This sci-fi drama, replete with a palpable horror-thriller undercurrent, is now a cult classic and a member of the Criterion Collection. But Seconds (1966) was not a hit in theaters, despite being nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes (where it premiered). Its story of a middle-aged Manhattan bank executive who abandons his life and family for a new, youthful identity as a “Reborn” — created through plastic surgery, psychoanalysis, physical therapy, and a relocation program similar to “witness protection,” but run by “the Company” rather than the government — did not resonate with critics or moviegoers.
The third film in director John Frankenheimer’s “Paranoia Trilogy,” Seconds followed The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). The paranoia in Seconds comes as much from its surrealistic B&W cinematography (by now-legendary DP James Wong Howe) as from its storyline. Its soundtrack, including musical score and nondiegetic sound effects, enhance this effect. For example, the film’s opening credits run over visuals marked by masterful optical effects that surrealistically distort extreme close-ups of the face of Rock Hudson, who plays Antiochus “Tony” Wilson, the “Reborn” alter ego of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph).
It is likely that contemporaneous critics and theater patrons did not like Seconds because it exposes the irony of dominant middle-class standards of the time. As Tony, Arthur realizes the emptiness of his previous life’s ambitions, despite having achieved everything he was told that he should want. However, the film also critiques the youth culture of the 1960s, revealing that it is equally bankrupt. When Arthur/Tony attains his dream life as a trendy and respected, Malibu-based artist, he cannot bear the cognitive and moral dissonance. The horror of this film lies in what happens when he falls apart.