The Most Terrifying Film of 1966
OK, now that we’ve got the spoiler alert out of the way, Seconds had to be one of the most terrifying films released in 1966, making Frankenheimer’s previous two paranoid thrillers seem like light-hearted comedic romps. An atmosphere of dread and paranoia envelops the entire film, from the massively distorted faces in its Saul Bass-designed opening credits, followed by the surprisingly eerie opening scenes filmed on location in Grand Central Station, during an era where most films were still marooned inside Hollywood soundstages, until the final shot. I haven’t seen every film released in 1966, but I think it’s a safe bet to say that few Hollywood films of that era ended with gagged patient thrashing about while strapped to a gurney, being led into the operating room to meet a doctor revving up an electric drill to bore a hole into the star’s cranium.
Good night, drive safely! See you next week here at the movies!
(And astonishingly, Paramount’s marketing department chose Hudson’s final trip into the OR as the nightmare moment to freeze-frame on the movie’s poster, as can be seen on the previous page. And then they wondered why it tanked at the box office…)
Seconds Foreshadows the ‘Me Decade’ a Decade Early
But long before that horrific and indelible image, veteran character actor John Randolph begins the film playing a dissipated 50-something banker, working in what looks like a Mies van der Rohe-style Park Avenue or Wall Street office building, taking the daily New York Central commuter train to and from his large and tastefully decorated home in suburban Scarsdale, where he’s met by his handsome if remote wife, as they talk about their daughter, who’s now off to college. In the 1930s, at the perigee of FDR’s Great Depression, this would have seemed like a dream life to the nearly 25 percent of men who were unemployed. Naturally, Randolph’s character hates it all for its phoniness and wants out, including abandoning his middle-aged wife.
In Tom Wolfe’s landmark 1976 article “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” which gave the narcissistic 1970s its popular nickname, he talked about the growing ‘70s phenomenon amongst successful men of “wife-shucking” — not to mention, identity shucking:
Among men the formula becomes: “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a . . . Casanova or a Henry VIII” . . . instead of a humdrum workadaddy, eternally faithful, except perhaps for a mean little skulking episode here and there, to a woman who now looks old enough to be your aunt and has atrophied calves, and is an embarrassment to be seen with when you take her on trips. The right to shuck overripe wives and take on fresh ones was once seen as the prerogative of kings only, and even then it was scandalous. In the 1950s and 1960s it began to be seen as the prerogative of the rich, the powerful, and the celebrated (Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and show-business figures), although it retained the odor of scandal. Wife-shucking damaged Adlai Stevenson’s chances of becoming president in 1952 and Rockefeller’s chances of becoming the Republican presidential nominee in 1964 and 1968. Until the 1970s, wife-shucking made it impossible for an astronaut to be chosen to go into space. Today, in the Me Decade, it becomes normal behavior, one of the factors that have pushed the divorce rate above 50 percent.
When Eugene McCarthy filled in the blank in 1972 and shucked his wife, it was hardly noticed. Likewise in the case of several astronauts. When Wayne Hays filled in the blank in 1976 and shucked his wife of 38 years, it did not hurt his career in the slightest, although copulating with the girl in the office was still regarded as scandalous. (Elizabeth Ray filled in the blank in another popular fashion: “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a . . . Celebrity!” As did Arthur Bremer, who kept a diary during his stalking of Nixon and, later, George Wallace . . . with an eye toward the book contract. Which he got.) Some wiseacre has remarked, supposedly with levity, that the federal government may in time have to create reservations for women over 35, to take care of the swarms of shucked wives and widows. In fact, women in precisely those categories have begun setting up communes or “extended families” to provide one another support and companionship in a world without workadaddies. (“If I’ve only one life, why live it as an anachronism?”)
Also, as Wolfe went on to observe, the ‘70s marked another radical change in thinking amongst millions of Americans:
Most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, “I have only one life to live.” Instead they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives and perhaps their neighbors’ lives as well. They have seen themselves as inseparable from the great tide of chromosomes of which they are created and which they pass on. The mere fact that you were only going to be here a short time and would be dead soon enough did not give you the license to try to climb out of the stream and change the natural order of things. The Chinese, in ancestor worship, have literally worshiped the great tide itself, and not any god or gods. For anyone to renounce the notion of serial immortality, in the West or the East, has been to defy what seems like a law of Nature. Hence the wicked feeling—the excitement!—of “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a ———!” Fill in the blank, if you dare.
“And now many dare it!,” Wolfe added. Frankenheimer’s Seconds got there a decade before Wolfe’s “Me Decade,” as Randolph’s character, named Arthur Hamilton, stumbles into the stereotypical secretive, shadowy megacorporation dubbed — of course, “The Company.” Here for $30,000 (insert Dr. Evil’s “One Meeeeeelion Dollars” reference here to allow for inflation), he can shuck his wife, his dull suburban identity and his aging looks.
Thanks to advanced plastic surgery techniques, vigorous exercise routines and an enormous suspension of disbelief from the audience, Seconds’ protagonist emerges from his bandages as a slimmed down, youthful Rock Hudson. As a result of an interview Hamilton had given under hypnosis to the Company’s psychiatrist, played by Khigh Dhiegh (who had previously co-starred in Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate and would go on to numerous guest appearances as Hawaii Five-O’s recurring supervillain Wo Fat) in which he admitted he dabbles in painting as a hobby, it is decided by all concerned that in his new life, Hamilton would move to the southern California coast and become a modern artist, with the thoroughly pretentious, albeit symbolic name of Antiochus “Tony” Wilson.