Limitation of Life: You Can’t Go Back in John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’

The surreal set created by art director Ted Haworth in action, as James Wong Howe, John Frankenheimer and John Randolph take a moment during production of Seconds © Paramount Pictures


By Tim Pelan

Who we are depends on a multitude of influences, societal and blood-borne. Mankind is the only entity on the planet with a philosophical understanding of its own existence, but paradoxically lacks the simple contentment of its own lot. Hence, we can never be truly happy running from our past lives. Seconds (1966) is the third in what director John Frankenheimer termed his “paranoia trilogy,” the other films being The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which bland Korean war veteran Lawrence Harvey is brainwashed by Communist forces to assassinate back home, controlled by of all people his mother (Angela Lansbury, in Conspiracy, She Wrote!); and the Rod Serling-penned 7 Days In May (1964), in which Cold War hawk distrust of detente with the Soviets leads to an attempted coup in the USA. After filming WWII action adventure The Train (1964) in Europe, Frankenheimer determined to make a film more in the mode of the Japanese and European art-house style he was drawn to. Frankenheimer, Kirk Douglas (who the director had worked with on 7 Days In May) and fellow producer Edward Lewis acquired the rights to David Ely’s disturbing novel Seconds for $75,000.00 as part of an initial two-film deal for the newly created Douglas and Lewis Productions at Paramount.

The story, shot in high contrast black and white, concerns a shadowy organisation known as “The Company” who target (solely, it seems) dissatisfied, maladjusted middle-aged white men, offering them a second shot at life and happiness, in return for their material wealth. Literally, they are “Reborns,” or “Seconds”—carved a new physical, vibrant identity by means of plastic surgery and vocal reconstruction, and given a new established life, living out their long sublimated desires, free from the stresses and worries of what dragged them down before. Our “hero,” Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a portly, upper-class suburbanite executive in a loveless marriage, estranged to all intents from his grown daughter, is targeted and eventually submits, reborn in the youthful guise of Rock Hudson as Antiochus “Tony” Wilson, a west coast artist, his former life “ended” in a tragic hotel room fire. Stricken with past life intrusions, Wilson’s journey is really about how he has no perspective on his life, or understanding of what truly makes him happy, leading to a truly horrific conclusion.

Seconds is stylistically brilliant, counter-intuitive in its casting of Hudson, and hugely influential on many other films and filmmaking styles, in both content and approach. Although as Kim Newman notes wryly in his video interview segment on the Masters of Cinema Blu Ray release, many would be unaware of its reach, as it was something of a box-office failure at the time and is considered a cult film now. Its stamp can be found all over David Fincher’s masterful The Game, starring Douglas’s son Michael as another middle-aged executive, haunted by the suicide of his father at the same age (on his birthday!) who receives a birthday gift from his black sheep brother in the form of “The Game.” Seemingly failing a battery of tests, his life is turned upside down by Consumer Recreation’s shadowy operatives, shaking him out of his ennui and causing him to question what is real and what is not. John Woo’s Face/Off is more overtly outrageous and action-packed, while even last year’s superb allegory of the African-American experience in white American society, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, is reflected back in Seconds, with both films’ politely affable, ingratiatingly wealthy white “sponsors.” In each film, they seek something of the essence of their “subjects”—in Get Out, they desire a perceived attribute of the “black” experience—virility, speed, hipness. With Seconds, the goal is perhaps more prosaic but realistically venal to the Republican mindset—the Company will give YOU youth, hipness, etc. They just want your money, seducing you as Jeff Corey’s unctuous executive flatters and coerces a sweating, uncomfortable John Randolph over chicken: “They have a wonderful way of baking cheese on it so it’s very crispy.” He further turns the screws on the Faustian bargain by elaborating, “There’s so much more to be done, Mr Wilson, but if I may say so, the question of death selection may be the most important decision in your life.”

The surgery transformation from portly executive to Hudson’s Adonis is shocking, not least because Hudson is still be—scarred and grey haired (he starts visibly in the mirror after the gauze is peeled from his face.). Frankenheimer filmed an actual rhinoplasty operation for part of the procedure. At least one cameraman fainted during the sequence. The surgeon, Dr Innes, is played by Richard Anderson, who by a curious twist of fate, went on to play Oscar Goldman, The Six Million Dollar Man’s boss in the hit TV show. Already he can rebuild him… Actually, the film is full of cameos from actors you’ve seen elsewhere. Will Greer, the folksy head of the Company, went on to play Pa Walton. Murray Hamilton as Charley, Wilson’s “sponsor” who got him into this nightmare shot at happiness, is of course the mayor from Jaws. We see him in a room full of anonymous men working at calculating machines and notepads in a miniature version of the office from The Apartment, all awaiting their rebirth appointments, meantime put to productive use.


Frankenheimer went all out to heighten the surreal quality of the subject, and employed veteran cinematographer James Wong Howe, a commanding visual stylist, famous for his use of deep-focus photography, naturalistic lighting and noir expressionism. Frankenheimer was warned against using Howe because his signature style was deemed so strong that, in the armoury of a lesser director, films could be perceived as little more than showcases of the DoP’s work. The director had no such worries, and in fact, there is some debate as to who was more influential over the look of the film, which employed a 9.7mm fish-eye distorting lens, and cameras strapped to actors for first-person shots through crowds and anonymous corridors, unsettling and off-kilter to enhance the almost Twilight Zone feel of the piece. Howe later told Charles Higham, author of Hollywood Cameramen, “On Seconds, I didn’t want the wide-angle lens, the bug-eye. I wanted that journey to the operating theatre to be done in a simple style, with subjective camera, but John Frankenheimer differed.” The director told Gerald Pratley of Variety in 1969 that “In Seconds, the [idea of] distortion was terribly important. The distortion of what society had made this man, what the Company then turned him out to be, and finally when he was going to his death everything had to be that complete distortion of reality and the fact that it was all just utter nonsense.”

That sense of distortion could also be said to apply to Rock Hudson’s casting and its sense of secondary resonance in someone unable to tell others his secret. Hudson was of course in the closet until he died of AIDS in the eighties, a gay man trapped in an ultra-macho leading man’s body, somewhat self-loathing of the choices he made under pressure to make it in Hollywood. He went under the knife to a degree himself, emerging as a “Second” with newly capped teeth and who knows what else. There is a sense in the second half of the film when Hudson inhabits the leading role, of the male gaze inverted, morose. Video essayist Wickham Flannagan describes it as “the look of Rock Hudson without the soul of Rock Hudson.” It is his most unique and strongest role. Hudson is haunted, startled and unsettled, and his amateur daubings as an artist, his newly chosen lifestyle, aren’t even up to snuff. He shuns company, until coerced by his watchful Company manservant into hosting a cocktail party for his neighbours, who disturbingly number other “Reborns” and company stooges, like Nora, the woman he just happens to have met previously on the beach, planted to keep an eye on him (echoed in the waitress character from The Game later). There are also inverted shades here of paranoid spy series The Prisoner—in that show the idea is for the subject to reveal his secrets. The party was shot at Frankenheimer’s own Malibu beach pad, doubling for Wilson’s groovy new home. Hudson got really loaded for the scene, often appearing on the verge of cracking and revealing his (own?) secret. Asked about the style of his art, he blurts out fatuously, “It all started with a big, red ball,” alluding to the deep hypnosis reveal of his unconscious desires (it starts with the more infantile ones, he is told pre-procedure).

Several camera operators follow his untethered careening around the room in a dizzying tail-spin of bedlam. An uncredited John J. Alonzo got his break working on the scene when the production needed experienced hand-held operators. “It was a little Arriflex camera and the lenses had those butterfly ears for pulling focus. They had assistants to help you follow focus, but I was a documentary cameraman and wasn’t used to that. Howe said, ‘Can you follow your own focus?’ I told him I could and he basically responded, ‘Well, don’t screw it up kid, or you’re in trouble.’ My first shot had Hudson coming into this crowded living room full of people smoking and drinking. I was in front of him, walking backwards through the crowd, photographing him with a fairly wide 24mm lens. Three cameras were rolling.” Alonzo often yanked extras into frame to create more movement and verisimilitude.


Other shots were “stolen” during pre-op Wilson’s past life, commuting through Grand Central Station. A camera with an 18mm lens was harnessed to Frank Campanella, the Company man who shadows Hamilton, giving his pursuit through the station an off-putting air, keeping him in locked frame as the concourse swirls dizzyingly around him. He presses upon Hamilton the address of the organisations “front,” which later turns out to be relocated to a meat packing plant, fittingly—Soylent Green is Seconds. To distract commuters from what was going on, Frankenheimer had a dummy second unit film off the ways, as a pin-up girl stripped down to her bikini for an appreciative male actor. Cameras were hidden in a newsstand and the ticketmaster’s office. A few were secreted in suitcases, to further suggest the sense of surveillance and unease within the mundane. Due to the use of such wide-angle lenses up close to the actors, often the sound and dialogue had to be added in post due to camera noise. Not a bother to Frankenheimer. “I believe we are in the movie business, not the sound business,” he told The New York Times during filming. “It’s the screen image that is important.” This was further carried through in art director Ted Howarth’s unsettling set design, some shot in distorted perspective themselves, like a chequerboard floor that twists and bends in the unblinking horrific gaze of the fish-eye lens as Hamilton lurches towards a silently screaming woman, apparently being blackmailed into coercion.

The sense of paranoia further seeped out of the screen in an unexpected manner. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was at the time in the midst of lengthy recording sessions for his concept album Smile. Taking a break the troubled artist arrived late at a screening of Seconds, to be greeted by a character intoning, “Come in, Mr Wilson.” He believed for some time that the film was based on his recent traumatic experiences and craft, remarking that “even the beach was in it, the whole thing about the beach.” He quit working on the album for many years, and didn’t visit another movie theater until E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982.

An unhappy Wilson visits his former-life’s widow (Emily Reid) on the pretense of being a late acquaintance who is interested in his amateur art. He’s silently dismayed to discover she has thrown this, along with most of his belongings, out. She’s kept only a framed photograph (for decency’s sake?) and a perhaps forgotten doubles tennis trophy, which she gives him. Even the study has been remodeled. She reflects in the mirror while Hudson, in extreme close-up looks away with empty regret, that her husband, who she shared a life with in celibate silence, had “fought hard for what he was taught he wanted.” A crushing summation of a life squandered in service to the American dream. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner considers Seconds to be a primary influence on the themes of the show.


Wilson goes back to The Company, angrily decrying that things aren’t working out, he wants another shot. “Is it easier to go forward when you can’t go back?” Will Greer’s old man muses. The real question is, will Wilson nominate someone else for the treatment, another worthy, unhappy, wealthy soul in need of an upgrade? When he doesn’t, he is “recycled,” wheeled off strapped down to a gurney for remodeling as a cadaver for someone else’s transformed lifestyle, in one of the most haunting, disturbing and tragic closing scenes in any film. As the cranial drill closes in and the overhead light distorts into a faded memory of Wilson/Hamilton on a beach with his daughter (based on a deleted scene), is there by any chance a big, red ball just out of shot..,?

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »


In the video above, a chronological analysis of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds by Wickham Flannagan.

“Film historians generally acknowledge that the transformation from the Hollywood studio system to the American ‘New Wave’ occurred with the 1969 release of Easy Rider. This counterculture classic, directed by Dennis Hopper and photographed by László Kovács, revolutionized cinematic storytelling with a visually and aurally driven style that broke away from the classic literary, narrative and pictorial devices familiar to older moviegoers. But the liberation of the motion picture camera had actually occurred a bit earlier, in the mid-Sixties. It’s ironic that during a highly politicized era in which anyone over 30 was subject to mistrust, a leader of this cinematic insurrection was the renowned 67-year-old cinematographer James Wong Howe, who had been born at the end of the 19th Century. The veteran cameraman’s work on director John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Seconds, a controversial and misunderstood picture, would later exert a strong influence upon the future of American moviemaking.” —The Surreal Images of Seconds


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds © Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:

Spread the love