CAPSULE: SECONDS (1966)

DIRECTED BY: John Frankenheimer

FEATURING: Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Will Geer, Jeff Corey, Murray Hamilton, Frank Campanella, Salome Jens

PLOT:  A middle-aged businessman in midlife crisis gets a second chance at life—but it comes at a steep price, and there’s a morbid catch.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Seconds offers us a unique, unusual plot, one that will really stick in your memory. You’ll carry the story and its lesson for the rest of your life because it directly treats concepts that nearly everybody can, or knows they eventually will relate to:  growing old, midlife crisis, looking back and wondering if we made the right choices, and ruefully contemplating the what-might-have-beens. What can we be doing now to make sure we don’t have regrets? Despite the dramatic, hard-hitting effect the writers and director bring to these concepts, however, Seconds is a straightforward, conventional film.  The story is offbeat as hell, but the movie isn’t weird.

COMMENTS:  Dramatic and disturbing, Seconds is a dark, brooding predecessor to middle-class America mid-life crisis films such as the blackly-comic Middle Age Crazy (1980) or the light-hearted and less substantial This Is 40 (2012). Yet, while those films allow us to laugh off the grim prospects of getting older, Seconds grinds on us and strikes a nerve.

Wealthy banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) has it all. He went to the right Ivy League school, joined all the right fraternal organizations, and married the right woman. Yet, at middle-age, something’s missing.

In Sinclair Lewis’s classic novel “Babbitt,” the book’s namesake awakens each morning from a blissful dream of being a carefree youth cozying up to an enigmatic and beautiful girl to greet the dread of reality: a frumpy wife, his own greying countenance, and the unsatisfying banality of another tedious workday. Like Babbitt, Arthur Hamilton feels frustrated and empty. Maybe it’s because Arthur looks like an aging John Randolph. Or could it be because at middle age, Arthur isn’t so sure that the life he toiled away for is the one he really wants?

It’s hard to imagine that it is. Arthur is clearly bored and bothered. Even more telling, Arthur and his wife don’t sleep together anymore. The Hayes code hold-over separate beds don’t help the romance.

And Hamilton is beyond staunch; he’s gosh-darned uptight. Racked with tension, beaded with sweat, coiled up, we want to hand him a Hawaiian shirt, a Mai-Tai, and tell him to loosen up.

We’re not alone.  Someone from Arthur’s past also has him sized up as a walking time-bomb of seething non-fulfillment.

A mysterious phone call from a dead school chum (Murray Hamilton) breaks the routine. After the phone call Hamilton receives a mysterious address, at which he arrives after following a chain of clues. Arthur Hamilton’s life is about to change.

In return for his life insurance payout and a hefty chunk of his sizable estate, Hamilton joins a secret society—one which, after months of super-nutrition, exercise, hair restoration, testosterone therapy, and state of the art plastic surgery, transforms him into—wait for it … wait for it …  young, virile, ROCK HUDSON!

And that’s not all. Under hypnosis, Arthur learns that what he really wanted to do in life was to be an artist. The organization he’s joined has that base covered, too. They relocate Arthur to a swank new beginning in Malibu as a swinging bachelor and painter. What more could any unsatisfied, 50-ish starched-shirt wish for?

There’s just one catch: Arthur can never go back. What’s more, having had his death faked for the insurance money to bankroll all of this, Arthur had better keep his big mouth shut. Will he be able to make a go of it and let sleeping dogs lie? Or will Edgar Allen Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse” compel Arthur to meddle in his past life?

We suspect the latter, or Seconds would be a 30-minute movie. Just how and why Arthur Hamilton can’t find happiness in his new circumstances, the way he’s haunted by a contrary drive to correct his past mistakes, and what Hamilton learns about himself when he endeavors in this foolish attempt makes Seconds as insightful a commentary about human nature as it is an engaging thriller.

There’s more to it than that, however. It isn’t just that Hamilton learns something about himself. We learn something about ourselves, too. What sets Seconds apart from a run-of-the-mill sci-fi story is that it leads us into existential pondering. Seconds makes us look at ourselves and contemplate our own lives. We’re challenged to question our attitudes and assumptions: how we define ourselves, what we want out of life. Is doing what others expect of us as important as being happy? Are we happy? How do we know? What does it mean to be truly free? If we find freedom, are we really as liberated as we think, or does making a given set of choices in lieu of others merely enable us to exchange one set of constraints for another?

SECONSD3  450Cinematographer James Wong Howe’s cinematography is effective and artful. Shots are carefully composed and feature close attention to dramatic design elements which subtly relate to the story content, such as the succession of  razor blade-shaped illumination panels at the film’s climax. Claustrophobic close-ups force us to experience Arthur’s dream-turned-nightmare not as bystanders, but as if we’re living it through Arthur’s own eyes.

Director John Frankenheimer is typically skillful and effective in his almost surgically precise execution of the production. Sequentially faithful to David Ely’s carefully crafted novel, the film  incorporates backstory exposition into Hamilton’s current actions. Slick editing and good pacing speed us through each shot at a fast clip; there’s no wasted dialogue, things never drag. The chronology of scenes springs off the screen. We’re surprised, appalled, and committed to seeing what will happen next and how it will all end up. The result is a tight presentation of an offbeat plot idea which makes us guess and think all the way to the final-frame climax, in which we discover that the title term “Seconds” has a cryptic, dual meaning beyond its connotation of “second chances.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Seconds mangles and distends the windows of perception until viewers get immersed in [Arthur’s] sweat-soaked nightmare.”–Scott Tobias, The Dissolve (DVD)

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