Long before Davids Cronenberg and Lynch made the bizarre their normal, Hollywood heavyweight John Frankenheimer made one of the most fascinatingly surreal genre-bending movies of all-time. The film is Seconds, released in 1966 to little fanfare and much confusion, in which an old man (John Randolph) decides to escape from his old life and use a radical medical procedure to become a young man (Rock Hudson) with a fresh young life.
The plot sounds relatively simple, like something that would be used for a 30 minute TV show like The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt (both of which did offer episodes with similar ideas), bur Frankenheimer finds more than enough content to fill this full-length film with bizarre imagery and thought-provoking plot turns. The film teeters on the edge a few times, and it's easy to see why some viewers lose interest in the fluid narrative of the film, but each time I see it I feel more in tune with Frankenheimer's loopy sci-fi odyssey.
The film opens with the life of Arthur Hamilton, played by Randolph, and quickly makes the viewer feel unease about this man's life without really telling us much. The camera follows him through mundane daily activities and uninteresting conversations with his aging wife, but also dangles a carrot of intrigue in front of him. Hamilton has been receiving late night phone calls from an old friend named Charlie, urging him to visit a secret medical organization which will help him start his life over. It sounds too good to be true, but Hamilton has reason to believe something is going on there, because he has known for sometime that Charlie is dead.
Hamilton makes up his mind rather quickly, which leads him to this company and leads the film into some haunting sequences which challenge the morality of his decision. Some of these are done visually, like a creepy sequence where a seemingly drugged Hamilton enters a room with a young woman in a bed, but others draw their power from the script. One of the best sequences in the film sits Hamilton in the middle of a room and lets a series of employees talk to him about the decision he's making, starting with an insurance man (who manages to say "The question of death selection may be the most important decision in your life." with a straight face) and leading to a devilish old man who seems to literally talk Hamilton into killing himself. Of course, this kind of suicide promises a second chance, but the words of this old man come off as a rather ominous sign of trouble ahead.
Hamilton goes forth with the procedure, assisted further by a bit of blackmail that makes it impossible for him to turn back, and is reborn as Tony Wilson, who is played by Hollywood star Rock Hudson. Hudson was far from being Frankenheimer's top choice for the film, and I too have often thought of him as an actor with less range than some of his contemporaries, but Hudson certainly brings his best to this role. From day one of his new life we can tell that there are some second thoughts, and even a relationship with a young woman doesn't seem to satisfy all of his expectations about being young again. Wilson also ends up finding himself in some strange social situations that become chaotic on screen, which I've often read as a statement about dropping the seemingly introverted Hamilton into an extroverted world as Wilson. Hudson does an excellent job of showing us the unease that occurs in this character as he comes to recognize regrets about his choice, which leads the film back to the company for an unforgettably chilling final act.
From the opening titles - a montage of extreme close-up images put together by the legendary Saul Bass that reminds me of his opening titles for Vertigo - it is obvious that Frankenheimer does not want to viewer to be comfortable watching this character (or is it these characters?) and one of my favorite things about the film is that the camera always seems to be doing something I call "fishbowling" to the characters. You know how when you look at a goldfish in a bowl it either looks really far away or really close to you and huge, depending on the angle you look through the glass? Well, that's how Frankenheimer and cinematographer James Wong Howe - who would receive an Oscar nomination for the film - make Seconds look. There are a lot of shots that are far too close to the character's face, but they're offset with moments where the camera just seems to be lingering at an angle in the opposite corner of a room or hallway. The altered perspective that comes from the camera's eye adds a lot to the mysterious intrigue of the film.
Seconds tries to succeed on a lot of levels - it's a sci-fi film, it's a horror film, it's a parable about life and death - and it is at least interesting in each of these domains. When the solid lead performances (which are buoyed by supporting turns by actors like Jaws' Murray Hamilton and Will Geer as the previously mentioned Old Man) mix with the haunting visual style, the result is a film that will certainly get viewers thinking. Considering its age, Seconds seems like one of the first great cult cinema mindbenders, and it's still worth revisiting as one of the finest nightmares on film I've ever seen.