“What if” is the basis of cinema. All filmmakers, to some degree, ask themselves this question. Their success, in part, relies on their ability to answer that question. “What if” plays a significant part of our daily lives as well. Hopefully, we live our lives in such a way that those “what ifs” don’t plague us. I came across an old film recently that takes an interesting approach to this notion, John Frankenheimer‘s Seconds (1966).
In Seconds, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is randomly approached in a train station and given an address on a slip of paper. Later that night, he receives a phone call from a friend, who has, oddly enough, been dead for several years. Arthur’s friend pleads with him to go to the address, begging a personal favor. Eventually, Arthur finds himself in a mysterious office building, home of “The Company,” where he is forced to make a decision to end his life and start a new one. “The Company” specializes in giving people a second chance in life…a new start…even if, as is Arthur’s case, they don’t know that they want it or even really want it at all. “The Company” fakes Arthur’s death, conducts radical plastic surgery, and gives him a new identity, Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson), a European-trained artist who has recently moved to the California coast.
Arthur-turned-Tony has difficulty accepting his new identity and eventually, without blowing his cover, returns to visit his former wife. During a brief conversation, he realizes that he had been dead long before he actually disappeared. Arthur’s wife tells Tony that Arthur had become disillusioned, distant, and unsatisfied with work. Tony realizes that his pursuit of a materialistic American dream distracted him from all that mattered in life…not the least of which was life itself. Tony has quickly become disillusioned with the direction of his new life, and combined with reflection on his former life, knows exactly what he needs…a third chance. His return to “The Company,” and their response to Tony results in one of the more unsettling conclusions to a film that I can recall.
Some critics and historians consider Seconds, along with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964), to be Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy. While the scenes of “The Company” certainly instill paranoia, I didn’t feel that that was an overriding theme in the film. Notions of a corrupting(ed) American dream, obsession with material success, and an ability to experience re-birth are much stronger here. In fact, these themes might be just as true today (or more so) than they were when the film originally released in 1966, particularly regarding (over)consumption.
Though the ending of the film is unsettling, there are some haunting sequences throughout. Frankenheimer includes an extended scene of a dionysian celebration/orgy. Tony tags along with Nora (Salome Jens), a new California friend, against her warning. Perhaps, the film reveals a darker underside to American adulthood that few, if any, films explore in any great depth. Unfortunately, here, the scene drags on too long and Frankenheimer never unpacks its implications in the rest of the film. Nevertheless, Seconds proves to be a haunting experience that almost demands a second viewing.
Seconds is available on DVD through Netflix.