“Think, for Pete’s sake. What have you got now?”
Goethe’s Faust (1808) is the Ur-parable about cutting a deal with the devil for eternal youth. The cautionary tale inspired philosophers (Schopenhauer and Nietzsche), artists (Delacroix and Duchamp), composers (Gounod, Busoni, and Frank Loesser), writers (Oscar Wilde, Thomas Mann, and Alfred Jarry), and filmmakers (Murnau and Istvan Szabo). Faust also served as a springboard for one of the signature films of the 1960s, John Frankenheimer’s harrowing Seconds.
Considered part of the “paranoia trilogy” of films Frankenheimer directed between 1962 and 1966, along with the original Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, Seconds is notable not only for its disturbing subject matter, but because it cast Rock Hudson against type, in stark contrast to the romantic comedies he made with Doris Day and for which he is best known.
At the urging of the film’s producer, Hudson’s agent approached Frankenheimer and suggested that the actor would be perfect playing the part of troubled Antiochus “Tony” Wilson. Frankenheimer recalled:
I said to this agent, ‘Well, you know, I just don’t see how you can say that. How would he do it?’ And the guy said, ‘Well, look, don’t you think you owe him the respect of meeting and talking to him about it, because of who he is?’ So kind of grudgingly I said alright.
If you look at it, he (Hudson) was kind of an invented personality, wasn’t he? And he identified with this guy, the fact if you destroy your past then you’re nothing, you can’t function. And he had to, to become Rock Hudson, had to really destroy his past.
Seconds defies categorization. It was based on a novel by sci-fi writer David Ely and marketed as such, but it could have been sold as a horror flick, a psychological thriller, or an inverted, Candide-like Pilgrim’s Progress. But with a foreboding title sequence by Saul Bass; expressionistic sets by Ted Haworth; a spooky, minimalist score by Jerry Goldsmith; and black-and-white cinematography by legendary James Wong Howe, who used extreme close-ups, handheld cameras, first-person point-of-view, and fisheye lenses to chilling effect — Seconds busted genres as assuredly as it compelled filmgoers at Cannes, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or in 1966, to boo at the conclusion.
The film opens with Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a successful middle-aged banker, going through the motions that have come to define his life. Although he has everything a man could presumably want — a sympathetic wife (Francis Reid), a house in Scarsdale, a respected position in the corporate world — Hamilton is bored, dissatisfied, empty inside, inexorably aging physically and psychically, not with grace but with resignation.
Hamilton is walking through Grand Central on his way home from work when a stranger slips him an address written on a scrap of paper. As surprised by the intrusion as by being noticed, Hamilton puts the paper in his pocket and returns to his malaise. He is also getting troubling phone calls late at night from a man calling himself Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton), who was his best friend but is now deceased.
“Did you get the address today?” Charlie asks Arthur. “Yes.” “Good. You’re to use the name Wilson.” “You can’t be Charlie. You just don’t come back.” “I’m alive! More alive than I’ve been in the past 25 years. You’ve got to come tomorrow. Listen. If you don’t show up, that’s it. Think, for Pete’s sake. What have you got now?”
Hamilton goes to the address and is led to an organization called The Company. A man appears and says, “My name is Ruby. I’ve been assigned to go over the circumstances of your death with you.” Ruby explains that for a fee, Arthur Hamilton’s death will be faked, and that via intensive plastic surgery, he will be given a new face, new teeth, new fingerprints, new body, new name, and new life.
“There’s so much else to be done, Mr. Wilson, but if I may say so, death selection may be the most important decision in your life.”
Hamilton/Wilson is blackmailed into accepting the terms — and puts his fate in The Company’s hands.
When his bandages are removed, his scars have healed, and his physical conditioning is complete, decrepit Arthur Hamilton is reborn as tall, dark, handsome Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). Wilson is relocated to a luxurious beachfront house in Malibu. He has a manservant (Wesley Addy) to serve his every need, and, courtesy of The Company, a growing reputation as a non-representational painter.
It looks like Tony Wilson has it all, but he is riddled with uncertainty, and rather than rejoin the world, he loses himself in long, solitary walks along the shore. On one of these walks he meets Nora Marcus (Salome Jens, right), a gorgeous blonde with a bohemian lifestyle who, with some gentle and not so gentle prodding, gets Wilson to loosen up — and he falls head over heels in love.
Tony and Norah host a cocktail party. Wilson gets drunk and makes a fool of himself. (Hudson stayed drunk during the three days it took to complete this scene, which was filmed at Frankenheimer’s home.) He is loud and obnoxious, makes stupid jokes, spills drinks on women. Wilson drunkenly blathers something about someone named “Arthur Hamilton,” and says, “maybe by this time, I’m a grandfather.”
Several of the male guests, disgusted with Wilson’s hijinks, lift him onto their shoulders and carry him to another room. As Wilson continues to ramble, his neighbors pin him down and fix him with stares. When Wilson asks why they are staring, his manservant tells him “they know” he’s a “reborn” — and they are, too.
As fiction upon fiction unravels before Wilson’s nipped and tucked eyes, the chance of his rebirth succeeding plummets. And when he flaunts The Company’s cardinal rule by returning to Scarsdale to visit Arthur Hamilton’s widow, the endgame is in sight.
Frankenheimer told Gerald Pratley in 1969:
Many of my films concern the individual trying to find himself in society and trying to maintain his individuality in a mechanized world. I do feel that society wants everybody to be exactly the same. It’s so much easier. I think the theme of the indomitability of the human spirit is very much there, and the fight against regimentation.
When we talk about life my philosophy is that you have to live your life the way it is. You can change it but you can’t change who you are or what you’ve done before. And you have to live with that. I think that point was very well brought out in Seconds, that’s what the film is all about.1
At the end of the film, Wilson meets his old pal Charlie, unrecognizable since his surgery, and says, “I had to find out where I went wrong. The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important, that I was supposed to want! Things! Not people or meaning. Just things. And California was the same. They made the same decisions for me all over again, and they were the same things, really.”
In his 1986 autobiography, Rock Hudson: His Story, written with Sarah Davidson, Hudson says Seconds is his best work and describes it as “Controversial as hell — a horror film that is bizarre . . . frightening. I play a sixty-year-old man, a ‘reborn.’ I’ve had a facelift, and there’s a before and after, and for most of the picture I’m the ‘after.’ At the Cannes Film Festival they compared it to the Faust story.”2
Seconds is bleak, unsettling, claustrophobic, a complex and riveting film about alienation and the limits of science, and it’s as much of our time as it is of its own.