MovieSteve rating:
Your star rating:

John Frankenheimer’s Seconds could almost serve as an emotional template for Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, made two years later in 1968, though Frankenheimer is working in black and white and brings much more of the live TV aesthetic to bear on his cool, highly influential horror movie – Face/Off, Total Recall and The Wicker Man also owe it a debt, and both Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon Ho are big fans.

Seconds is the third, confusingly, in Frankenheimer’s so-called Paranoia Trilogy (after 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate and 1964’s Seven Days in May) and its Saul Bass opening titles neatly sum up what’s to come – distorted giant faces in extreme close-up fill the screen while an angular church organ vamps gothically away on the soundtrack.

Frankenheimer gives us more of the same in opening scenes set at a railway station and done, guerrilla style, with a camera very low down moving through the concourse, or pointing straight into the face of a mystery man as he heads for a train.

It’s Arthur Hamilton, a reasonably successful New York banker whose boring humdrum life drives him into the hands of “The Company”, a shadowy organisation which will, for a considerable price, fake a man’s death and engineer him a new identity. Arthur has soon bitten the bullet, gone under the cosmetic surgeon’s knife and has become Antiochus (“Tony”) Wilson, and actor John Randolph, who plays Hamilton, has been replaced by Rock Hudson, who plays Wilson, an artist living the bohemian life on the West Coast.

It is all superbly sinister, thanks in large part to James Wong Howe’s remarkable camera and lighting set-ups, all unusual angles, wide lenses and images that are either too close, out of focus or both, suggesting first the hothousing atmosphere at The Company, where Hamilton is gently strongarmed into taking the company’s offer, and later the increasing disaffection of Tony for his new life.

A distorted corridor, thank to James Wong Howe's remarkable cinematography
Master cinematographer James Wong Howe does his thing

What happens if you get everything you always wanted? The answer, in this film, is that you start to hanker for what you used to have, and in some of the film’s best scenes successful but still unfulfilled Tony gets hideously drunk at a cocktail party and starts spilling the beans on who he really is, unaware that the Company has a spy in every camp.

It is crackingly good, but at its best in the opening and closing sections, when Frankenheimer and Howe give us paranoia at various intensities. In between there’s a long central section where Tony comes to terms with his new character and his life on the coast in California, where, among other things, proto-hippies bang tambourines, skip about and take off their clothes (this is The Wicker Man bit) at a wine festival.

In all frankness, there is a bit too much of this “development” stuff, and the film threatens to grind to a halt in the middle section until eventually Tony starts losing his shit and the Company step in to re-assert control. Seconds bounces back to life.

The casting is great. John Randolph as Hamilton, Salome Jens as a sexy hippie Tony meets on the beach and who becomes his woman, Wesley Addy as Tony’s manservant (and obvious Company plant), Will Geer as the unblinking founder of the Company, a super-salesman billed only as the Old Man whose affable homilies clearly cloak something much more sinister. If you only know Geer from The Waltons, and he so often played variations on the cosy grandpa, stand back and marvel.

Hudson is good too. His looks suit the part. Ten years younger than John Randolph and gym-toned, he’s also attuned to Hamilton/Wilson’s essential problem – a man who hubristically thinks he knows it all but in fact he just knows the life he had. Hamilton/Wilson has erred in thinking he can simply buy his way to something new. Consumerism has its limits.

If you’re going to watch, the Criterion version (linked to below) is the way to go. It was restored in 2013 and though it has too much artificial grain (the bane of many an otherwise decent restoration), the picture is good and sharp, and high in contrast just the way Frankenheimer and Howe wanted.

Seconds – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2023

Leave a Comment