Rachel Bellwoar reviews Seconds by Jez Conolly and Emma Westwood…
Seconds isn’t the first film to create suspense around the appearance of a person whose face is covered in bandages. The Invisible Man did it. So did Eyes Without a Face and Dark Passage. Never are these films content to let the bandages stay on, either. There always has to be that reveal moment and in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds that reveal is that Arthur Hamilton has become a different person.
While there are other ways Frankenheimer could’ve gotten that point across, having Arthur Hamilton go from being played by John Randolph to Rock Hudson, in the post-surgery scenes, definitely does the trick. That’s not how it was originally planned, though, and just one of the insights to be gained from reading Jez Conolly and Emma Westwood’s new book is that Arthur Hamilton and Tony Wilson were supposed to be played by the same actor (Kirk Douglas) using make-up, like Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
But what is Seconds? Seconds is a film about a man who agrees to undergo plastic surgery so he can start life over as a different person. “Agrees” might be the wrong word, since the Company doesn’t really accept “no” for an answer, but basically, they’ve come up with this revolutionary plastic surgery procedure which, in conjunction with faking their clients’ death (which is all part of the package), allows them to start over under a new name that the Company also provides.
Maybe special effects makeup would’ve helped make this transformation easier for audiences in the 60’s to swallow (and, certainly, in its time the film was not well-received by critics or at the box office), but it’s the challenge offered by being asked to believe Randolph and Hudson are playing the same person, and that medical science could pull off such a feat, that makes Seconds such a great candidate for Auteur’s Constellations series. Each book in the series is meant to provide critical analysis on a seminal sci-fi film (or the occasional sci-fi TV show).
As co-authors, Conolly and Westwood’s writing is seamless. Instead of going back and forth or trying to claim authorship of different sections, they completely bypass ego and share credit for everything. Even a quote from an interview they did with Salome Jens, who played Wilson’s love interest, Nora, ends with the credit, “interview with co-author,” instead of specifying which one.
Conolly and Westwood’s Seconds isn’t meant to be a definitive history of the production of Seconds and what went on behind the scenes, but it can offer readers new ways of looking at the film. In one chapter, Conolly and Westwood draw attention to the language used and some of the artwork that appears in the movie, in light of Wilson’s chosen career, and when you watch the film again after finishing the book you can really appreciate how closely Conolly and Westwood had to look at Seconds to pick up on these aspects.
Anyone might think to compare Seconds to the other two films in Frankenheimer’s Paranoia trilogy (The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May), but Conolly and Westwood’s love for cinema shines through in their other picks for contemporaneous films to watch – like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Case for a Rookie Hangman.
Conolly and Westwood also fill in some of the gaps in Lewis John Carlino’s screenplay by returning to David Ely’s source novel of the same name; show appreciation for James Wong Howe’s cinematography and Frankenheimer’s use of real locations; and consider why projects similar to Seconds (like Mad Men and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment) have been more successful.
Seconds is available now from Liverpool University Press.