*. Some people get a reputation for being so good at something it sticks with them no matter what. The credit sequence here was done by the great Saul Bass, and while it’s striking I don’t find it all that relevant or good at setting the tone. I suppose it’s related to the idea of Hamilton/Wilson changing his face, but for me it it’s more just an introduction to the warping of reality we’re about to see a lot more of in James Wong Howe’s wide-angle photography. Either way, I don’t think that’s what this movie is really about.
*. Arthur Hamilton has it all: a good-natured, fully domesticated wife, a great job, a nice house in an upscale suburb, a boat, a daughter who is married to a doctor. But a materialist lifestyle filled with all the good “things” that society sells him, doesn’t give him any pleasure. What’s that song the Babbitish Hamiltons aren’t listening to on the radio? Might it be the latest hit from the Stones? “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was released in 1965. It was something in the air.
*. I love how forcefully the Old Man makes the point. Does Arthur have anything, anything at all? As with joining the military, forging a new identity begins with tearing your original identity down. “What have you got now? What?” Charlie asks over the phone. Hamilton replies that he doesn’t know, effectively renouncing not just everything he owns but everything he’s made of his life.
*. You can argue over the casting of Rock Hudson (I’ll talk about that in just a bit), but Will Geer as the Old Man is perfect. Of course we could just as easily call him Mr. Scratch and see him as getting Arthur to sign his name on the contract in blood.
*. Geer’s folksy voice is terrific, but I also like all his quaint little mannerisms: the way he just slightly nods his head, smiles, says “mm-hmm,” and blinks his eyes. He blinks his eyes a lot. With his glasses on he strangely resembles a frog looking at John Randolph, and I half expected to see him dart a long tongue out and swallow his prey whole.
*. That image of Randolph as a fly being caught is introduced earlier when he goes into the laundry and brushes against all the fly tape hanging from the ceiling. He’s been limed, I warrant you.
*. The Old Man’s mysterious first appearance reinforces his demonic nature. Where does he come from? One moment he’s not in the room, and then after the film stops and the lights come on, there he is!
*. The company has this spectral quality throughout. Where does the car come from to pick up Tony Wilson after he leaves his former wife’s house? We just turn the camera a bit and there it is, but Wilson seems not to have noticed it pulling up alongside him.
*. The only thing I don’t like about the Old Man in that first appearance is his line that “there never was a struggle in the soul of a good man that wasn’t hard.” Isn’t the script here tipping its hand a little too far? The Old Man is basically telling Randolph that he’s sold his soul and given into the dark side.
*. A lot of people didn’t like Rock Hudson for the role of Tony Wilson. Originally the plan was to have Laurence Olivier play both parts (he apparently was keen to do it), but the studio wanted a bigger star. There were few bigger stars at the time than Rock Hudson, though his career had now entered its twilight.
*. But is he too handsome for the part? I’ll concede it’s not realistic that any surgery could turn John Randolph into Rock Hudson, and indeed perhaps the main reason the other seconds are so mad at Tony Wilson at the party isn’t because he’s drunk as that he came out looking so much better than they did. If I were Nedrick Young (Harry Bushman) I’d be getting in touch with the company and asking for a refund.
*. I don’t think his studly good looks are too out of place though. This movie trades in fantasy, which is always an exaggeration. I also think critics are missing something when they mention how reserved a performance Hudson gives. A typical example is Pauline Kael’s line that “Hudson seems dull to us as well as to himself.” But Hudson is playing John Randolph playing Arthur Hamilton. The point is that he’s not a romantic stud but a depressed middle-aged man.
*. Does it matter that he’s a man? In his essay on the film Henry Blinder points out that all the seconds we meet are men (as they also are in the novel). Nora would seem to be a likely candidate, with her back story of just walking out on her family, but it’s emphasized later that she’s merely an employee of the company, not one of the reborn.
*. This is a point that connects with something else Blinder points out: the relation between this film and The Stepford Wives (and between the two novels the films were based on, by David Ely and Ira Levin respectively). “In both books, suburban men want to improve their imperfect lives: In Ely’s work, the men pay a great deal of money to alter/replace themselves; in Levin’s, the men pay a great deal of money to alter/replace their wives.” In both cases the transformation is driven by male frustration. Men, at least in my experience, do not handle middle age as gracefully as women.
*. Howe’s photography, especially its use of a wide lens, is justifiably praised, but what is its effect? To make the most conventional everyday surroundings — a train carriage, a suburban bedroom, an office — seem fantastic. On the DVD commentary Frankenheimer mentions how much he loves the shot of the Hamiltons’ bedroom, but as you look at it, it makes you wonder at just how big it is. Could it really be that big? Or is it just being stretched on the rack of the frame? Or take that couch that Wilson and Ruby sit at opposite ends of when Wilson returns to the company’s office. It seems a mile long!
*. The bending and stretching (which in the dream sequence was something done to the physical set as well) can be obvious or subtle, but it gives everything a sense of the otherworldly. The day room at the company office seems like something out of Gilliam’s Brazil.
*. What a depressing room that is. The people in there (they are later referred to simply as “the day room stock”) are waiting for (what they think will be) their second chance while stuck in the living death of a retirement home, playing solitaire and taking tranquilizer pills.
*. For the most part the oddness of the photography works, and is nicely complemented by Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie organ music. One experiment that doesn’t work, however, is the shoulder camera. It seems a very awkward fit with the rest of the shots.
*. Could someone who was on track to becoming a bank manager afford to retire to a beach house in Malibu like that, and leave enough money to take care of his wife and kid? If he had that kind of money why didn’t he just get a divorce?
*. I love that multi-denominational pastor at the end who reads the rites. He seems another figure out of the imagination of Terry Gilliam, with his various religious flavours being just more meaningless consumer products on the conveyor belt of false dreams. Perhaps he knows the woman at the party whose group changes “sects” every month just for variety.
*. Arthur Hamilton’s fantasies of the good life are interesting. He can’t be his first choice, a tennis pro, presumably because that would take real talent. But he can be a semi-famous artist because . . . well, because that doesn’t take any talent. As the psychologist (Khigh Dhiegh, reprising the same role he played in The Manchurian Candidate?) puts it: “You don’t have to prove anything any more. You are accepted.” He’s got the paperwork to prove it. That’s the triumph of credentialism for you.
*. This film is often lumped in together with The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May as constituting a “paranoia trilogy” by Frankenheimer. Seconds isn’t as political a film, but it has more of that sense of creepy unease, that feeling — that meets us right from the opening scene at Grand Central Station — of fate coming up behind us.
*. Or is it fate? Hamilton/Wilson certainly seem to get carried along by events. Note how the film begins with him getting on a train and then getting into a car that his wife drives. He is merely a passenger. Then at the wine festival he is lifted and carried into the grape tub. At the party he is lifted and carried into his bedroom by the other seconds. All of this prepares us for the final sequence where he is once again a passenger being transported from one place to another, albeit this time even more unwillingly.
*. Perhaps he should have asserted himself earlier. Even at the end he is concerned that “they made decisions for me,” that “mistakes were made” in the passive voice, that where he went wrong was in not exercising more personal choice. He doesn’t seem to recognize that he is responsible for all of this.
*. This is of course the existential bind that the psychologist pronounces: “you are alone in the world, absolved of all responsibility except to your own interest.” That sounds like a good thing, but it’s really a disaster. How could such freedom ever be expected to make someone happy?
*. Happiness is a mirage. This is very effectively brought home to us when Wilson goes back to Scarsdale to see his ex-wife. The film is honest enough to show us that he doesn’t miss the gap that still exists between them. Painting was obviously something that was very important to him, that meant something to him, but she has apparently burned his no doubt worthless paintings when she cleaned out the garage, not even keeping one as a memento. He is hurt, and realizes how much was missing between them. There is no going back then, only the hope of making yet another fresh start.
*. The note being struck is comparable to that of the mid-life ennui found in films by Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni. Seconds doesn’t seem as deep as the best work of those filmmakers, but underneath its SF trappings and horror-thriller plot it is quite profound. There’s more to it than just a story reminding us that we are what life has made us, that happiness can’t be found in things, and that there are no second chances.
*. I started off by adverting to what this movie is “really about,” so I guess I should wind up with that.
*. That point about there being no second chances goes against the myth of America, the land of renewal. You go to America to leave the old you behind and make yourself anew. Or, if already in America, you head west, to the frontier (this is a theme developed even more explicitly in Ely’s novel). Hudson’s final speech to his old buddy Charlie is almost quoting Gatsby: of course he can go back and do it all again, only this time fixing what went wrong.
*. That American myth is still there, only embodied in the Old Man’s final speech about how the company keeps moving forward despite its mistakes, forever chasing the dream. Only he’s not talking about people but a corporation, and the dream isn’t happiness but profitability. He won’t personally live to see that dream realized, but he thinks some of the younger executives might. And that makes it all worthwhile. The dream endures, but the individual is disposable. The impersonal, inhuman corporation is immortal, feeding off human weakness, human dreams.
*. Meanwhile, where did Wilson go wrong? He is undone by his humanity. His tragedy lies in his need to connect with other people. He would have been better off just sitting in his Malibu mansion (Frankenheimer’s own home, though one hopes the paintings were set decoration), being tended to by John, taking long walks on the beach, and posing as an artist, rather than having to socialize with a bunch of other phonies and falling in love with a woman who is also a phoney.
*. Other people always let us down. Even good ol’ Charlie was just using him, and in turn was being used by the company. That’s the sad message of the film. Hudson is wrong when he says that he concentrated on “things, not people.” Both would have been a mistake. There’s an evil conspiracy out there, but it’s the evil conspiracy of life, the way we all have to pretend we’re someone else every day just to get along with the people that we meet and get done the things we have to do.
*. The movie we remember is never the movie we actually see. Films are edited and re-arranged in our own personal and imaginary director’s cut. I first saw this movie years ago, and always remembered the final shot as being a man alone on the beach with his dog. I’d completely forgotten about the kid on his shoulders. It’s purely symbolic, but was apparently footage Frankenheimer had shot for an earlier scene where Hudson was watching a father play with his child on the beach. I look at it now as representing his grandchild (in a scene that was shot but cut Arthur/Tony visits his daughter’s family, his daughter played by Frankenheimer’s wife and his son-in-law played by Leonard Nimoy). But I like it better as being a man alone with his dog. A child is another tie that binds, a hostage to fortune, or perhaps another form of “second” life for the father, one that can be projected on in ways programmed to finally “get it right.” But why prolong the curse? We’d all be better off with just a butler and a dog.