The plastic surgery of Seconds is crazy! It’ll take you face off!
Seconds is a troubling vision of wish fulfillment and getting a second chance to live your life correctly. It shows, as with many stories dealing with wishes, that you don’t necessarily get what you think you signed up for.
Who are Seconds? That’s the first question the trailer for this film asks.This thriller looks to be about a man, Rock Hudson, that buys a new life. There shots of hedonism in the trailer, and the narrator talks about how he is now free. But there’s also some other dark secret as he is surrounded by a number of men that hold him down, and tell him that they know! He screams in agony at this statement. What are Seconds? I guess we’ll find out together.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Seconds is about Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a 64 year old businessman in New York City. His marriage to his wife, Emily (Frances Reid), is stale and strained. His daughter is grown and lives with her husband on the other side of the country. The best thing he can say about his relationship with his family is that they “get along.” One day on his commute home he is given a note with an address from a stranger. He receives a call that night from someone claiming to be his dead friend Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton). Charlie convinces Arthur it’s really him, and urges him to visit the address, making sure to use the code name of “Wilson.”
Arthur navigates several locations until he winds up at a business office where he is told to wait, and offered a cup of tea. He quickly passes out, having been drugged. While passed out he has a weird dream of walking into a twisted room, seeing a young woman on a bed, and raping her. He awakens to meet Ruby (Jeff Corey), a businessman that goes over the plan for his death and payments. Arthur is confused by the entire process. Ruby continues to explain that he will receive plastic surgery and have a staged death in order to move onto a new life in a new body.
Arthur is still unsure of the offer, partially afraid, and partially unsure if the deal is too good to be true. Ruby presents staged footage of Arthur, in a drugged state, coming on to one of their employees. An old man (Will Geer), who is the owner of The Company, meets with Arthur to convince him that he has nothing left and he should submit to their offer. Arthur half-heartedly agrees and is taken into an operating room where Dr. Innes (Richard Anderson) makes him a new man, literally. After the operation, he is now Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson), and spends a few months within The Company, rehabilitating, before being set up with a new identity, job, and home in Malibu, California.
Tony, now a painter living in private beach community, takes some time to get used to his new environment. His butler, John (Wesley Addy) suggests he host a party, but he’s not quite ready for that yet, feeling like a fish out of water. One day while walking on the beach he meets a beautiful young woman named Nora (Salome Jens). They immediately hit it off, finding that they share similar backstories; she recently picked up and left her family as well. Smitten with the mystery of “who is Tony Wilson,” she invites him to a bacchanal in Santa Barbara where Tony is finally able to come out of his shell.
He returns a new man and decides to host that party at his house for all his neighbors. His love for Nora blossoms and he is exceedingly comfortable in his new skin. He starts drinking while meeting the guests but goes overboard, beginning to let slip details of his former life. Many of the guests stop their revelries and stare at Tony who is now making a scene. They escort him into the back room, where John informs him that the other men here are also “reborns” and that Nora is an employee of The Company!
Tony realizes he has made a mistake and screwed up another life after visiting his old house and wife. He returns to The Company and asks Ruby to get him another body. He wants to start over again. He promises he will not make the same mistakes. They in turn want him to sponsor another person, but he realizes he may have to wait for years to get a new body if he put someone else ahead of him, so he declines to furnish a name. The old man returns and tells Tony that he understands and they will make it right. The orderlies show up and strap Tony into a gurney. He suddenly realizes that he is to be killed, furnishing his body to some other person who wants to be reborn. As he is euthanized, the bright operating lamp flares in his vision, and his memory returns to a quiet moment, walking on the beach with a child and a dog, before fading finally into blackness.
“There never was a struggle in the soul of a good man that wasn’t hard.” – The Old Man
History in the Making
John Frankenheimer’s Seconds continued the mid-60s trend of dystopian film. But unlike last weeks Fahrenheit 451, this film is not set in the near future, but firmly in the modern day as evidenced by the settings and some other minor clues in the film. Frankenheimer, known at the time for the political thrillers The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964) creates similar themes of paranoia in Seconds, similar to both those other films. As with many other films I’ve looked at in this series, Seconds was based on a book written by David Ely dealing with apparently the same story.
The film depicts a well-to-do, average American male, that has achieved almost everything he can with his life, and as often happens in the middle part of life, a crisis arises. Arthur Hamilton is dissatisfied with his life and his career path. He appears tired and in need of a change. But instead of buying a luxury car, or going on a vacation, or even getting a mistress, he decides on a more radical course of action. Seconds sets itself up as a grim, reactionary to the American dream, and the promises of Madison Avenue. Where once people believed the stories of working hard to make something of yourself, or buying the latest and greatest gadget will make you happy, Arthur Hamilton has been wrung through the system, unsatisfied by the results.
Enter The Company, which seems to know more about Arthur than he does. They offer him a magical wish and a newly minted life in exchange for what; some money? His humanity? His soul? Arthur never seems thoroughly convinced of the promises made by The Company, yet in just answering their call, he has unknowingly already committed to their plan. As with his original life, Arthur (now Tony) has screwed up his second life with no real understanding of what went wrong. He has put his destiny in the hands of others, and is then upset when the outcome is something not beneficial to him. A thoroughly modern problem.
While Seconds contains dystopian themes, one might argue that it is not in fact science-fiction. Sci-fi sits in the larger classification of speculative fiction, along with horror and fantasy – which make up a shared library of stories and themes. Sci-fi stories can contain elements of horror or fantasy and vice versa. The dystopian story and theme (as well as utopian stories) usually fall into the sci-fi realm, as they often contain futuristic elements as Fahrenheit 451 and The Last Man on Earth did. This opens the question, what about dystopian stories with no futuristic elements?
So if the story is not sci-fi, what about the thematic elements? The themes and questions Seconds raises are certainly in the realm of science fiction. Man struggling with his mortality. Body harvesting. Body swapping. Fear of the future. These elements can be found in many other, more traditional, sci-fi stories. So is Seconds futuristic? Today, maybe. But in 1966, even though plastic surgery was possible, the depths of change that are shown here are truly beyond the realm of modern science. The film depicts taking a 64 year old man, and making him over into a man in his early 40s. Body and voice, all things that need to be believably changed. And all things that are beyond the capability to the extent they are shown.
Maybe if the argument for sci-fi is too far out of reach, perhaps Seconds is more of a parable and a thriller. That would fit more with the genre that Frankenheimer is normally associated with. In fact, the film could easily have been created as an episode of the popular television series of the time, The Twilight Zone. While not all stories there qualified as science-fiction, they all explored deep-seated questions about the human condition, including life, death and the nature of existence. Obviously this article is skewing the story just enough into the realm of science-fiction to warrant it’s inclusion, but regardless of its actual genre, Seconds is a thrilling exploration of wish fulfillment, ego, and the success or failure of one’s life.
Man’s desire for immortality is a device that has been part of fiction for centuries. From stories of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde about a man who maintains his youth thanks to a mysterious portrait, to the dark comedy Death Becomes Her, where an aging Hollywood actress utilizes witchcraft to achieve a more youthful appearance, the search for a way to turn back nature’s clock is eternally popular. Seconds tries to present the pros and cons of being able to undergo surgery to look younger. Yet the cons seemingly outweigh the pros by a landslide.
The quest for immortality is mired in deceit and bad decisions, which Arthur gets caught up in immediately. At first his interest is piqued by the possibility of becoming reborn, but before he knows it, he’s living a lie which he has no way to back out of. The Company essentially blackmails him into continuing the lie and going through with the procedure. From there he has a new life, a new job and the chance to start fresh. It seems as if things might be working out for him. He meets a woman, who has apparently gone through a similar separation from her family. But unlike Arthur, her choice to leave was hers. Arthur’s leaving was a side-effect of his procedure. But even this was a lie, as The Company set up the meeting in order to keep Arthur under control and monitored for erratic behavior that might jeopardize their business.
What Arthur fails to realize at any point in his life, except for maybe at the very end, is that his biggest failing has been the lack of control he executes in his own life. He and his wife are only “okay” with each other. He has no relationship to speak of with his daughter. These failings in his life are his fault, yet he seems to think that others should be responsible for correcting these problems. Along comes a company to provide him a second chance, but instead of taking responsibility for his life and actions, Arthur hands over control to another entity allowing The Company to control his new life – in arguably greater details than he ever allowed in his first life. He admitted to Charlie that “the years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important – that I was supposed to want,” are what he wasted his life on.
Seconds is of course a parable for how to live a life. The happiness or lack thereof in anyone’s life is for that person to create. There are always those individuals that look at everything that has gone wrong with their life and blame others. And while others may hold some responsibility for their behavior towards a person, one’s happiness is ultimately up to the individual. Human connection is an important element to that happiness. As Tony, Arthur found much joy (even if there was some hedonistic component to it) with Nora. He sensed a true connection with her, maybe something that he and his wife once had. When he visits his former life, Emily tells “Tony” that “Arthur had been dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room,” confirming Arthur’s greatest fear. That he had detached from the world, shunning those closest to him years ago. Realizing he had done it a second time, having destroyed that chance with Nora regardless of how much of a setup that relationship was, finally provides some enlightenment. On his deathbed his final vision is a man with a young child on their shoulder, romping on a beach with a dog. This scene may reflect his last truly happy moment from his life; from many years ago when his daughter was just a child. Or perhaps its a dream of what could have been. Either way, keeping these connections to those closest to us is not an easy task, but one that takes time and energy. Perhaps the film is trying to remind the audience to use those “seconds” of time preciously to keep what’s important close.
The Science in The Fiction
Seconds spends much of the middle of the film trying to show the plausibility of Arthur’s transformation from older man to younger stud. It details the process, both to the audience and Arthur, of how they will change his facial structure, his vocal chords, his fingerprints, so that he will be unrecognizable in any way after the procedure. There are many answers to questions that might arise as how John Randolph can be restructured to look like Rock Hudson, but there are equally many other questions that arise.
How is a company such as this, that only takes referrals, able to stay in business? Obviously they challenge those referrals through high pressure sales techniques (or blackmail, as in Arthur’s case) to sign up. The film mentions that Arthur’s assets and insurance would be used as payment, and also to help take care of his family. It would seem that high volume would need to be the mandate for The Company to stay in business, what with the expensive surgeries, convalescence, and new life setup. It’s intimated that Arthur’s new college degree is official and something that can’t be forged, so the roots of this organization must run deep in order to get an authentic document from a prestigious school.
It would be interesting to see what a successful “reborn” would look like. There were others in the Malibu community where Arthur was stationed, so perhaps they all live in isolated communes where employees of The Company, like John and Nora, are able to keep a close eye on them. But Arthur was not alone in his wish to change bodies a second time. At least a dozen men were in the waiting room where Arthur met Charlie. Charlie, who had been waiting for quite some time, even before Arthur made his change. Was Charlie finally getting the call at the end of the film going to get another second chance? Or was he, like Arthur, destined to be destroyed and used for parts for another first timer? Quite a dark story!
The Final Frontier
The opening of the film was shot inside Grand Central Station in New York City, a very ambitious idea for a very busy location. In order to keep his crew concealed as much as possible, John Frankenheimer set up a distraction. He hired two other actors and a second camera crew to shoot overtly, drawing the interest of onlookers so that his primary crew could film at their leisure. The footage, with its wide angle lens, remains a strong opening moment, providing the same sort of confusion to the audience as Arthur feels in receiving the note.
Frankenheimer would return to the science-fiction genre with 1979s horror-tinged Prophecy about a bear mutated from waste from a local paper mill, and the 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau with Marlon Brando. John Randolph, possibly best known by modern audiences as Clark Griswold’s father in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, was also in two sci-fi films radically different from this one, Escape From The Planet Of The Apes and Conquest of The Planet Of The Apes. Jeff Corey also appeared in the Apes franchise: Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Richard Anderson had a cameo appearance in Forbidden Planet and is better known for his work as the head of the OSI in The Six-Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Finally Salome Jens spent five years on the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as a female shapeshifter and had a minor role in the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern film as a female Guardian.
Whether Seconds should stand as a thriller or as a sci-fi film is very much up to personal taste. However, it does exist as a strong morality play about modern life and the limited time people have on this planet.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.