Arthur Hamilton (Randolph) is a passionless middle-aged man, living a comfortable but bored empty-nester existence with his wife Emily (Reid). He is contacted by a mysterious organisation, The Company, who, for a very large fee, will fake his death, surgically rejuvenate him and give him a new life.
The new life, in Hamilton’s case, proves to be that of Malibu playboy artist Antiochus Wilson. Post-surgery, Hamilton/Wilson is played by Rock Hudson, the Hollywood he-man created by name changes, capped teeth, vocal cord surgery and, of course, the total public denial of his true sexuality.
Rock Hudson considered Seconds to be his best work, and it would be nice to think the role touched a chord with him.
Wilson seems to have it all: youth, wealth, available women … he doesn’t even need to paint very well. But something is wrong. He is still dissatisfied. And The Company knows what to do about that …
The paranoid modernism of the film is apparent right from the start. Saul Bass’ credits feature extreme warping close-ups of faces and are as disturbing as they are appropriate, given that the film explores notions of identity in flux. Then, as the story of frumpy Arthur Hamilton unfolds, we are treated to a dizzying array of techniques, including: fisheyed, wide-angle lenses; cameras attached to actors – seven years before Scorsese’s Mean Streets – so that the figures stay still in the frame while their environment bounces around; and jump-cuts.
It is weird to present a tale of midlife ennui in such a manner; the effect is to intensify the nightmare, the sense that something catastrophic, hopefully but probably not for the better, is about to happen. The shots pull the film in two different directions, grounding it in both an intimate realism and the detached paranoia of fantasies and allegorical fables.
There are three distinct moods pervading Seconds: a Cheever-esque sense of midlife despair; the darkly ironic mood that characterises the way The Company’s employees and processes are presented and satirised; the ambivalent feeling towards the frenetic energy of the camera work and those glimpses of a better, freer, more energetic life that you might call the ‘orgastic’ element of the American Dream.
Beneath the dazzling, vertiginous formal experiments, there’s a very bitter but sincere message. Wilson’s final fate is surely obvious from Hamilton’s sullen, emotionally disengaged character. So, our identities are formed and deformed in relation to an almost existential dissatisfaction; this is the deathwish that makes us human. Or, as the despair.com demotivational slogan puts it: ‘The common factor in all your failures is …you’.
Hudson’s accomplishment here is to remind us that his character is really a rotund middle-aged bank manager. It isn’t just his reactions to the hippy vineyard bacchanalia he attends that remind us; his physicality comes across here in a hesitant and confused mode that suggests he feels frozen and alienated in his new world. Until, that is, the truly horrifying final scene, when, strapped down and gagged, he thrashes around hysterically, sweating with fear.
The film moves along very well, with the central section that deals with Wilson’s life in Malibu feeling slightly cut back. The film doesn’t luxuriate in his new life one iota – it feels like he’s under house arrest. More scenes of his 60s playboy lifestyle might have been nice for the kitsch-hounds among us, but that would have turned Seconds in the direction of a feel-good piece of entertainment. The final sound effect proves that that is not what this film is about.
There’s a great story about Seconds: mentally unstable Beach Boy Brian Wilson apparently wandered into an early screening and was so traumatised that he didn’t go back to the cinema for 20 years.
You too can have that experience, at home!
Review by Colin Dibbben
Seconds is out now in dual format edition from Eureka!