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SECONDS(director: John Frankenheimer; screenwriters: Lewis John Carlino/based on the novel by David Ely; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editors: David Newhouse/Ferris Webster; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Rock Hudson (Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson), Salome Jens (Nora Marcus), John Randolph (Arthur Hamilton), Will Geer (Old Man), Frances Reid (Emily Hamilton), Wesley Addy (John), Jeff Corey (Mr. Ruby), Richard Anderson (Dr. Innes), Murray Hamilton (Charlie Evans), Khigh Dhiegh (Davalo); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Edward Lewis/John Frankenheimer; Paramount; 1966)
“Gets under your skin like a nightmare.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A creepy sci-fi parable that is directed with much too much restraint by John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate”/”Seven Days in May”–the other two films of this “paranoia trilogy”) to make this the breakthrough film it could have been, though there’s a sharpened edge to this bizarre story that gets under your skin like a nightmare and leaves you thinking about your own life. It’s helped greatly by Rock Hudson’s personalized searching performance of a tortured soul, the disjointed editing style that keeps things tense, the subtle mood flailing musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, and the striking b/w photography of James Wong Howe that plays into the claustrophobic hellish visions of an unhappy man examing his life to see what went wrong.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a 50ish Protestant, Ivy League grad, successful banker, who is a train commuter from his upscale Scarsdale suburban home to his Manhattan workplace. He has grown frustrated and dissatisfied with his humdrum life, living out a politely cold and unfulfilling marriage with his homemaker wife Emily (Frances Reid). His only child is a married daughter living on the West Coast with her husband doctor, whom he rarely sees. His only joys in life are his bank position where he expects to be a president soon, his boat, and his friends.

Strangely Arthur has been receiving phone calls the past few days from his old college friend and tennis partner Charlie Evans, who supposedly died. His friend has an address passed onto him of a secretive high-tech organization that arranges for second chances in life. The owner of this sinister mysterious place, known only as the Old Man (Will Geer), runs an unusual profitable business where for a huge sum of money the client sponsored by another member gets plastic surgery and a psychological and voice change, and emerges from the complete makeover with a new identity and life. After the operation the paunchy Arthur sheds some years and becomes the handsome Malibu Beach artist Antiochus “Tony” Wilson, and appears looking like Rock Hudson. The company arranges for the death of Arthur’s old self in a hotel fire. After speaking with company adviser Mr. Ruby, who arranges his will that includes a generous settlement to his wife and takes care of all other financial matters, John is programmed by his guidance adviser Mr. Davito to be an established artist because under a truth serum his repressed desire was to be either that or a tennis pro. Set up in a luxurious Malibu house, he is also provided with paintings already exhibited under his name, legitimate art degrees, and a manservant named John (Addy) employed by the company, whose main task is to look after the glum recipient and try to make his adjustment smooth.

On the desolate beach after some lonely time adjusting to his new life, Tony meets an attractive free-spirited blonde, Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), and attends with her a Bacchanalian grape-stomping orgy and later hosts a cocktail party for his new neighbors that turns sad when he sees what he has become and that all the guests are seconds like himself or employees of the company. Happiness still eludes him as he questions the meaning of life and what he really wants, and is haunted by recurring visions of his old life. It is no wonder, these bohemian beach scenes were weakly conceived and probably wouldn’t challenge most who still possessed an active brain. Not satisfied with the change from a sedate to a hedonistic lifestyle and still searching for freedom, he returns to the New York-based company to ask for “thirds” but instead finds he is being prepared in surgery to be a corpse for another client.

This provocative film underscores the Faustian theme of how there’s a price to pay for everything gained. The downer ending signals that changing one’s appearance and life is not enough to insure that one is now free. The banker turned artist must experience life in its entirety in order to fill in either the blank canvas or his life with meaning, things he still wasn’t able to accomplish even after an advantaged second chance.

This original film bombed at the box office when first released, but has lived on to become a cult favorite and its startling theme has influenced many filmmakers including David Siegel and Scott McGehee. Their 1993 Suture borrowed freely from this work.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”