The opening titles of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, created by the inimitable Saul Bass, turn normality into grotesquery. Extreme close-ups of the human face warp and distort, taking the ordinary – a human mouth, a human eye – and rendering it horrifyingly unfamiliar. The mutability of human appearance is at the core of the science-fiction conceit at the heart of Seconds, but this title sequence is also thematically resonant; Seconds is fundamentally about how middle class ordinariness can be twisted into an insipid incubus, how the most mundane moments can seem like inescapable imprisonment.
The title sequence’s approach is matched by the film’s opening scenes, which follow Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) through a thoroughly normal day. Hamilton walks through a crowded train station, he drives home with his wife to a large house where they sleep in separate beds; he absent-mindedly talks to a colleague at his job at the bank; he talks about seeing his daughter. These routine moments are filmed like a horror movie; Frankenheimer works with nauseating close-ups and wobbly camera work, rarely pulling back to establish a scene or sense of place. The closeness serves to create a sense of distance, emphasising the disconnect Hamilton feels with his surroundings, the nightmarish alienation of the everyday.
Hamilton escapes this life – if we’re being honest, a perfectly pleasant one – for something else. A phone call from an old friend he thought dead leads him to a nondescript office building, with corridors that seem to stretch forever, elevators without call buttons and Kafkaesque rooms filled with silent men at desks. The men who fill the offices of this building can – and perhaps, if you haven’t seen Seconds, you might want to stop reading here – provide that escape. They’re called The Company (if their stark halls weren’t ominous enough), and after faking his death they transform him with the aid of some futuristic-sounding plastic surgery into Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson), a successful artist who lives in a luxurious seaside villa. He is told, “You’ve got what else every middle-aged man in America would like to have: freedom. Real freedom.”
But Seconds understands that that notion of freedom is a lie. Reinvention is really about destruction. Just as nostalgia is less about reliving good times and more about reimmersing yourself in the infinite possibilities of youth, the dream of reinvention is a dream of destruction, to tear down the foundation and become someone you’re not. But even if you live the dream – if you look like Rock Hudson, if you cavort amongst nude nymphs in a winery – is this really the dream? Is it your dream? Tony (or Arthur, perhaps) comments later, “I guess I never had a dream.”
The dream is an illusion. It isn’t real. There are many ways to read Seconds – a commentary on the growing countercultural movement of the sixties (with Arthur Hamilton, the wealthy banker, on one side of the divide and Tony Wilson, the bohemian painter, on the other), a reflection on the real Rock Hudson’s double life as a closeted man in unwelcome times, or a treatise on the restrictive nature of conformity in society – but my interpretation is more straightforward. Rather than siding with Hamilton/Wilson’s mid-life crisis, Seconds rejects the validity of this middle-class ennui. The nightmare that Hamilton perceives his life as, the deep-seated dissatisfaction with his lot is just the by-product of white privilege. His unhappiness extends its tendrils to the essence of his being, and a new face and new house isn’t going to change that. Reinvention is destruction.
Seconds finishes with, as you’d expect from a sci-fi film of this era, a twist. It is simultaneously unexpected and inevitable – all the little gaps, the little mysteries are explained, in a matter-of-fact certitude that emphasises the pointlessness of recreation. The film ends as grimly as it began, dismissing the very notion of escape. “This is what happens to the dreams of youth.”