Seconds (1966) 4.14/5 (5)


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Rating: The Good – 80.5
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Duration: 106 mins
Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph

John Frankenheimer may have shocked and appalled the Cannes film festival with this film but he nonetheless crafted a cult hit, an exquisite chiller, and a singular piece of cinema. John Randolph and Rock Hudson combine to play a man who is mysteriously encouraged by a shadowy company to fake his death and assume a new identity with a dramatic bout of plastic surgery that changes everything from his face to his vocal cords and fingerprints. The first “Randolph” half of the film is used to carefully reveal the different aspects to the elaborately transforming procedure while only cleverly intimating at certain crucial elements and leaving the audience to divine their more hideous implications. The second “Hudson” half is a powerful balance of existential exploration and sci-fi horror that conflates humanities’ essential concepts of happiness, life, death, purgatory, and beyond into an deeply unsettling allegorical package.

The whole thing is steeped in the experimental cinema of the 60’s (particularly French cinema) in an effort to discombobulate the audience from scene one to the close. Fisheye lenses, sharp overhead and low camera angles, Frankenheimer’s trademark stark monochrome, and his inspired balancing of key and fill lighting all work towards the same disconcerting end. It’s highly innovative stuff and while some influence is taken from the likes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Frankenheimer’s unique handling of the camera and his protagonists’ movement seems to in turn have had a direct effect on Scorcese’s later work and by extension Spike Lee’s. Based on David Ely’s novel, the story is truly unique and driven by a fatalistic momentum. But so thoroughly conceived is the world which the characters inhabit that it seems all the more plausible. Hudson and Randolph are equally tremendous with the latter tapping the empty centre of midlife discontent in genuinely insightful manner and the former catching the agitation and panic that comes with the natural dissonance of his new circumstances.

Seconds is by no means an easy watch and the lack of any warmth whatsoever in the story was not the most advisable route to attracting a mainstream audience (if that was the intention). Nonetheless, it is a serious piece of cinema and a mark of where both the medium and the director were at the time. Frankenheimer was coming off the back of a rich vein of form with grounded thrillers such as Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Train that were delicately elevated by artful contemplation. Seconds is a full immersion in such artful contemplation and thus represents a fascinating evolution in the style of one of cinema’s most underrated directors not to mention a truly unique film experience.

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