Second Chance for John Frankenheimer’s Seconds on Blu-Ray
Last week, the mailman delivered an Amazon box containing the Criterion Blu-Ray edition of the 1966 John Frankenheimer movie Seconds, starring Rock Hudson. Its arrival meant I could finally retire my 1997 laser disc edition of the film, one of the last 12-inch silver discs I purchased before switching to DVDs. But first, it meant a late night viewing of one of the strangest and most unsettling movies produced by mid-‘60s Hollywood.
Forget Dr. Strangelove’s obsession with fluoridation -- something strange had gotten in the water in the mid-1960s. Maybe it was a collective premonition that the overreach of the Johnson Administration’s Great Society would very likely cause it to fail, as it attempted to fight the war on poverty, the war on racism, the space race, the Cold War, and the hot war in Vietnam, all simultaneously.
Perhaps it was the cognitive dissonance of the left, unable to process the fact that Johnson was only in office because President Kennedy was shot by “some silly little Communist,” as newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy muttered upon hearing the news about the motivations of the man who shot her husband. Instead of understanding that the Cold War had claimed her husband, Jackie, like most of the American left couldn’t make the connection. The ideology of Kennedy’s assassin “robs his death of any meaning,” she added.
But giving meaning to life didn’t really interest the American left at the height of the Cold War. In the early days of the 20th century, pioneering, self-described “Progressives” championed better working conditions for the common man. Now that America’s postwar economic boom meant that many men had them, and were moving to the suburbs as a result, after World War II, the left decided this was a bad thing. Hence, the 1956 film, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, (which both Seconds and today’s Mad Men each owes much to), and by time of the Kennedy era, Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes,” with its references to suburban houses "all made out of ticky-tacky,” dubbed "the most sanctimonious song ever written” by fellow leftwing songwriter Tom Leher.
But this trend went into overdrive by the mid-‘60s, a hatred of all things suburbia that burns to this day, one of many poisoned leftwing wells from which our current president has drunk from deeply. In 1966, director Frank Perry shot the film version of the 1964 short story written by the New Yorker’s John Cheever, The Swimmer, which starred a buff-looking Burt Lancaster, trapped in an 95-minute-long metaphor of a movie. As the title implies, Lancaster swam from pool to pool, chatting wistfully with his neighbors in their wealthy Connecticut suburb about missed opportunities, middle age, and social conformity.
The Swimmer, which is available in high def streaming video from Amazon, wasn’t released by Columbia Pictures until 1968, perhaps because another, much darker film with a somewhat similar theme had bombed badly at the box office. In the early to mid-1960s, director John Frankenheimer had a made a career of Cold War paranoid thrillers, releasing first The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. In 1964, Frankenheimer next helmed Seven Days in May, with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster starring in a film about American generals attempting a coup against a dovish liberal president. In 1966, Frankenheimer directed Seconds.
SPOILER ALERT: DON’T READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM YET, BUT MIGHT WANT TO. I’M ABOUT TO GIVE AWAY WIDE SWATCHES OF THE PLOT. YOU WERE WARNED.
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.
The Surprisingly Conservative Subtext of Seconds
As James Lileks once quipped, at this point in the movie, “The viewer thinks: you moron. Cheer up! You look like Rock Hudson! Get to work! Enjoy!”
Instead, naturally, Hudson’s Tony Wilson also hates his new identity -- because underneath his newly handsome youthful good looks and bohemian lifestyle, and trapped in his Malibu beach house amongst his swinging neighbors, he’s the same middle-aged gray flannel banker. Or as Frankenheimer once said in an interview about Seconds, when it was originally released in the mid-‘90s on laser disc:
This picture means a lot to me for many reasons. 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. It all counts toward making you whatever you are at the moment you’re sitting down to watch this laserdisc.
For a guy whose best-known film argues that the Soviet Union couldn’t have done more to undermine America than Joseph McCarthy, that’s a surprisingly conservative statement, and one that today’s millions seeking to shuck it all (or worse: see also: Manning, Bradley) should take to heart. Particularly given that Seconds stars a troika of blacklisted actors (Randolph, and the two men who run “The Company,” played Jeff Corey and Will Geer. The latter actor will appear astonishingly sinister to those who only know Geer from playing the wizened, kindly grandpa on The Waltons.
Seconds can also be viewed as metaphor for the soul-crushing aspects of Hollywood itself. Over the course of his career, Rock Hudson played a police chief, a submarine captain and a wealthy Texas rancher. He wasn't those characters in real life. But even to accomplish that, he had to first jettison much of his identity -- his original name and of course, his sexual identity -- simply to work in Hollywood, as Frankenheimer once mentioned in an interview:
I said to [Hudson’s] agent, 'Well, you know, I just don't see how you can say that. How would he do it?' And the guy said, 'Well, look, don't you think you owe him the respect of meeting and talking to him about it, because of who he is?' So kind of grudgingly I said all right.
If you look at it, [Hudson] was kind of an invented personality, wasn't he? And he identified with this guy, the fact if you destroy your past then you're nothing, you can't function. And he had to, to become Rock Hudson, had to really destroy his past.
The Anti-Countercultural Seconds
But then, given the era it was made in, it could be argued that Seconds is also an attack on counterculture, which was just getting started in the mid-1960s. Upon arriving at his Malibu beach house to begin his new life, Hudson’s Tony Wilson comes across a sensual young beachcomber played by Salome Jens. To loosen Wilson up, Jens’ character drives him in her bitchin’ Ford Mustang (in contrast to the film’s beginning, in which Hudson’s formerly middle-aged self is picked up at the Scarsdale commuter station by his wife in a staid Ford station wagon with simulated wood-textured vinyl paneling) to a Santa Barbara wine festival, in which the participants get naked and press grapes in a giant tub, the very definition of bacchanalia.
Seconds' anti-countercultural message was explored by Kathy Shaidle in her perceptive 2011 look back at Seconds, at the PJ Lifestyle blog:
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.”
It wouldn’t be the only Hollywood production with a science fiction atmosphere to critique the youth culture around that time. Recall the 1967 first season Star Trek episode “This Side of Paradise,” in which a drug-fueled pastoral life is specifically rejected by Capt Kirk, who risks losing his entire crew to a blissed-out existence on an alien planet. Contrast that with the -- infinitely worse -- 1969 episode from the original Star Trek’s last season titled “The Way to Eden,” in which ship’s hyper-logical science officer identifies with, and assists a group of idyllic space hippies on a quest for a mythical pastoral world named..well, you know. (Which they eventually find, only to discover after it’s too late, that all of the fruit is deadly because it’s contaminated with -- ham-handed metaphor alert! -- acid. Say, that drill bit to the head is looking better all the time…)
OK, back to the movie.
Having failed in his “second” life, and having been caught by the Company after meeting with his former wife, Rock Hudson’s character tells the Company's management that he’d like to start over again…again. At first, they seem willing to go along with this. As Mark Tapson writes in his recent review of Seconds at Acculturated, also spurred by the release of the Criterion Blu-Ray:
Hudson is optimistic that this time he’ll get life right. This time he won’t simply exist -- he’ll live a fully authentic life. But when his name is finally called in the waiting room, he learns to his horror that he has run out of second chances. You half-expect Rod Serling to step into camera to add a darkly poetic moral to the tale, something about being careful what we wish for, or making the most of the one life we’re given.
It’s only when Wilson thinks he’s being wheeled in for another go at identity-altering plastic surgery, that he realizes that the Company has something far more sinister in mind: Terminating their failed project.
The new Criterion Blu-Ray edition of Seconds contains as clean a print of the black and white movie as possible; though someone new to the Blu-Ray format might be put off by the grain in some of master cinematographer James Wong Howe’s darker images. But this is how Seconds looked to moviegoers in 1966. The disc’s bonus features include new interviews with Salome Jens and Frankenheimer’s widow on the making of Seconds, an audio commentary originally recorded for the mid-‘90s laser disc by Frankenheimer himself, and a recent video interview with Alec Baldwin(!) who starred in Frankenheimer’s last production, the 2002 made for HBO movie Path to War, in which the future gay-bashing credit card pitchman turned MSNBC anchor played Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson’s technocratic secretary of defense. Apparently, even at the end of his career, Frankenheimer was still making science fiction.
To say the least, Seconds is not for all tastes, but for those with a taste for the offbeat, who are looking for films that benefit from repeat viewings who’d like to see the sort of film that dumbed-down, superhero-obsessed Hollywood would never make today, the new Criterion Blu-Ray is highly recommended.
Just don't watch it too late at night.