1 Hr., 47 Mins.
Seconds February 19, 2020
verything could change at 34 Lafayette Street. Early in “Seconds” (1966), the final movie in John Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy, middle-aged protagonist Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is boarding a train. As he’s finding his seat, he’s handed a piece of paper by an unnamed man. It says nothing except this address. Arthur thinks he knows what it might be referencing. Recently he’s been getting calls
from an old friend whom he thought had died. But the friend intimates that he in fact is not the man in the casket, because, years ago, he’d been given a second chance at life by a mysterious organization. Now he has a new identity, existence — a new everything. Ostensibly he’s happy. Isn’t Arthur curious?
Arthur, after some initial hesitance, visits 34 Lafayette Street, mostly because he doesn’t have much to lose. Why not find out more about a company who can supposedly change everything when you’re in your 50s, married to a woman you don’t especially love (Frances Reid), stuck in a job that pays well that you hate (Arthur is a banker), and have adult kids you never see and who don’t seem to have much of a vested interest in keeping close family ties?
The organization, Arthur finds out, is only known as the Company, and specializes in giving dissatisfied middle-aged men extensive plastic surgery to help give them the identities and lives they’ve always dreamed of. The Company runs a successful business in part because, once you’ve visited 34 Lafayette Street, you don’t get to go back to life as it once was. You’re coerced, in Arthur’s case through blackmail. By the second act of “Seconds,” Arthur has become one of the Company’s prized creations. He’s reimagined as a successful movie-star-handsome artist named Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson) who lives on the beach and dates a beautiful, free-spirited vagabond named Nora (Salome Jens).
This is nightmarish, minimalist science fiction with a European touch that recalls Jean-Luc Godard moonless “Alphaville” (1965) or Ingmar Bergman’s ghastly “Hour of the Wolf” (1968). Although it starred Hudson, still a lucrative star, and was directed by Frankenheimer, whose ‘60s had been chocked full of hits (among them the anxious political thrillers 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate” and 1964’s “Seven Days in May,” which are said to be the spiritual predecessors to “Seconds”), it was a failure. It saw through for itself the usual calamities of a perceived failure: bad reviews, box office, and, for prestige projects like it, booed at Cannes. Writing for The Atlantic, historian Edward Tenner invoked some surprise at the film’s tanking. “It was a mainstream Hollywood product with every prospect of making money,” he said.
But I don’t know if it’s that surprising, with Hudson’s fanbase consisting mostly of viewers used to him in feel-good romantic comedies, with admirers of Frankenheimer liking him for ambitious but comparably more straightforward movies. The movie is undeviatingly unpleasant and strange. Its narrative is gloomy and its visual style, courtesy of the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, is cockeyed: brimming with Dutch angles, too-close-for-comfort closeups. From its inception, A-list attachment or otherwise, this was a movie destined for late-in-life appreciation rather than immediate mainstream recognition.
“Seconds” is recognized as a classic now, and for good reason. This is among the most searing cinematic indictments of plastic surgery, superficial self-help. The movie is of course more than that, capturing the horrors of being trapped in societal institutions and really getting to the core of midlife malaise. What can one become after they’re long past achieving the milestones they thought they’d wanted? One of the most affecting scenes in the movie comes when Arthur, in Wilson’s skin, visits his widow and she speaks of her husband’s misery, and how she’d learned to live with it. “I never knew what he wanted, and I don't think he ever knew,” she says. “He fought so hard for what he'd been taught to want, and when he got it, he just grew more and more confused. The silences grew longer. We never talked about it. We lived our lives in a polite, celibate truce. Arthur had been dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room.”
The nightmare of “Seconds” is that even if Arthur is repositioned to move about life in Rock Hudson’s football-hero body and even if he’s given the green light and financial support to embark on the career he’s always been interested in (painting), the surface-level fixes cannot do much to alter the torment that comes when you really have no idea what you want out of life and are living under a capitalist system.
With culture’s increasing pressure to continually be updating the self, as if it were its own sort of technology, to make oneself not only happier but get one possibly closer to reaching an intangible, hard-to-get ideal, the feature especially prescient now. In the film, it’s entrenched in the characters that once you get sick of your new body and life, you can pay for an upgrade. The movie’s last act circles around Arthur attempting to get a redo from the Company, not understanding that even with outward improvements, he still won’t reach the self-actualization he’s looking for. Hudson, giving what is perhaps his best performance, practically quivers in his intensity. He eerily gets right the essential dejection of the character. What are you supposed to do with yourself when you’ve gotten everything you think you want — in not one life but in two — and still find yourself deeply unhappy?
While watching “Seconds,” I often thought of Jia Tolentino’s “Athleisure, Barre and Kale: The Tyranny of the Ideal Woman,” from her essay collection “Trick Mirror.” Although the piece is centered around how modern-day self-improvement is particularly hellacious and specific to womanhood, it gets to the universal crux of the spine-chilling understanding ubiquitous in “Seconds.” “Most pleasures end up being traps, and every public-facing demand escalates in perpetuity,” Tolentino writes. “Satisfaction remains, under the terms of the system, necessarily out of reach. But the worse things get, the more a person is compelled to optimize.” The horrors experienced in “Seconds,” if to look at the movie as its own animal, are finite, relating to Arthur specifically. But if to look outward, they’re not socially only infinite but getting progressively noisy. This is a movie that seems to gain relevance in reverse. A