Seconds is a 1966 sci-fi about a company that offers unhappy individuals the chance to be “reborn” as a different person. Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is such a man: an unfulfilled, middle-aged banker, until “The Company” turns him into a handsome artist named Wilson (Rock Hudson) – much to the confusion of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who apparently believed the movie to be messing with him personally.
The concluding film in John Frankenheimer’s ‘paranoia trilogy’, Seconds was unloved upon release but has since been reappraised as an obscure masterpiece. This is probably because the downbeat existential sci-fi is both unpalatably bleak and way ahead of its time. The film’s deep suspicion of reality is shared not only by Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, but more modern conspiracy movies that would appear at the end of the 20th century, such as Fight Club, The Game and The Matrix.
Meanwhile, the middle-aged fantasy gone wrong feels like a Charlie Kaufman film. Scenes in which Arthur is guided into the back of a meat-packing lorry that drives him to The Company’s disorienting office, where a man in a suit casually explains the bizarre procedure while eating some chicken, would feel right at home in Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
At the same time, the film reflects the paranoia of 1960s America: a nation reeling from McCarthyism and on the brink of cultural revolution – the Summer of Love would occur the following year. Several of the actors, including Randolph, had been on the Hollywood blacklist for suspected Communist sympathies.
Seconds feels equally subversive from an aesthetic perspective, combining expressionist, film noir and French New Wave influences to dizzying effect. This is amplified by James Wong Howe’s woozy cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith’s imposing score, Saul Bass’ opening titles and Rock Hudson’s perplexed performance – an unusual arthouse role for the Hollywood hunk, perhaps bringing his own closeted homosexuality to the existentially trapped character.
A radical piece of ’60s countercultural cinema, Seconds offers a paranoid and petrified picture of human desire, the illusion of choice and the Sisyphean task of chasing fulfilment – life as a perpetual system of control. If that all sounds too bleak, take solace in the scene in which Wilson gets drunk, which almost reaches the level of the best drinking movies: Withnail & I; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Downfall.