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Movies for Grown Ups: Seconds (1966)

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."

The first movie made in the wake of psychologist Elliott Jaques’ “discovery” was Seconds (1966).

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.