Reading John Frankenheimer’s Seconds

Early in this excellent monograph on John Frankenheimer’s criminally underseen 1966 film, Seconds, by Jez Conolly and Emma Westwood, the authors ask the reader at what point they first viewed the movie and what they made of it. For me it was a random VHS store pickup on a slow Saturday night sometime in the late 1990s. I can remember being as confused as I was impressed by the sheer bizarreness of Seconds. I was particularly perplexed by the presence of Rock Hudson. What was this major American actor, best known for the series of romantic comedies he did with Doris Day, doing in a downbeat, existentially bleak fusion of science fiction, thriller and noir?Watching the film more recently, with the benefit of considerably more knowledge of film history and Hudson’s career, I was blown away by the brilliance of Seconds.  

Conolly and Westwood begin with the proposition that the film very much deserves a second life, a notion that is also central to its plot. Seconds concerns a bored, ennui riven middle class wage slave, who through an almost Faustian pact with a mysterious entity known only as the Company, is given a new body and face, and second chance at life. Escaping from everyday domestic responsibilities, particularly the possibilities for self-discovery and erotic adventure that this promised, would become a key topic of American film and literature from the mid-part of the 1960s onwards. As a cultural trope, it was also a staple of publications such as Playboy and the countless men’s sweat and bachelor magazines that proliferated on the newstands of mid-century America.

But while one can be given a face like Rock Hudson and the potential to enjoy a carefree bohemian beachside existence as a successful artist, will it necessarily make you any happier? Can we escape who we really are? This question, explored in some depth more recently in the TV series, Madman – a cultural connection which Conolly and Westwood make – is central to Seconds.

Based on a book with the same name by David Ely, Seconds was a critical success but a commercial failure when it first hit American cinemas. It was too strange, too challenging, and too ahead of its time. Another significant factor in its inability to get mainstream traction was that audiences simply could not deal with the presence of Hudson, Hollywood poster boy for successful heterosexual masculinity throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, in such a dark, febrile story.

One of my fascinations with Seconds is its function in the evolution of Hudson’s career in the mid-1960s; from a matinee idol best known for his roles in various romantic comedies, to participating in a string of much darker fare, including Ice Station Zebra (1968), the incredibly hard boiled war film, Hornet’s Nest (1970 – which I have written about on this site here), and arguably peaking with with Roger Vadim’s strange sexploitation gialloesque thriller, Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971 – a film I really want to write about at some point). We now know, of course, that Hudson, a closeted gay man – although his sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood circles – was someone who was very adept at disguises and role playing, including manipulating notions of masculinity.

While this is dealt with by Conolly and Westwood, personally, I would’ve liked a bit more about how Seconds intersected with Hudson’s career in the second half of the 1960s. But this is seriously about the only aspect of Frankenheimer’s film that is not explored in great depth in their book. It is a joyously discursive journey into the making of Seconds, its influences and where it sits in the culture. The authors explore it from the perspective of being a noir, a piece of science fiction cinema, a paranoia thriller – it was the third entry in what is seen as Frankenheimer’s cycle of paranoia thrillers, after The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) – a body horror, and an anti-capitalist text that prefigures more overtly anti-corporate science fictions such as Videodrome (1983) and Robocop (1987).

Their analysis of the making of the film can only be described as loving and highly nuanced, particularly their discussion of the superb cinematography of James Wong Howe, another individual who was forced to become adept at manipulating notions of identity, due to his Chinese origins and the racism he experienced as a result in America. There is a wonderful break down of several of key scenes in the film, including a detailed look at the cathartic grape stomping ceremony. Their examination of the film is given added texture through the interview conducted by the authors with Salome Jens who played Nora Marcus in the film, a middle-class flower child who appears on the scene of Hudson’s new life as a new love but who has far darker designs.

Seconds is a rich, rewarding study, and another excellent monograph published by Auteur, now an imprint of Liverpool University Press (full disclosure, they also published my monograph on Norman Jewison’s 1975 film, Rollerball). Not a lot of presses are publishing this kind of important work, so kudos to them for continuing to do publish important work. You can find Second, along with other Auteur books, here.


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