Paranoia is a commodity rich with cinematic potential, but few pictures have mined it with such bleak and powerful unease as Seconds (1966).
Ostensibly a work of science fiction, John Frankenheimer’s chilling dystopian nightmare addresses themes that, if anything, are more timely now than they were in the so-called Swinging Sixties.
Our fear of aging and irrelevance are front and centre in this adaptation of David Ely’s novel, as are themes of lost identity, unwitting conformity and a belief in the promise of self-entitlement sold by politicians and advertising firms.
Seconds marked the final pessimistic entry in Frankenheimer’s unofficial ‘paranoia trilogy’ (after The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964), but rather than reflect the growing political cynicism that was gripping a country still coming to terms with Kennedy’s assassination and the spiralling war in Vietnam, it instead highlighted the growing crisis of masculinity that was unfolding in lock step with the burgeoning feminist movement.
The man in question is Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a banker bored with his marriage, job and suburban existence who signs up (after some coercion) to the promise of a new life by a shadowy organisation referred to only as ‘the Company’. Following a faked death and extensive plastic surgery, Hamilton is ‘reborn’ as Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson), a successful artist living the American Dream. For all intents and purposes, Wilson can begin again; however, the one thing he can never change is himself.
Seconds grabs your attention from the moment Saul Bass’ surreal and unnerving title sequence kicks in with a series of distorted close-ups of a person’s face, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s highly strung organ score.
The seeds of alarm sown by Bass bloom in the hands of James Wong Howe’s deliberately disquieting cinematography (the film’s sole Oscar nomination), which uses all manner of weird camera angles, extreme close-ups and tight tracking shots to keep the viewer on edge.
Meat is a notable theme, the meaning of which becomes clear as the film nears its climax. Hamilton is led through a slaughterhouse filled with carcases to attend his rendezvous with the mysterious organisation, while in the film’s most blackly comic scene, chirpy Company salesman Mr Ruby (Jeff Greer) tucks into a crispy chicken dinner while explaining matter-of-factly the circumstances of Arther’s ‘death’.
Company employee Davalo (The Manchurian Candidate‘s Khigh Dhiegh) explains to Wilson: “You don’t have to prove anything anymore. You are accepted. You are alone in the world, absolved of any responsibility, except to your own interests.” The blank canvas we later see him staring at in frustration in his beachside home suggests the interests he thought he had are just as fake as he is, however.
The point is underlined when he encounters the enigmatic Nora (Salome Jones), who describes Wilson as a “key still unturned” and urges him to throw off the shackles and embrace life. Wilson toys with the idea, but the straightjacket he’s sought to free himself from is tighter than he first thought.
Most commonly thought of as a leading man in frothy comedies, Hudson gives arguably his best performance as the tortured Wilson. It’s a canny bit of casting; Hudson was one of the world’s most desirable men at the time and the actor does an admirable job of undermining his pretty boy image, most notably in the shocking final scene.
The film’s influence can be seen in the likes of Total Recall (1990/2012) (based on Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, also released in 1966), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1984) and David Fincher’s The Game (1997), while its theme of masculine crisis is the driving force behind a string of serious television shows, from The Sopranos to Mad Men.
A work of cinema so far ahead of its time, Seconds is as topical now as ever has been.