Few films put us on edge so quickly. Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) already seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the opening scenes of Seconds (1966), which follow the weary middle-aged bank executive on his train journey from Grand Central Station to his suburban Scarsdale home. He may be followed. The images seem taken from ankles or shoulders. Every space feels cavernous. The organ score seems lifted from a Vincent Price horror picture. The opening credits appear over images of gaping maws and distorted eyeballs, and if that first eyeball close-up makes you think of Marion’s face on the bathroom floor in Psycho (1960), you won’t be surprised to learn that this credit sequence was, like Psycho’s, designed by Saul Bass.
The director of Seconds was John Frankenheimer. The film is regarded as the cap on his “paranoia trilogy,” following The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Cold War was at the forefront of those pictures, which dealt explicitly with brainwashing and political assassination. In Seconds, that same claustrophobic atmosphere is bleeding out of the seemingly everyday. Based on David Ely’s eponymous novel and scripted by Lewis John Carlino, this story is exceedingly intimate, even if it too alludes to something akin to a vast conspiracy. Arthur’s nervous because he’s received a phone call from a friend he thought dead. The friend is trying to help Arthur change his life—by changing his face, his body, his voice, his name and occupation. By killing off Arthur. All it takes is money, which Arthur has, and a corpse, which the company whose services he will be obliged to solicit will take care of. This company seems to know what Arthur wants, even if he doesn’t. Arthur is ushered to their headquarters after being led through a meat packing plant, an all too apt analogue for the company’s business of transfiguration. By the time they’re done with Arthur he’ll look like Rock Hudson. Which is to say they change Arthur Hamilton into a painter named Tony Wilson, played by Rock Hudson. It’s the heartthrob movie star’s most startling and impressive performance. (Another interesting parallel to Psycho: where that film had its star vanish 40 minutes in, the star of Seconds doesn’t appear until 40 minutes in.) Our hero makes a go at this new life. He even finds himself a gorgeous younger lover (Salome Jens) to wipe out the memories of the wife he could barely kiss anymore. But something about Tony doesn’t quite take. Inside, he’s still Arthur. And this makes the company uneasy.
The collective desire for renewal at work in Seconds had been made into story before—there is some crossover between it and Ray Bradbury’s ‘Marionettes Inc.’—but Ely’s exploration of this perhaps specifically American idea of total self-reinvention took this desire to a sinister extreme. The film perfectly synthesizes the novel’s trajectory with the tools of cinema. Brilliantly employing wide-angle lenses, James Wong Howe’s endlessly inventive cinematography makes the familiar eerie, and the casting of Hudson was a stroke of genius—thank god Frankenheimer didn’t get his first choice of Laurence Olivier, whose performance would surely have felt studied and possessed none of the despair and, ultimately, harrowing hysteria on display here. Frankheimer’s casting of numerous blacklisted actors contributes to a meta-reading that only increases a sense of condemnation of American falseness and fear-driven values. As Alec Baldwin describes it in one of the supplements on Criterion’s new edition of Seconds, the film doesn’t invite you in—“it takes you hostage.”