Rebirth. Life again. Begin again all new, all different. The way you always wanted it. You got another chance. Heck, nobody’s going to miss you, are they?
– Will Geer in Seconds (1966).
The term “midlife crisis” was coined in 1965. Somehow, the English language got by without that phrase for the previous six hundred years, but today we probably couldn’t get along without it.
No one in the Middle Ages lived long enough to have a middle age, at least as we understand it. In 1930, American male life expectancy was 59. In 1960, it was 67. That’s almost an additional decade of existence — thousands more hours of time to fret about how your time is running out.
In this as in so many instances, art preceded (social) science. Before the expression “midlife crisis” came into existence, the phenomenon was explored through farce — The Seven Year Itch (1955) — and high-brow drama — John Cheever’s 1964 story “The Swimmer.”
I first saw this film on Canadian public television in the 1990s, and thought it was “cool” because it was “weird” and grimly satirical, and because it was directed by John Frankenheimer. His Manchurian Candidate (1962) was and is a personal favorite, and Seconds displayed a similar sensibility: jarring forced perspectives and camera angles, and a plot revolving around a sinister, secret cabal. Although is was made two years after I was born, Seconds compared favorably to the movies of Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, both of whom were highly in vogue when TVOntario broadcast this rarely seen 1960s “paranoid thriller.”
Along with Frankenheimer as director, the film boasts a perfect score by Jerry Goldsmith, opening credits by Saul Bass, and most of all, mind blowing cinematography from the master of black & white, James Wong Howe (Seconds makes the “top ten” of many cinematographers’ “best-of” lists).
My Seconds “initiation” was similar to that of “keelsetter,” who blogs at TCM’s MovieMorlocks.com and has written the best essay I’ve read on this film:
I’ll confess that when I first saw Seconds what really blew me away was the virtuoso cinematography. But repeat viewings have always rewarded me with even deeper meanings that suddenly seem to bubble up to the surface and take center-stage (not coincidentally, my getting older and going into mid-life certainly helps).
When Seconds begins, we meet Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph), an aging banker living the stereotypical mid-century American suburban life: comfortable, well appointed house, proper but distant wife, well-adjusted daughter, most likely a job for life, or until he retires with the proverbial gold watch and a handshake.
It’s the kind of safe, successful existence millions of people around the world would give almost anything to have, but for Hamilton, it’s not enough. Something’s missing.
Through a series of bizarre encounters, Hamilton is offered – and then forced to take – an opportunity to start life all over again.
“The Company” will fake Hamilton’s death and ensure that his family will be taken care of financially. Then through plastic surgery, Hamilton will become one Antiochus “Tony” Wilson: a younger, handsome and successful painter living in Malibu, played by Rock Hudson.
It’s a similar premise to The Stepford Wives, except the husband decides to make himself over instead of his spouse.
So what man wouldn’t want to wake up looking like Rock Hudson, living the life of a famous, wealthy painter, frolicking on a California beach with a stunning, vivacious new girlfriend?
Hamilton, that’s who.
But by the time he realizes his exciting new life is as empty as he believed his boring old one to be, it’s too late to turn back…
A great deal has been written about the multiple subtexts of Seconds — the Hollywood “blacklist,” as well as Hudson’s then-secret (more or less) gay identity and faltering career; the crazy “Brian Wilson connection”; the extraordinary lengths Howe and Frankenheimer went to realize their vision — and all these do indeed add invisible yet palpable depth to the film.
Yet it was all too much of a good (or bad, or just plain disturbing) thing, as recalled at MovieMorlocks.com:
Unfortunately, despite good reviews, the film was a failure upon its release because the people who wanted to see Rock Hudson did not want to see this kind of film, while the people who wanted to see this kind of film did not want to see Rock Hudson in it. “As a result” [Frankenheimer said on the commentary track for the laserdisc edition] “that leaves an audience of about five or six… this was literally a movie where you could call up the theater owner and say “What time does Seconds go on?” and the guy would say “Well, what time can you get here?”
With the dying days of the Hays Code the Catholic Church demanded cuts from a scene from Hamilton’s new life, one depicting a real life annual California wine festival that featured a giant vat full of naked people stomping grapes. The cuts backfired, though: Frankenheimer claimed the crude splicing made the scene “really look like an orgy” instead of the bizarrely innocent bohemian spectacle it actually was.
(Even the French found something to cut: not surprisingly, they left the nudity intact but a “reference to [Hamilton’s] counterfeit diploma from the Sorbonne was missing — apparently the French censor wasn’t bothered by the nudity, but couldn’t abide the suggestion that the Sorbonne’s integrity could be compromised.”)
Seconds even got booed at Cannes.
As a result of all this, Seconds remains a highly praised but hard-to-find (and therefore expensive in DVD format) cult film.
The good news is: TCM broadcasts it with some regularity, and it’s available in streaming instant video format on Amazon.com. The bad news is, subsequent movies about male mid-life crises are readily available yet deeply inferior, if not downright amoral. (Do I even need to mention American Beauty…?)
Liberal fans of Seconds praise it as a chilling condemnation of shallow materialistic American consumerism and conformity. Yet few of them mention that when Hamilton gets a twice in a lifetime opportunity to junk all that and become a free spirited bohemian artist he’s miserable then too. The perfect progressive lifestyle doesn’t satisfy Hamilton, either.
I had to find out where I went wrong. The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important. That I was told to want. Things, not people or meaning, just things. California was the same. They made the same decisions for me all over again, and they were the same things really.
In fact, coming out as it did in that pivotal year between the early sixties New Frontier/Mad Men/Kennedy era and the late sixties of Woodstock and Manson, Seconds could just as easily be read as “a critique of the then-nascent youth counterculture.”
What Hamilton’s old life and his new one have in common – besides their “top down,” poorly-grafted-on nature, neither of which he truly, consciously chose for himself — is success. Yet, especially in his second life, success came too easily. What if Hamilton had struggled to become a banker, or an artist?
Hamilton’s real problem may be that he doesn’t feel he deserves his success because he didn’t have to work very hard for it, either time.
The final seconds of Seconds are particularly disturbing. I thought about those last images for days afterward. Having endured the movie’s final, harrowing, tragic finale — which I won’t give away — just seeing the stills, and remembering the sound of the drill that accompanies these images on screen pierces my heart all over again:
I still find this last scene, even after repeat viewings, absolutely gut-wrenching, a richly enigmatic shot that makes we wonder if Arthur’s last thought was of himself as a father, or a child, or even simply him thinking of another family altogether? This ending image may have only been an afterthought, but it nonetheless provides a knock-out poetic punch.
As an aside: I’d love to know if the child’s drawing in the last scene of About Schmidt is an intentional nod to the finale of Seconds. Granted, Schmidt is in his Lear years and is having more of a “late-life crisis,” but still…
Despite Seconds’ commercial failure, it remained one that Frankenheimer was particularly proud of. “This picture means a lot to me for many reasons,” he once said. “One of the reasons it means so much to me is that this movie says something that I firmly believe in. That, in life, you are the result of your experiences. The result of your past. Your past makes you what you are today. If you take away your past, you don’t exist as a person. And that’s what he tried to do, and that’s why it doesn’t work. And by your past I mean your mistakes as well as your triumphs, whatever they are.”