Labeled as a “Faustian vision of alienation in suburban America,” Seconds is a cult classic that examines what happens when we make a huge decision and want to simply go back home (Del Valle). The story is somewhat predictable – mix It’s A Wonderful Life, Freaky Friday, and a little surgery play in a Vonnegut novel, and you have Seconds, but where the magic of this film lies isn’t so much in the predictable storytelling and plot. Rock Hudson’s convincing (and uncharacteristic) performance tossed with the incredible cinematography by James Wong Howe were both unforgettable, and they combined to present a story that was made more terrifying by their art along with a haunting score and creepy practical effects. Seconds is definitely a midnight sleeper, but it’s a fun one with some edgy production value between the early handheld point of view work, using scenes from actual surgery, and combining trippy sets with unique perspectives. It was certain to catapult the young Frankenheimer’s career into what it is today.
I watched this just after I read the book. I hadn’t heard of either prior to reading about it in Schneider’s 1001, even though it’s pretty safe to say that I am well aware of Frankenheimer’s work in general. The book was not very good, but the entire time I read it it was clear that the story was solid enough to warrant it being transcribed into a film, almost that it belongs as a film, and here we are.
The film was dreamy and edgy, and for 1966 it was likely shocking for the original audiences. Hudson’s performance was strikingly different from most of his other performances, and this departure provided not only an opportunity to successfully flex his dramatic muscles but also work in a format that broke through his squeaky image as a leading romantic comedy actor and present something that frankly holds a mirror to his troubled personal existence. It is no surprise that he was involved – the story itself seems to be a metaphor for the actor’s life, and as almost a reverse Stanislavsky, he stepped into a role where he was able to allow his character to become him rather than the other way around.
The cinematography and music were the best part of this film for me. Around every corner of the film, from the opening credits to the final dissolve, was something new and unique to see. While today’s digital interface brings a lot to the table, you will never convince me that Hollywood is doing anything as disturbing and radical as Wong Howe did in this film with simple processing, practical, and cinematographic effects.
What results is a story that is just as relevant today as it was when it came out. The American Dream, walled in by the middle-class prison, seems to have always begged for a restart. In the case of Seconds, we realize that given options, we might just stick with the prison.
My review of the book, which you can find along with many others by following me at this link over at Goodreads:
Seconds is one of those classic Rod Sterling stories where, if you are paying attention to the setup just right, it is pretty easy to see where it is going. Being a teacher of literature and story, I would have liked to see something a little more innovative than walking into the ending that I saw coming, however, I will take into consideration that this was likely a pretty original story for 1963. That in mind, there was a great deal of meandering and needless points in the novel where action seemed to drag either for the sake of internal monologue (that didn’t serve to promote further characterization), pointless conversation or side-track that didn’t further the plot at all and was not worth the characterization it provided, or the biggest culprit, adding a scene for the sake of transitioning to the next scene. Frankly, the most I got out of this was a valuable lesson for my own writing in what to keep and what to toss.
The book does have a couple good things going for it, however. I must say that as I read, it was clear that it would make a much better movie than its format as a pulpy train station dime novel. I was not disappointed with the film at all, and frankly, it not only translated perfectly but perhaps belongs as a film more than it does a book. There is one exception, and that is in the book there is a scene that works really well – with the protagonist’s estranged daughter – it is not in the film at all but serves a crucial and meaningful role in the text. The second thing it has going for it is its length. The first edition I read clocks in at a slim 182 pages (with very large typeface) which made the book a breeze to fly through. Ely’s ability to tell the story he told in so few words is not only commendable but impressive – and that is the element of the book that will stick with me most of all… Knowing it could have been done in 150, however, is not lost on me as a writer.