(John Frankenheimer, USA, 1966) 106 minutes


Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Edward Lewis
Screenplay: Lewis John Carlino,
  based on the novel by David Ely
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editors: Ferris Webster, David Newhouse
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Rock Hudson (Antiochus Wilson)
Salome Jens (Nora Marcus)
John Randolph (Arthur Hamilton)
Will Geer (Old Man)
Jeff Corey (Mr Ruby)
Richard Anderson (Dr Innes)
Murray Hamilton (Charlie)

Reviews and notes

1966 Cannes

The third film in John Frankenheimer's 'Paranoia Trilogy', following The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1963), this lesser-known reality-bending sci-fi drama, about a suburban midlife crisis and the lure of a 'rebirth', blends the American Dream with Kafkaesque nightmare. Startlingly modern in its preoccupations - the cult of youth, body modification, corporate evil and soul-sucking materialism - it's an expressionist snapshot of emerging 6os concerns. So modern, in fact, that both David Fincher's The Game (1997) and the body-swap thriller Self/less (2015) drew extensively on it... Pricklingly original from Saul Bass's face-contortion credit sequence onwards, the film owes much of its impact to James Wong Howe's expressive deep-focus camerawork and optical distortions, which bend and fracture key scenes in an impermeably unsettling fashion.
- Kate Stables, Sight and Sound, January 2016.

The most frightening thing in life is, sometimes, reality. Not so much the fear of nuclear warfare, of so-called new neo-Nazism, or of Rhodesian style democracy. These are issues which raise a mass emotion which sooner or later dies as some other cause takes over. An optimistic (sometimes ill-fated) faith in human nature asserting itself for the good, replaces the fear of immediate danger. More frightening are the personal fears that face the individual, fears which he cannot share with other people because it is not a recognised 'cause'. Apathy, complacency, superficiality, and failure can provoke their own horror; as happens in John Frankenheimer's Seconds, about a man who realises too late that he has failed to live up to the dreams of his youth, who, although superficially successful in a mediocre middle class way, now leads an existence which is totally meaningless.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a middle-aged banker, working in an office which reflects security and solidarity. By social standards he is moderately successful, has a good home, a wife who collects him from the station every day and a daughter who has married and is raising her own family. But his life has become a failure to him, his marriage an emotionless existence between man and woman, a man defeated by conventionality. His life continues, but that is all - no purpose, only a lost dream. Then he is offered a second choice at life.

He receives a series of telephone calls from an old friend, Charlie. But Charlie, as Hamilton knows, is dead. Charlie proves his existence by recalling incidents that only the two of them know about, and offers him a new life for the old one. Partly out of curiosity Hamilton goes to an address he is given, a meat market. Then he is put into the back of an unmarked panel truck and taken to an anonymous building. When an initial panic sets in he finds himself in a world of impersonal corridors from which there is no escape. He is to become the victim of a grotesques experiment; he is to be 'reborn' and in a scientifically planned transition at the hands of surgeons the successful banker but unsuccessful man will emerge from the laboratory as a 'second'. Arthur Hamilton will 'die', and live again as Tony Wilson, a painter of some standing. Hamilton's face is changed, his entire body in fact by surgery every feature is destroyed, his voice, his fingerprints even. He is taken over, destroyed and remade by this sinister organisation for the 'reborns'. Now a few inches taller and physically many years younger, he emerges as Wilson (now played by Rock Hudson) and flies to California to start the new life which has been planned for him, the costs of which are paid out of the insurance policies and trusts he has signed over to 'the company', co-erced under the extra pressure of a little blackmail.

The company has provided him with a man, John (Wesley Addy) to help him during his initial period of adjustment, to help him develop his 'creative talent' which he had divulged to the company psychiatrist while under pentathol and caffein sodium benzoate. He is confronted with paintings he is supposed to have created in his life up till now, diplomas he is supposed to have been awarded by various institutions - everything is real and authentic. A complete past and present has been given to him, now he can live for a new future. For a while he lives as a recluse, battling between the two worlds. His first contact with the outside world is when he meets a girl, Nora (Salome Jens) on the beach. A little wild, full of enthusiasm for 'life', she slowly manages to relax the tensions he has built up within himself, and via a wild grape stomping orgy (the one effect in the film that is overdrawn) she brings him back into contact with the world. He falls in love with her, develops a new confidence in himself and throws an equally wild party at his house resembling a modern Dante's Inferno at which he gets completely drunk, begins to talk about his former life as Hamilton, and is flung onto the bed and held down by the now menacing guests. His 'guests', he discovers, are in fact `reborns' like himself; the girl he had found a new life and love with is an employee of the company.

Wilson tries to escape from this nightmare. He visits his old home, tells his wife Emily who doesn't recognise him that he was an acquaintance of her husband's, who she believes was killed in an hotel fire. From Emily he discovers her feelings about him. She saw him as a man who worked hard but had grown confused. 'We lived our lives in a sort of polite, celibate truce', she tells him. 'Arthur had been dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room'.

Alone and helpless, Wilson tells the company he wants to start again 'all over - all new'. Wilson is trapped in a nightmare of two worlds, adrift in a no-man's-land of fear. What happens to him now? You can discover that when you see the film.

It is pointless to try to find fault with the film or argue over certain techniques used. The result is stunningly effective; brilliantly conceived and directed and beautifully acted. It hits hard at the smug complacency of middle class life with its social security, superficial affluence with its 1966 cars and latest domestic gadgets, insurance policies so that the family won't be in need if they lose you. The backbone in fact of American society, and to a growing extent European ones. The idealist who long ago lost the meaning of his ideals. The dreamer who realises too late that he will never be able to achieve a dream world.

So well integrated is the development of the story that one is never really conscious that the same man is portrayed by two different actors. The transition is slow and painful. The first shots of the 'new man' are of a figure, his head covered in bandages, with a hole cut for him to breath. He tries to talk, but only manages to make a few faint and agonising sounds because all his teeth have been extracted and surgical alterations made in the larynx. Uncovered, his face is a mass of stitches, his limbs painful to move. Mentally the performances of John Randolph and Rock Hudson is so in tune that the physical difference is completely accepted. A seemingly impossible task, which Frackenheimer has succeeded perfectly in.

The supporting parts are beautifully etched studies. Jeff Corey as the man who handles the company's finances who outlines the transformation plan to Hamilton, casually outlining to him the various ways in which his old friend could be found dead, while delicately eating a leg of chicken. Will Geer as the Old Man who commands the operation, an apparent sympathetic humanist who felt that he had started something that would be a service to humanity. He had started it as an ideal, it ended as a big business out of his control. He had wanted to give it up after initial failures, but the organisation had become too big, 'You've no idea what a financial responsibility it turned into'. But he has come to accept it, 'You can't let the mistakes jeopardise the dream'. Richard Anderson as the doctor in charge of the transformation, Khigh Dhiegh as the guidance adviser for his new life, Wesley Addy as the sombre man who helps him to adjust, Salome Jens as the love he discovers and Frances Reid as his wife, the the love that had become stagnant.

Yet in a film which is gradually evolving into a nightmare world, the quietest of scenes involve you totally, such is the strength and range of Frankenheimer's power as a director. For instance, the early scene between Hamilton and his wife as she very gently tries to find out what is disturbing him. They look at each other, their faces reflect the questions but never the answers. They embrace and hold each other for a while, but it evolves into a mechanical caress. They part from each other, politely say 'Goodnight'. There's nothing either can say, life has just become a meaningless routine. In his quiet underplayed handling of this sequence Frankenheimer shows an acute sensitivity which is shattering in its simplicity.

Seconds is by far Frankenheimer's greatest achievement (though I still retain a deep affection for his lyrical All Fall Down) and certainly the most imaginative and important film for a long time where, in this age of too many spy sagas and displays of technical agility, one realises that the cinema is an art, not only one to be appreciated but one of vital importance. Occasionally one comes out of a cinema feeling quite elated, and sometimes depressed, or more often annoyed. Seconds is probably the first time I've come out of a cinema numb and, just - frightened.
- Robin Bean, Films and Filming, January 1967.

Restoration by Paramount Pictures.
This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a SCANITY film scanner from the original camera negative; the restoration was then performed in 2K resolution. The colorist referenced a previous transfer supervised by Frankenheimer to generate this version. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image Systems' Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management.

Detail and especially depth are simply outstanding. During close-ups one could easily see even extremely small facial details, while during larger shots clarity is enormously pleasing. Contrast levels remain stable throughout the entire film. Also, there is a wide range of beautiful and very natural grays that are perfectly balanced with the blacks and whites. As it is always the case with high-quality 4K scans, there is an ultra-fine layer of beautifully resolved and evenly distributed grain. Unsurprisingly, the film has a terrific organic look. Lastly, there are no debris, scratches, dirt, or stains to report. To sum it all up, this is indeed an outstanding presentation of Seconds that should impress a lot of people.

The audio has been remastered - clarity and depth are excellent. Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack is also very effective during a number of key sequences, which suggests that balance improvements have been made. The dialog is crisp, very clean, stable, and exceptionally easy to follow. There is no background hiss, pops, cracks, audio dropouts to distortions.
- adapted from Dr. Svet Atanasov,, 19 July 2013.

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