur/Tony with mirrors as he gets used to his new face.

Frankenheimer’s commitment to the metaphor of rebirth carries through to the unofficial baptism during his community’s wine festival, where our leading man finally manages to shed Arthur’s inhibitions and accept Tony’s love of life. The rigid camera movements that once set him on straight paths give way to a liberated, handheld camera, wildly cutting around the dancing nudists crushing grapes beneath their feet and Tony’s apprehensive face, isolated from the crowd. A mere few seconds though after his free-spirited love interest, Nora, pulls him into the pool of grapes, his protestations give way to laughter, accepting the joyous christening of the juices being poured over his head. The calm, romantic dissolve from his ecstatic face to the calm beach where he cradles Nora in his arms might have marked the end of a character arc for anyone else, but for Tony, bitterness and regret are ingrained deeper in his psyche than his mere surroundings.

This fast-cutting, handheld scene of baptism and rebirth is heavily juxtaposed against earlier scenes of stiff tracking shots, marking a point of a transition for Tony.
Long dissolves bleeding through a sweet but short-lived romance.

It isn’t long before we see Frankenheimer’s camera sitting on Tony’s shoulder again, intently following him through a party, and this is really our first sign that old habits are rising to the surface again. Suddenly, this community doesn’t seem so idyllic after all, with dauntingly staged shots pressing the attention of the guests in on Tony’s irresponsible behaviour. It is evident that this is not the life for him – but if his old one wasn’t either, then where else is there to go? He isn’t exactly overcome with nostalgia when he revisits his previous home in New York, but there is a wistfulness in his expression as his new face is faintly reflected against a framed picture of his old one. The conversation he has with his ‘widow’ doesn’t make it any easier either, offering an alternate perspective to which he had been obstinately blind while living as Arthur.

“I never knew what he wanted, and I don’t think he ever knew. He fought so hard for what he’d been taught to want, and when he got it, he just grew more and more confused. The silences grew longer. We never talked about it. We lived our lives in a polite, celibate truce.”

Confronting arrangements of actors as Tony’s new friends crowd around him and the camera, helped a great deal by James Wong Howe’s deep focus photography.
A wistful reflection of Tony’s face over Arthur’s photo.

Really, this path to disillusionment that she describes seems no different to the path he is on now, pursuing a dream that he never truly desired and thus never finding the fulfilment he expected. He could go on forever, taking on new faces, growing bored, and moving onto the next, but according to Frankenheimer, such is the nature of our modern, material desires for more than we have. It takes human intervention to bring these cycles of constant dissatisfaction to a close, and in its own dark way, this is what the Company seeks to fulfil.

It is a genius narrative twist which Seconds lands in its final minutes, wheeling Tony away down a corridor to the operating theatre again as we move with him in a menacing low angle, though this sterile room is not the last thing he witnesses. Instead, we see a beach much like we have seen before, though in place of lovers, we glimpse a silhouette of a father and his children walking into the distance. If this is a realisation in the last few seconds of Tony’s life of what he truly desired above all else, then it comes far too late. Just as distorted footage brought us into Seconds, so too do we leave it with this dream gradually warping into surreal oblivion, tragically slipping away from view before it even gets a chance to be born.

A glimpse of what Tony truly wanted all along? Perhaps, but it quickly warps into oblivion before he even gets the chance to grasp it.

Seconds is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.


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