Though some may consider it heresy, I would nominate John Frankenheimer’s genre-defying 1966 psycho-thriller Seconds as a perfect candidate for remaking. There are some startling ideas presented by Frankenheimer and screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (adapted from the source novel by David Ely). The film’s visual style is arresting, as is its overall aura of paranoia. But in the end it doesn’t quite justify its 107-minute running time, feeling more like an overextended Twilight Zone episode.
The germ of the idea is strong. It’s the sluggish pacing that’s part of the problem. Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a loan officer at a bank, financially stable but living an unfulfilling life with his wife Emily (Frances Reid). Theirs is a sexless, dispassionate marriage. Emily seems willing but Arthur shuns her advances. They’re both apparently healthy in late-middle age, yet Arthur is inexplicably depressed. A way out of his mundane life arrives in the form of a mysterious phone call from a friend he long thought to be deceased.
Arthur is invited into the world of the so-called “reborns.” Though no attempt to explain the medical science behind the procedure is ever made, an enterprising businessman has figured out a way to transform older men into younger versions. It’s a sci-fi concept, involving the replacing of fingerprints, teeth, and the tightening of tendons to even change handwriting. Physical and mental reconditioning is undertaken in order to make a “new” man out of the older one. A cadaver is used in a staged “death” in order to avoid anyone seemingly disappearing. This business is utterly hush-hush and comes with a set of stringent rules (including no contact with anyone from one’s pervious life).
The setup is intriguing, staged almost as a horror film as Arthur undergoes the painful “rebirth” process. Tony Wilson is his new name and the marginally younger Rock Hudson takes over for John Randolph. Tony leaves everything behind and strikes up new relationships, including a new girlfriend, Nora (Salome Jens). It’s the second act that tanks Seconds by failing to adequately explore what Tony’s “new” life is like. He’s a painter (something the old Arthur claimed he dreamed of being) but memories of his old life haunt him. A sense of all-consuming paranoia sets in as he finds himself surrounded by other “reborns” who keep a watchful eye on his every move.
Though it ramps back up to a chill-inducing, nightmarish (albeit fairly predictable) ending, Seconds marks a lot of time during its uninspired middle. Though an extended grape-stomping sequence at a winery offers copious (and daring for its time) nudity, it’s a poor substitute for a truly revelatory exploration of why a late-middle aged man would even want to reboot his life as an early-middle aged man.
Despite narrative shortcomings, The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray presentation of Seconds is flawless. James Wong Howe’s black-and-white cinematography is captured with totally sharp clarity. Some of the footage is inherently softer (including the terrifically suspenseful, Hitchcockian opening sequence with Arthur being pursued en route to his train), lending a vérité look. But most of the film, especially close-ups of John Randolph’s perpetually sweat-coated face, defy their age. There’s less to say about the uncompressed mono soundtrack, but only because it’s such a simple sound design. The audio restoration is pretty much perfect, with ultra-clear dialogue and plenty of presence in Jerry Goldsmith’s spooky score.
A mixture of new and vintage supplements accompanies Criterion’s Seconds. There’s a new interview with Alec Baldwin, who worked with Frankenheimer on the late director’s final film (HBO’s Path to War). “A Second Look” is a new 20-minute piece focusing on the production of Seconds. “Palmer and Pomerance on Seconds” finds film historians R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance expanding further on the film. A 1997 commentary by Frankenheimer is included, as well as two older pieces (a ’71 TV interview with the director and a ’65 TV interview with Rock Hudson).
Seconds is a truly interesting film that could’ve explored its themes more effectively. It’s a mash-up of sci-fi, horror, and suspense thriller with functional—but unexceptional—performances by its entire cast. Though its visual style remains striking nearly 50 years later, the idea of a person (or group of people) taking such drastic measures to alter their identity could’ve cut deeper.