Seconds (1966)

Directed by John Frankenheimer

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Seconds is a deeply paranoid film, rightly so since it’s the third in John Frankenheimer’s “paranoia” trilogy, following The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May.  Where those two films dealt with paranoia in the pursuit of power, however, this one deals with paranoia in the quest for freedom.

Filmed in distorting wide angles and on certain sets that feel borrowed from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, just about everything here is meant to put you at unease.  It’s a different way into a story about middle-aged regret, following a character in the same world as depicted in Revolutionary Road (2008).  Where that film worked to insist upon the complete and utter conformity of the world, this one is spectacularly heightened, worrying not about those who surround Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) but about Hamilton himself.  He relates not to his common man but to himself.

This is a story about regret, second chances and remorse.  Hamilton is dissatisfied with his career, his wife, and he seems never to see much of his daughter anymore.  When an old college friend reaches out to him, the paranoia already at a ten, he references an old promise they had once made and gives him nothing more than an address.

Soon Hamilton finds himself in a labyrinth that conspires to give just as frustrated middle-aged men a second chance at life.  They will receive a new identity, a new physical appearance and complete freedom.

Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) and moves out to California to become a painter.  Rather than embracing any joie de vivre, Tony drinks and worries, so sure he has made a mistake.

The film borders even further into Twilight Zone territory when he learns that all the people around him have similarly chosen to be ‘reborn’ and that a woman whom he has become close to is an agent of the company which has transformed him.

Seconds has a lot in common with those paranoid thrillers of the 50s and 60s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  They are morality plays which use a particular concept to shine a light on human frustrations and desires.  They often seem to focus on the individual versus society, where the protagonist has a choice to make, whether to fit in or stand out.

It’s then in the 70s that you get more of those ‘realistic’ thrillers (Three Days of the Condor, The Day of the JackalThe Conversation).  Rather than running away from an alien life form slowly taking over the world or a secret fictional agency, the antagonist becomes the very real U.S. government.  In a way it feels like this trend is inversely related to Frankenheimer’s own career, with this sort of throwback sci-fi thriller coming after the political thrillers.

All the same there is something amusing about the simplicity of this story, such a neat secret organization, such a simple but otherworldly promise and then the mere fact that the individual turns into Rock Hudson.  It’s all a bit cheesy and sincere, and the more we learn about the organization and the people in it, the more alluring it becomes.

This is one of those films which asks you to re-contextualize the broader world within the story and then too the broader world outside of the film.  You’re meant to view certain people, and yourself, in a new light.  Seconds reasons that everyone lives with regret and itches left unscratched but that the ones who go to great lengths to see these things through might be doing themselves a great disservice.

We all live with these questions and uncertainties, but what fills our imaginations and daydreams may not be quite the fantasy we envision.

Up Next: Alex in Wonderland (1970), Knight of Cups (2015), Joe (2013)

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