Criterion Corner: The Ultimate Solution for a Midlife Crisis: Seconds (1966)

"Isn't it easier to go forward when you know you can't go back?"

The so-called American Dream: a loving spouse, doting children, a successful job that affords one a comfortable middle class lifestyle, these are the goals that everyone should strive for, right? In John Frankenheimer's chilling film Seconds (1966) a man who has everything but feels absolutely nothing is afforded a second chance to live the life he's always wanted.

The film starts out following a middle-aged man named Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) who seems to be suffering a particularly bad case of ennui. He travels to and from work as if he is in a dream, feels no connection to his loving wife, and is generally apathetic to everything even though he is quite successful. He is contacted by an old friend he thought was dead, and this "reincarnated" buddy of his tells him about an operation known as "Company" that can give him a new life. After some deliberation Hamilton heads over to Company and begins the transformation into a younger more dashing person known as Tony Wilson (who is then played by Rock Hudson for the rest of the film). The Company fakes Hamilton's death and he is now free to start over in a new place shedding everything that was in his former life. 

What could possibly go wrong? There are many people who would kill for the chance to begin again fresh. Unfortunately, Hamilton realizes too late that self-actualization comes from inside and not from your external appearance. He never addressed why he felt the ennui he did in his middle age, thus he still had the same problems as a “reborn”. The Company gives him a new job as an accomplished artist, even supplying him with finished paintings that he can claim as his own, but without experiencing the struggle of actually working his way up to being proficient it all feels hollow to him. It's like building a house with no foundation, ultimately it looks good, but it is unstable.

Hamilton meets a young woman named Nora (Salome Jens) and they start a romance, but again, because Hamilton is still the same older man on the inside, he finds it hard to connect with Nora's younger wanton wiles. Eventually Hamilton has a breakdown at a party and the other "reborns" admonish him for not being able to to assimilate like the rest of them. Hamilton asks the Company to give him another body, another "second" chance but they have other plans for him.

Seconds feels like a mixture of sci-fi and horror, the latter aesthetic reinforced by cinematographer James Wong Howe's judicious use of canted angles, disorientating perspectives, and disjointed editing. There are moments in the film that feel like a waking nightmare, and this is especially prevalent in the chilling third act. Composer Jerry Goldsmith provides a haunting musical score comprised of mournful organs and beautiful piano pieces. 

While this is a film, that on the surface, is about a man who is unsatisfied with his life, it can also be read as a critique of the notion that you have to achieve certain things and live a certain way in order for society to deem you "successful". Hamilton had all the ingredients for happiness, but he still felt empty. Why? Perhaps our emphasis has been on the wrong things--these material things and acquisitions. Hamilton was missing emotional attachment and intimacy and no amount of money, prestige, or youthful looks could fix what was broken inside of him.

--Michelle Kisner