Thursday, 22 October 2015


i feel like i say this a lot, but seconds may genuinely be one of the most bizarre films i’ve ever seen, in the best possible way.

seconds follows a depressed middle-aged banker called arthur hamilton (john randolph), who is approached by a shady organisation offering a second chance at life. hamilton takes them up on their offer and through extensive plastic surgery is reborn as tony wilson (not that one), now played by rock hudson. as wilson, hamilton is given a new life full of adventure and wealth and exciting new friends, but it’s only when he starts to miss his old life that he realises that going back isn’t going to be easy.

the most striking thing about seconds is how naturalistic it feels for what is essentially a high-concept sci-fi film. for the first twenty minutes we simply follow hamilton as he goes about his daily routine. we catch a train with him, we see him do a crossword puzzle, we meet his wife and are given a bit of an insight into their relationship, all of which is done in a way that seems more akin to a straight drama than a sci-fi film. what director john frankenheimer (who made a great many classic films but recently i watched that richard stanley documentary so i can only think of him as the guy who replaced stanley on the island of dr. moreau) does with this opening is establish a problem for his protagonist - that’s what movies do in the first act, they set up a problem that must be solved. what’s different here is that hamilton’s problem is primarily an existential one.

there’s nothing particularly bad about hamilton’s life; he’s not happy but he’s not miserable either. when the company calls him in to start the procedure, there’s a sense that he’s not fully compliant with this and is almost being coerced into it. the company seem more concerned with ensuring that hamilton doesn’t go back on his decision than actually making the process work and go to extraordinary lengths to ensure they have his full cooperation.

in contrast to this, there’s a kind of reality to the company that seems almost out of place but is also very effective. it reminded me of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind in places – this idea of getting a second chance at something through science, but that the organisation of the science is presented on a very human level and is therefore open to error. in addition, the way exposition is delivered in this film is masterful. the men who work for the company talk about this insane idea of giving a person a brand new body as if it’s as commonplace as removing a mole. the actors delivering this information all have a slightly different take on it and they’re fascinating to watch, so someone explaining the ins and outs of a medical/psychological transformation is never dull.

once the procedure is complete and hamilton is transformed into wilson, things become even stranger. wilson is moved to a huge house on the beach somewhere in california where he joins a community of young, successful people. except there is something not quite right about this community, and it’s this that makes wilson want to leave. in the wicker man-esque party scenes hudson does a great job portraying an old man in a young man’s body, baffled and horrified by the exuberance of youth around him.

a couple of other titles came to mind when watching the california scenes. on the one hand they reminded me of the prisoner, partly because of the scenes on beach but also because there’s a sense that wilson is trapped in a kind of holiday prison. it also really reminded me of el rey, the town that the protagonists of the getaway make it to in the last chapter of the jim thompson novel. if you haven’t read the getaway, you should read it right now, it has the best final chapter of any book ever.

at its heart, seconds is a film about big ideas and eternal questions. essentially it takes the idea of going back to relive your life and then shows us the problems this would present in reality. in a way it’s a film about being thankful for what you have, but at the same time there’s a sense of futility about all of existence and an idea that what we have will never be enough. it’s certainly a film that leaves you thinking about it afterwards, once you’ve recovered from the shock of the ending.

seconds is a really fascinating film that remains as thought-provoking and interesting now as it must have seemed on its release. frankenheimer and hudson are both on top form here and it works as both existential art film and tense sci-fi thriller. it’s a film that still seems ground-breaking in some ways, even today, and for that reason i would certainly recommend giving it a watch.

eureka entertainment release seconds on blu-ray and dvd on 26th october 2015

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