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

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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

5 Comments
  1. train games says

    I will watch this. It looks quite interesting..

  2. Ricky says

    @ERWIN

    I didn’t want to bring up any homosexual subtext because I’m accused of always doing that. :P

  3. Bill Mesce says

    Ricky —
    SECONDS is, indeed, one of the underappreciated thrillers of its time, although the critical estimation of the film has risen over the years. It plays like horrifying cross-breeding of Cheever and Serling.
    Glad you mentioned Howe’s work. For those who think of black and white as something antiquated or obsolete, this is a film that could ONLY have worked as well as it did in B & W. While Frankenheimer would do many strong films in later years, I think his most distinctive works were those early films (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, 7 DAYS IN MAY, THE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, THE TRAIN) he did in B & W and somehow got something out of those shades of black and gray you couldn’t get out of color.
    Nice pick.

    1. Ricky says

      Hey Bill… I totally agree. His best films are his earliest work. In fact the style of Seconds is at times very similar to The Manchurian Candidate, which I think is his best film.

      I wish I could have written more. It was 11:15 and I noticed we were missing a review for the 31 Days of Horror marathon. So I had 45 minutes to get it done.

      Still, a great reason to promote a film I love!

  4. Erwin says

    I’ve always seen this as one big parable about homosexuality in America of that time

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