Directed by John Frankenheimer.
Starring Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, Will Geer, John Randolph, Jeff Corey, Richard Anderson and Murray Hamilton.
An unhappy middle-aged man is offered a second chance at life by a mysterious organisation.
We all wish we had second chances. Whether it be for a single terrible day or for our whole life, we all wish we could go back to square one and start again. This brings me to the subject of today’s review, John Frankenheimer’s sci-fi psychological horror Seconds, a bleak look at how, when granted, that second chance might not be the glorious rebirth we hope for.
The story for Seconds can best be described as something of a Twilight Zone-esque cautionary tale. A middle-aged man, Arthur Hamilton, lives a comfortable but uneventful life. He has everything a man could ask for; a good job, a big house and a loving wife. Yet, he’s miserable. Upon being given the chance of a “Rebirth”, Hamilton accepts and is given a new life, a new face and a new name; Tony Wilson. Yet, after an initial burst of excitement, he finds that he’s miserable again, culminating in a disturbing climax that suggests we should be grateful for the lives we have.
The story is chilling, reeling us in with a slow reveal that teases us with bits and pieces while never quite showing us the whole picture. This is especially prevalent when it comes to “The Company”, a mysterious and sinister organisation that seeks to “help” people find a new sense of purpose, often via blackmail and subtle, cruel emotional manipulation. Hamilton doesn’t even seem to want to go through Rebirth initially, only agreeing to the process after a spot of blackmail and a cold reminder about just how sad and empty his life truly is.
Seconds might not be the scariest film ever made, yet it possesses an uncomfortable atmosphere that will leave you with a sinking queasy feeling. This uneasiness is perfectly established by the nightmarish opening credits by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass which show a face being warped and distorted as Jerry Goldsmiths’ sinister organ-heavy score bombards your ears with sharp blaring chords.
The stand-out quality of the film is the Oscar-nominated black and white cinematography by James Wong Howe, a legend of the craft. The visual style is superb, full of unusual camera angles and placements. We have over-the-shoulder shots that look as if the camera is strapped to the actors’ backs. Smooth tracking shots following the characters room to room and creative, unnerving use of handheld camera work for those up claustrophobic, up close and personal moments. I especially loved the low-angle tracking shots in which the camera seems to have been placed in a pull suitcase, giving these sequences the impression that they had been filmed covertly.
At the heart of the film is Rock Hudson is a complex role he took in a deliberate attempt to break his typecasting as a romantic comedy star. Hudson, as the reborn Hamilton, now going by Wilson, gives a terrific and nuanced performance as a reborn man struggling to adjust to his new, unfamiliar self. When confronted with his reconstructed face, Hudson’s reaction is masterful, expressing a silent shock as tears fall from his eyes, conveying a myriad of emotions without saying a word. It’s a superb performance full of tragic pathos that is one of Hudson’s best and, sadly, among his most overlooked.
Praise should also go to John Randolph as Hamilton, perfectly portraying a pitiful man with everything he could want in life yet feels nothing but misery. A sequence in which he accepts the offer to be reborn is a highlight, his initial reluctance gradually breaking down into a pitiful admission of just how purposeless his life has become. I was particularly moved when he laments about how he and his wife “hardly ever quarrel”, the simple phrase telling us everything we need to know while saying very little. It’s a masterfully understated turn that brilliantly blends and complements Hudson’s performance in what is essentially the same role.
The supporting cast is also great, the stand out being Will Greer as “The Old Man”, the mysterious Southern-accented founder of The Company whose seemingly friendly demeanour masks a creepy, sinister manipulator. The scene in which Greer gradually chips away at Hamilton’s resistance to Rebirth is a masterclass in subtle malice, his courteous manner and habit of calling Hamilton “Son” being deeply unnerving.
If there are any issues with Seconds, it’s in the second act. The first act, which introduces The Company and the Rebirth process, is terrific, full of mystery, intrigue, a creepy build-up to scenes of plastic surgery (featuring actual footage of a rhinoplasty) and Rock Hudson’s entry into the film. However, once Hudson arrives in California, the film loses its momentum as we see him struggle to adjust to his new world.
The visuals and acting are still great throughout, but I struggled to stay engaged as the pace slowed to a crawl and rendered proceedings somewhat dull. However, things pick up once more as Hudson blows his cover and ventures to New York to see his former wife, culminating in a nightmare-inducing final scene in which the Company inflicts its punishment on those who ask for a second Rebirth.
While it sags in the middle, Hudson, Hamilton and Greer’s engaging performances, the disturbing story, creepy atmosphere, and hauntingly beautiful cinematography allow Seconds to stand out as one of the most original and unsettling sci-fi/horror films of its era.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★