Comparing a twisty piece of science fiction to an episode of The Twilight Zone has become akin to comparing a melodrama to an ABC Afterschool Special episode—lazy critical shorthand for a particular strain of tacky and awful. But just as The Twilight Zone could be an excellent show, worthy of its ironic stingers, John Frankenheimer’s chilling 1966 science fiction Seconds could, with minimal sculpting, be an all-time great episode. “Portrait of a Scarsdale banker,” Rod Serling’s intro might begin, “stuck in a loveless marriage and marinating in middle-aged ennui. On a commuter train from Grand Central, Arthur Hamilton gets handed a ticket to a new life. But the tracks to paradise pass through the shadowland called… The Twilight Zone.” Bum bum bum. Or something to that effect.
Based on David Ely’s book, Seconds has a moral dimension and big twist ending that would have fit beautifully into the Serling universe, but Frankenheimer, working with cinematographer James Wong Howe and composer Jerry Goldsmith, presses an atmosphere of severe disorientation that wouldn’t have a place on television. At times, Howe’s black-and-white photography emphasizes the drab grays of Arthur’s suburban manse, but from the opening-credits sequence (by Saul Bass), Seconds mangles and distends the windows of perception until viewers get immersed in his sweat-soaked nightmare. The film tells the story of a man who tries to change his identity, but the elasticity of science isn’t matched by the elasticity of consciousness. For an individual to truly change, without leaving any psychological residue behind, is impossible—to quote Confucius via The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai, “No matter where you go, there you are.”
Our journey begins with Arthur (John Randolph), a man best described as “nondescript,” getting a card with nothing but a New York street address pressed into his palm. Encouraged later that night by a phone call from an old tennis buddy, Arthur follows the address to a meat-packing plant, and gets escorted to an underground facility that specializes in giving men like him a second life. After extensive reconstructive surgery—and some unsavory arrangements (“I’ve been assigned to go over the circumstances of your death with you”)—he emerges 20 years younger as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a dashing painter who resides in a beachside home in California. With a faithful servant (Wesley Addy) to help acclimate him to his new life, Tony immediately finds a free-spirited, sexy companion in Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), but his happiness proves surprisingly short-lived. His conscience seems to reject its new host just as a body rejects a mismatched donor organ, but with the old Arthur Hamilton dead in a hotel fire, where does that leave him?
Seconds has a diabolical answer to that question, but getting there is a compelling lesson in the prison of consciousness and a culture in the midst of dramatic change. Considering the year the film was released, 1966, before the sexual revolution reached full flower, Frankenheimer had a strong feeling for the divide that was about to grip the country, separating liberated youths from their square, conservative parents. Arthur Hamilton from Scarsdale fantasizes about art and available women, but the reality of it makes him uncomfortable, even when he’s in Tony Wilson’s body. In the film’s most aggressive sequence, Tony and Nora involve themselves in a grape-stomping bacchanal that turns into a frenzy of discordant music and naked bodies. Tony eventually relents, but Frankenheimer and Howe turn the unfettered lushness and sensuality of the scene into a torment for their hero, who’s a terrible fit for his new clothes.
Then again, maybe Arthur Hamilton is a terrible fit for his old clothes, too. His wife (Frances Reid) seems to understand him as a nice man, reliable enough as a breadwinner and father, but even she is plainly puzzled by his silences—and he also seems at a loss to understand what kind of man Tony Wilson is replacing. Only for the briefest flicker of time at the wine orgy does Arthur/Tony let himself go and experience joy, but the dark truth of Seconds is that Arthur suffers constantly in his own fantasy. His doctors marvel over this “masterpiece” of a man (indeed, he’s Rock Hudson), but he isn’t happy. He lives in a well-appointed beach house where he can paint all day, but he isn’t happy. He meets a young, affectionate, sexually voracious woman, but he isn’t happy. It may be that he just fundamentally isn’t built for it, like a man perpetually stuck in midlife crisis.
Seconds ends with a kick of paranoia and diabolical goings-on, all driven home to maximum effect by Howe’s canted camera angles and fisheye lenses. It’s a worthy, well-planted twist that makes sense of the whole identity-swapping operation, but the film ultimately isn’t about the genre business of rug-pulling and shadowy subcultures. It’s more about the dilemma of being human, particularly for a restless soul that cannot find corporeal purchase. In another life, Arthur Hamilton could be the suggestible blank played by Laurence Harvey in Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate—but, then again, viewers know what happens to “seconds.”
The late Frankenheimer was one of the masters of the commentary track—Steven Soderbergh, John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven, and David Cronenberg are others—and the Criterion edition imports the wonderful track he recorded for the 1997 DVD release of the film. Frankenheimer remembers a then-30-year-old film as if he shot it yesterday, and his commentary is full of vivid production details and anecdotes. He talks about his ingenious ploy to shoot the opening scene in Grand Central by distracting onlookers with a Playboy bunny love scene in one area of the station, while actually shooting his scene in another. He also gets into a simple scene on an airplane made outrageously difficult by Howe’s insistence on shooting on an actual TWA plane; between technical problems and a terrified bit player Hudson wanted Frankenheimer to cast as a favor, it took four flights from Mexico to Canada and back before they got the two shots they needed. He even uses one scene to argue strongly in favor of letterboxing over pan-and-scan, which was still under debate at the time.
Other supplements strike a nice balance between academic readings of Seconds, personal remembrances of Frankenheimer and the production, and archival interviews and footage. Alec Baldwin recalls Frankenheimer as a devilishly Machiavellian manipulator who once told him a story about Kirk Douglas that he’d “never told anyone in his life,” then walked over and told the same story to another person with the very same preface. “A Second Look with Evans Frankenheimer and Salome Jens” turns to Frankenheimer’s widow and the second-billed actress for their memories of Seconds, with the former speaking more to the themes of the film and the latter to the experience of working with the director. Film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance contribute a visual essay that emphasizes Frankenheimer’s legacy as a political filmmaker, with Seconds functioning as a critique of the country’s belief in second chances, which runs counter to its “expectation of constant compliance and negation of self.” An interview with Frankenheimer on Canadian television in 1971 and a five-minute piece from the shoot with Hudson round out the supplements.