Seconds ★★★★★

John Frankenheimer was at the peak of his career when he directed Seconds. He had broken through into feature film in the late 1950s after a successful stint in live television and in the years 1962 to 1966 established himself as one of the most distinctive and important of new American directors. However, his unbroken run of critical and popular hits ended with Seconds. Despite the film being decidedly experimental in style, premise and narrative, all concerned with it thought they had something special. Indeed, the studio even reportedly pulled strings in order to make the film the official American entry at the Cannes Film Festival that year. The film’s problems began at Cannes, where it was vociferously attacked partly out of resentment for what many considered its inhumanity. The studio was finally uncertain of how to release it but it crept through nonetheless. Although it starred Rock Hudson, then also at the height of his box-office stardom, it was a vast departure from his usual type of material and his core fans stayed away. Conversely, director Frankenheimer would later postulate that the type of people interested in the subject matter also stayed away, but ironically because of Hudson’s presence. Indeed, much of the film’s cult interest now stems from Hudson’s work, in a role initially proposed to Laurence Olivier and what would prove to be undoubtedly the most daring part of his career.

Seconds begins abruptly, with a middle-aged banker (John Randolph) followed in a train station and given a piece of paper with an address on it. At home he gets a phone call from someone purporting to be a recently dead friend. The distraught Randolph is disinterested in his wife and the next day goes in search of the address. Finding it, he is led to a mysterious organization known simply as “the company” where he is told of an opportunity to give him a new start on life, a second chance to do it right, but this time in a whole new body, complete with fake identity. After some deliberation, he is convinced (almost blackmailed) to participate by a grandfatherly and seemingly benign man (Will Geer). After the procedure, he awakens in a new body (and is now played by Rock Hudson). He is given a new identity – that of a successful painter – based on interviews taken with him when he was seemingly drugged. In a new beachside home, he slowly adjusts to his second existence, aided by a servant from “the company”. However, he is reluctant to participate in events around him and is remote until he meets a woman (Salome Jens) who initiates him into a hedonistic community. During a Bacchanal wine festival, Hudson finally loses his inhibitions and welcomes his newfound freedom. However, during a subsequent party in which he gets introspectively drunk, he begins to guiltily doubt himself and soon wonders about his wife.

Seconds is as dazzling and unique as Frankenheimer’s acknowledged masterwork The Manchurian Candidate. It is a nightmarish examination of the inescapability of one’s own nature, suggesting that a life lived and all that the personality has accumulated during such cannot be suppressed. The effort to live life again is thus doomed to failure by design, as much as it is a product of middle aged delusion in the youthful upheaval of the 1960s. As much as Randolph desires a new life, he cannot escape the feeling that his life as Hudson is also a put-on and that ultimately he too must somehow start again. The bleak sadness in this film comes from its realization that a sad, passionless and unfulfilled life will never be more than that. What people experience in life determines who they are, and the idealized notion of a second chance to do things differently is nothing more than a dangerous false hope. Middle aged discontent over a failed life is all there is left these men, and in reaction to it they have succumbed to a mad challenge to the designs of nature and God. The irony is deeper in that this sacrilegious defiance is the basis for a fully functioning, illicit corporation: as if to suggest that corporate Capitalism is itself a challenge to the natural order. The tragedy of the 1960s is thus that of an ageing generation forced to confront the banal failure of their values and the impossibility of their desire to do it all again.

There is no salvation in this film, no respite from pitiful disillusionment. In this world, the grandfatherly Geer, patriarchal head of the “company”, is a Mephistophelian monster and what Hudson realizes too late is that he is no longer in charge of his own destiny; that his second chance is a fabrication. But rather than admit that he cannot put his own past behind him, he believes that he just needs yet another chance, in a different body. The horror thus comes from this simultaneous desire to flee from one’s own identity coupled with the attempt to suppress the knowledge that this is impossible. Futile, it makes for a resounding sense of desolation. Just as the film explores the transition from a life of rigid longing to another of potentially limitless indulgence, so does it suggest that the individual identity cannot ultimately be re-defined and will re-assert itself. The promises of sensorial and social liberation and of being suddenly rid of one’s responsibilities prove illusory as Hudson cannot free himself from the real burden, his own sense of self. Guilt and regret eventually consume this man, leading him into a false sense of pride, a delusional belief that he can manipulate “the company” and regain control of his own destiny. This is the lament of middle-age, the effort to regain control of a life slipping inexorably into despair. In trying to regain control by repeatedly redefining himself, Randolph/Hudson only loses his humanity.