Right from the opening title sequence — a distorted black and white close up of an eye — it’s apparent that Seconds is an extraordinary film. It is experimental, more in the vein of a classy European art film than a Hollywood movie.
The camera flits from: straight medium shot, to shaky point of view, to extreme mouse-eye-view, to an almost medical photography close-up, to ultra-wide-angle view — there are jump cuts, audio to image time shifts, and dramatic ambient lighting. While extreme in style, it still delivers a coherent narrative.
Seconds (1966) is part horror, part psychological thriller, and part science fiction. Ahead of its time, and yet shot in black and white, edgy and yet starring mainstream Hollywood actor Rock Hudson — it’s an intriguing cocktail.
The story revolves around a successful, but jaded, banker who signs a Faustian contract with a secretive organisation called ‘the Company’. They blackmail him to ensure he buys their service: they provide new lives for their customers. His death is faked, and he undergoes plastic surgery. ‘Reborn’ as a younger, more attractive, Tony Wilson, and primed for his new life as a bohemian artist — what can go wrong?
Arthur Hamilton is sweating the small stuff, anxious about the mundane nature of his life: unable to enjoy himself, distanced from his devoted wife, estranged from his grown up daughter.
Like Charles Strickland in Somerset Maugham’s, The Moon and the Sixpence, he is compelled to run away from his middle class existence, to seek a more authentic life. And like the artist Paul Gauguin, who inspired The Moon and the Sixpence, Arthur Hamilton also reinvents himself as a painter.
Seconds goes beyond a Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi horror, or a James Bond thriller. It’s a critique of Western materialism; it explores a dissatisfaction with consumer culture — the quest for personal fulfilment.
Arthur Hamilton’s transformation fails to make him happy. Reborn as Tony Wilson, he views the changes to his life as external: superficial. Once again, he believes he is compelled to live by the expectations of those around him. To fit in, he must act the role of a bohemian artist. His new life seems fake — stage-managed. To avert a crisis, the Company sends in an employee, to provide support, and to distract him romantically.
His erratic behaviour, and inability to move on from his old life, turns him into a liability. He is upsetting the other ‘reborns’, and becoming a security risk for ‘the Company’. When he visits his ‘wife’ — posing as an old friend of her deceased husband — she perceptively explains that her late husband had focused on his career, status, and material possessions. He was a good man, although emotionally distant; he had been ‘dead’ for many years.
Desperate, he convinces himself he can go through ‘the Company’s’ rebirthing process a second time — this time he vows: to control his destiny, to focus on people, on values, and not ‘things’. But ‘the Company’ has other plans: reborns who fail to adapt to their new life are used as cadavers to fake the deaths of new customers.
Tony Wilson is restrained, and wheeled to an operating theatre. It is at this moment he realises what he’s looking for — being with his daughter — but it’s too late.
As the anaesthetic kicks in, he remembers walking on the beach with his young daughter. It’s at this point we realise Seconds is not a horror story, or an experimental art film — it’s a traditional morality play. The warning is simple: the meaning Arthur Hamilton seeks is already there in his life. Unable to realise that, he allows himself to be seduced by ersatz youth, and carefree abandon.