With all apologies to the more famous, and more infamous, The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer’s four-years-later film Seconds makes his prior effort look like child’s play. That earlier film’s bleak, merciless paranoia of the John Fuller get-in-and-ravage-’em school of filmmaking is no insignificant feature length anxiety attack, but it has nothing on the prowling paranoia and devilish absurdity of the more playful and significantly more experimental Seconds, a work that takes about as long as its title suggests to eviscerate the memory of its predecessor in a cauterizing shriek of a hall-of-mirrors credits sequence courtesy of Saul Bass and cinematographer James Wong Howe.
Now, in all fairness, when you have Saul Bass at the party with Howe, arguably the great visual chronicler of sordid and decrepit American spaces, you’re stacking the evidence in your favor. Still, the flesh-crawling, destabilizing proto-psychedelia of the introduction– with anxiously Gothic, discordant organ chords throttling and electrocuting twisted, tortured images of a man’s face noxiously liquified and distorted before our very eyes – primes audiences for the Frankensteinian crawl of the film to follow. An almost Dadaist collage of queasy cinéma vérité camerawork courtesy of Howe threshed together with Frankenheimer’s more tectonic, technological interest in the moral turpitude of generational unease in the 1960s, Seconds galvanizes a classically science fiction fear with horrifyingly noirish chiaroscuro and moral recklessness.
The fear, specifically, relates to one’s understanding of their self, a quintessentially humanist concern being propositioned almost weekly by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone in the early sixties. The similarity between many of the show’s more unhinged episodes and Seconds is undeniable and not unexpected; after all, Frankenheimer began much the same way Serling did, as a worker bee on live experimental television in the late ’50s on shows such as Playhouse 90. Serling, of course, was a writer, but the likes of Frankenheimer added the canted, fish-eyed visual twitch to futurist tales that carried the dialogue along into the waters of the uncanny valley.
Watching Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) spend the first half of the film decide how and if he wishes to construct a false death for himself so that he can be replaced with a studlier, more youthful self is pitched at the level of grave tragedy, much like many of the more morbid Twilight Zone episodes. The second half, however, is cut through with an air of demented psychosis and not an insignificant whisper of gallows humor. Played by Rock Hudson now with a slickly artificial theatricality, the existential anxieties pile on as Hamilton discovers an air of the absurd in his inability to reconcile with his new self, a painter in Hollywood, the world capital of fractured selves.
An ostensibly mundane tale of everyday existential woe compared to the high-flying political turmoil of, say, The Manchurian Candidate, but the nominally depoliticized nature of Seconds allows for the dread to creep into a deeper, more omnipresent social anomie casting a pall over the moral tumult of a transitional American decade. Sure, the malevolent The Company (which provides the service Hamilton seeks) and its bleached-white halls – memorably bred with foreboding depth to suggest all-seeing enormity by Howe’s deep-focus lens – signals a totem of corporatized oppression. But the distorting fish eye lenses that infest the entire film, and not only The Company, divulge a tale of more systemic despondency. The incendiary anger of The Manchurian Candidate has been traded in for a despondent realization that the subjects of oppression and alienation in the modern era aren’t so easily singled out in government bodies and pallid, inhuman offices.
Disarray, Seconds worries, is intimate as well, and the very nature of the individual as an instrument of the modern world is dissociated from the self. It’s no surprise that the most startlingly gruesome images in Seconds have nothing to do with the sickening cleanliness of The Company as much as the mad scientist close-ups of human flesh misshapen before us by the very camera that invades the characters’ personal spaces, cropping them off at unnatural angles and sacrificing the totality and recognizability of the face for something more alien and grotesque. That we are sequestered from the human form in Seconds is an understatement. The camera seems hellbent on questioning the ways in which we know ourselves through our proprioceptive faculties, rebuffing our insistence on examining the characters and instead positioning them in the frame such that we, and they, have no sense of position relative to anything, least of all themselves.
It’s all dangerously provocative, crazed cinema, reacting against the scourge of the studio system with a cluttered amalgam of toxic spaces, be it a labyrinthine meat packing plant or a laundry in which Arthur is visually entangled in a scalding laundry press. Much like Roman Polanski’s European films around this time, several sequences benefit from a surrealist charge as incontrovertible as it is nearly demonic. One suspects, at a minimum, that David Lynch was a fan. Especially when Frankenheimer taps the well of Hollywood glitz for the more grossly fantastical, intentionally artificial second half of the film, one senses the youthful Lynch puckering his lips and perking up his ears with visions of not only Eraserhead but also the suburban nightmares Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
The artifice is no accident. The Hollywood-esque man-out-of-sorts thriller that encompasses the second half envisions the discomfort and the falsity inherent to Hamilton’s vision of irresponsible escape. When Frankenheimer’s character framing and shot selection adopts a more staged, studio-sanctioned, continuity-edited structure for the beginning of the second half of the feature, it is molding itself to Hamilton’s Hollywood vision of escape, fashioning a movie for him right in front of our eyes. Even Hudson’s stilted performance awkwardly attunes itself to this vision, feeling beguilingly correct for the disruptively fantastical nature of a story about a man who isn’t his real self anymore.
Watching the film almost flash-bang between this staid, stately classical framing and more hedonistic impulses (as in a mid-film epileptic seizure of a party that does everything in its path to whisper “hippie convent” in our ears) suggests a fractured mind changing channels between its fantasy and its reality. More tellingly, as in the aforementioned party, the question of whether fantasy and reality can be so programmatically dichotimized is also suggested by the film; while the orgy initially seems a release from the conservatively shot fantasy before it, the hyperbolic editing of the hipster party itself slides into its own overblown horror-show, as if Hamilton is trading one escape for another. Neither new style captures the cinéma vérité of the opening segments, fundamentally dissociating ourselves from the view that this new reality is a reasonable, or even plausible one.
Frankenheimer, it seems, found only false comfort in the rising hipsters and beat-gen youths of the then-modern era, counterposing them to Hamilton’s prim-and-proper melancholy. They, like he, were living an escape from reality, a sort of cinema or theater, when they thought they were changing the world. Funny thing about the world, Frankenheimer’s film reveals: it has a way of limiting your capacity to fantasize, preconstructing your definition of “escape” from that world, inhabiting your personhood and prescribing how you choose to rebel from that world. The world, it seems, always has a way of crawling back to you. Usually by ensuring, in your escape, you never really leave in the first place.