‘Seconds’ – one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made

Seconds 1966

Seconds
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by David Ely and Lewis John Carlino
1966, USA

Not for weak sisters! May not even be for strong stomachs!

John Frankenheimer’s ultimately terrifying Twilight Zone-like, futuristic thriller Seconds, received mixed reviews, and was critically panned at the Cannes Film Festival. But what do they know? Seconds is a chilling character study and a distressing examination of happiness, loneliness, consumerism, and the American dream. This paranoid take on the legend of Faust remains widely unseen. Thankfully repeated showings on late night television helped the film find a much-deserved cult following.

A New York businessman Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is recruited by the services of a secret organization which provides unhappily married middle-aged businessmen with new lives. Arthur is told that with some highly evolved plastic surgery, physical reconditioning and a promise of a new career, he can become a young man again and begin a new life. He decides to go through with the procedure and awakes as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a hunky bachelor who’s given a chic beachside property, a girlfriend (Salome Jens), and even a butler to answer to his every request. But starting a new life isn’t as easy as it seems, especially when you’re burdened with so many emotional ties to your former self. Tony quickly learns that simply changing one’s appearance and materialistic attachments are not enough to ensure you are truly free. This provocative film underscores the Faustian theme – the yearning for youth and desire to live life over again – and the price to pay for everything gained.

Seconds features dazzling, disorienting, rich, black-and-white cinematography from the legendary James Wong Howe, whose use of long takes, wide-angle lenses, and skewed framing gives Seconds the feel of a Kafkaesque nightmare. Saul Bass contributes a spectacularly haunting title sequence that immediately sets the mood along with the edgy jangle of Jerry Goldsmith’s excoriating score. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) directs Seconds as a nightmare, heightening every shot to maximum discomfort. The unbroken hand-held camerawork on many angst-ridden sequences, including an outdoor orgy, gives Seconds a unique, rough feel of the ‘60s and ‘70s underground. And the echoing sound effect of a drill near the end will make you scream.

Frankenheimer’s claustrophobic hellish vision of an unhappy man examining his life to see what went wrong is essential viewing. Hudson’s portrayal of a tortured soul (now an abstract painter) struggling to fill in the blank canvas of what he now calls life, is a tour de force performance. Seconds is a masterpiece and one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made.

– Ricky D

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