Sunday 6 January 2019

Seconds (1966)

“Seconds” is a rather obscure science fiction movie by John Frankenheimer from 1966. In the Danish edition of the List it was discarded to make room for “Sult” and that was in my opinion a very poor trade. While both movies represent novel cinematography and plots, “Seconds” is an example where it worked very well, whereas “Sult”… well, the less said about that the better.

John Frankenheimer made the very interesting “The Manchurian Candidate” and that should have given me some indication of where this would go. Yet I was surprised how far off the beaten track “Seconds” would take me. This is a truly fascinating story with some interesting cinematography.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a middle-aged banker who lives a comfortable but gray life. He is being contacted by an old friend who is offering an alternative, a second change at living his life. Arthur is not sure, his wife does care about him, but he is also fretting over how empty his life has become. Charlie, the old friend, talk him into joining the program and soon he is taking a cloth and dagger route to a mysterious organization called simply “the Company”. Everybody here are simply faces and there is a very weird feel to this place. Arthur has second thoughts, but when he tries to bail out, he learns there is no return.

The Company uses hypnotic regression to find out what people really want to be and changes the character accordingly. After some time under the knife, Arthur emerges as Tony Wilson in the shape of Rock Hudson. In the sixties, what guy did not want to be Rock Hudson? The company is faking Arthurs death and Tony is installed in California as a painter.

While Tony is weirded out by this life, he also tries to embrace it. A new girlfriend, hippie free love, cocktail parties with the neighbors, except Tony cannot entirely let go of his former self and there is something decidedly weird about his neighbors. Could they also be seconds…?

It would be a shame to reveal the conclusion of the movie, suffice to say that the story take a very unconventional road, which is ultimately satisfying, but probably one likely reason the movie tanked at the box office.

The point is that we tend to think the grass is greener on the other side and that life would have been better if we had had a second change at living it. Or would it? These people are living out this dream, but maybe this is something that should just remain a dream because there is a high chance it would not survive reality. Arthur/Tony realizes that he in his second life is just as trapped as in his first life and apparently so do many other people. In fact, this disappointment is a major problem for the Company to the extent that they have a large waiting room for people queuing for a third chance.

This is also one of the first Evil Corporation stories in cinema. The Company is high above its clients, making choices for them, sucking their resources and discarding them as liabilities if things go wrong. Life and death are trivial to the Company, to whom only profit counts.

As mentioned above “Seconds” tanked at the box office and I think to some extent it was ahead of its time. Several movies have picked up elements of this story since with success. “Total Recall” back in the eighties borrowed liberally from “Seconds”, but spinned it as an action movie. Today the themes of “Seconds” would be more in touch with the zeitgeist and I would not be surprised to see an actual remake soon.

A definite asset of “Seconds” is the disturbing cinematography. We get some very unusual camera angles, fish eye perspective and other tricks to give us that disturbing, uncomfortable feel Arthur/Tony is experiencing. The spookiness of the Company is underscored by the cinematography and the sound of a “cranial drill” will for a long time give me uncomfortable associations…

“Seconds” is probably not for everybody, but for me it was a hit. It is one of those rare unusual experiences of watching something new and different that actually works. That it also tells a story with modern relevance is just a plus.



  1. I've been looking forward to this one for a long time and am glad to hear it didn't disappoint!

    1. It did not. Certainly one to look forward to.

  2. This is one of the undersung gems of the 1001 list. There's so much to like here. It also has one of my favorite in-context lines of its decade. When Nora asks Tony who he thinks he is, his response is absolutely chilling.

    To me, it feels like an especially long Twilight Zone episode.

    1. Nora is a weird character. She turns downright frightening towards the end.
      In fact that entire community on the beach is chillingly weird.
      Definitely Twilight Zone material.