50 Years Ago This Week – Frankenheimer’s Seconds

Seconds, the third entry in what can be seen as John Frankenheimer’s American Nightmares trilogy – an astonishing triptych that began in 1962 with The Manchurian Candidate (one of the great American films of the second half of the twentieth century), and continued in 1964 with Seven Days in May (written by Rod Serling and starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglass and Frederic March) – had its New York Premier on October 5, 1966. 

Seconds stars John Randolph, a middle-aged man given a second chance at life – and youth – in the form of Rock Hudson, who holds down the shared role of Arthur Hamilton for the second part of the movie.  (Randolph was blacklisted in 1955 for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but you’ve seen him in a million things—interesting obscurities on his long resume include providing the voice of John Mitchell in All the President’s Men, and, for a fleeting moment, the part of Frank Costanza on Seinfeld.)

Brilliant, innovative, and unforgettable in its own right, Seconds was also, in style and substance, suggestive of the nascent New Hollywood that would emerge more fully in the following year.  Working closely with legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, Frankenheimer chose an ambitious and at times dazzling visual style.  But this was not style for style’s sake – the techniques were chosen both to reflect the tenor of the plot and to reflect a commitment to “realism” that was so important to the French New Wave and would be embraced by the New Hollywood.  Emphasizing source lighting, and cameras both hand-held and hidden, Frankenheimer and Howe open the film by following their leading man through unsuspecting crowds at Grand Central Station, and with him hop on a real train to Scarsdale, and to the train station there.  (Pushing reality to the limit, during the terrifying, drunken party much later in the film, a reluctant Rock Hudson was persuaded to really drink—and the uneasy camera matched the character’s untethered disposition.  On top of that, as New Wave directors tended to live their films, Frankenheimer used his own California home for the location.)

Seconds also gestures towards the New Hollywood with its interrogation of the American Dream (as well as with its finale, a direct violation of moral imperatives of the on-its-last-legs Production Code Administration).  Randolph’s Arthur Hamilton would appear to be living that dream – he had, by all accounts, successfully grabbed the big brass ring.  A successful banker with a house in the suburbs and well-tended family, he had “fought hard for what he was taught he wanted.”  But his life is portrayed as empty, and privately despairing—and so, lost and hollowed out, he makes a desperate gamble on a long-shot hope of a second chance. 

Does it work out?  Well, the ethos of the on-its-way New Hollywood would suggest not.  We won’t spoil it for you, but Frankenheimer, in making what he considered to be an intensely personal film, offered this clue to his own thinking: “Your experience is what makes you the person you are.  If you don’t want to live with it, it’s just too bad.”  Of course, not all of the director’s experiences would be happy ones, and by his own estimation, he had a hard time living with some of them. Frankenheimer spent the day with Bobby Kennedy on June 5, 1968, and drove him to the Ambassador hotel—but that’s a story for another time.  Let’s instead take a look at a few screen-grabs from the spectacular Seconds.  

Seconds Bedroom

Success Rings Hollow

 

Seconds Phone

An Impossible Offer 

 

No Turning Back

No Turning Back (Will Geer with John Randolph)

 

Not Too Shabby

A Whole New Me – Not Too Shabby 

 

Shabby

Well, Maybe a Little Shabby

 

Nightmare

American Nightmare