I’m gonna let you guys in on a little secret: I have no grand plan for movies to feature in this column. This is my 117th Schlock & Awe and sometimes, if I haven’t just watched a particularly schlocky or awesome movie, I just go to my Blu-ray shelf and say “What haven’t I written about already?” Since this week is Thanksgiving, I thought there surely must be a movie that would fit the holiday remit, and as I scanned my eye across my various movies, I came across one that made me laugh—John Frankenheimer’s 1966 paranoid sci-fi thriller, Seconds. It’s not about eating too much, but it is about taking more of a helping than you deserve.
The mixture of the malaise of postwar America and the constant fear of both the other and the government gave birth to a lot of great films in the 1960s and ’70s, but few are as truly terrifying as Seconds. Based on the novel by David Ely and written for the screen by Lewis John Carlino, the film explores the growing feeling of dissatisfaction among the middle aged and the horrible lengths to which they’ll go to reclaim their youth. Along with 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate and 1964’s Seven Days in May, Seconds is the final film in Frankenheimer’s thematically-linked Paranoia Trilogy, all of which are worth a watch.
The trailer makes sure to show you that Rock Hudson is the star of the film, but he doesn’t actually show up until well into the movie. We start with John Randolph playing Arthur Hamilton, a banker passed his prime. He’s married but the love is slowly dwindling; he’s a success at work but finds that unfulfilling. He decides—after a meeting with a company known as “The Company” who offer him another go-round—to start again, afresh, as someone completely new. They fake Arthur Hamilton’s death and take him to a secure facility where they begin the complex series of procedures intended to turn this man into someone else entirely.
And that person, it turns out, is Rock Hudson—a professional athlete with the name of Antiochus “Tony” Wilson. As Tony, he can live out all of his debauched fantasies and find life the way he wants. He meets a pretty young artist named Nora (Salome Jens) and lives in a gorgeous Malibu beach house. But the trouble soon rears its head: he’s still not satisfied. His life is better on paper than it was before, but he’s starting to have twinges of regret—something the Company cannot abide. He starts to be followed everywhere and whenever he gets too drunk, someone is there to make sure he doesn’t talk. If the word about what the Company is doing got out, things would be very bad indeed.
This is several different types of movies all at once, and yet they all seem to work. On the one hand, it’s a very cold sci-fi parable in the vein of Rod Serling; on the other it’s a melancholy drama about unhappy middle age. It’s got elements of pure horror at points, and we get the sense early on that Arthur/Tony has messed with something he oughtn’t have, but it’s far too late to do anything about it now. He’s made the change, and he can’t return to his old life. It’s a really disturbing film, and the fact that Rock Hudson, known for his light romantic comedies with Doris Day, chose this very hard-bitten movie is testament to how much he didn’t want to be typecast. The fact that he was a gay man hiding from the public eye in real life surely informed his performance as well.
Frankenheimer’s cinematographer for this was James Wong Howe, one of the best and most innovative directors of photography to have ever worked in Hollywood. This doesn’t look like a regular Hollywood movie: with it’s rich black and white photography and experimental fish eye lens shots, coupled with some truly unsettling dream sequence imagery create one of the starkest movie experiences you’re likely to have. Howe was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film, and the movie itself was nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Seconds is a movie that will stick with you in a way you probably won’t expect. It’s bleak, like a lot-less-funny Brazil or another such dystopian, Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s got a lot of similarities to Goethe’s Faust and his selling his soul to the devil for youth, but whereas that story has a somewhat positive ending, Seconds decidedly does not. So while you’re helping yourself to more stuffing and pumpkin pie this week, remember you only get one shot at the marble, so make it count.
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor, a film and TV critic, and the resident weird-ass-movie-watcher for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!