John Frankenheimer's "Seconds"
January 22, 2012 3:21 PM   Subscribe

Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966) is a disturbing film to watch. With its unresolved, horrific ending, it’s possibly one of the most depressing films ever made [SPOILER].

The cinematography is by the great James Wong Howe. The soundtrack is by the great Jerry Goldsmith.
posted by Trurl (38 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I stumbled across Seconds on PBS in the early 90's - no fancy cable or Internet then, so way to figure out what the heck it was. That was a long, strange afternoon.
posted by schoolgirl report at 3:30 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, hey, I stumbled onto a description of this movie years ago, decided that I had to see it and promptly forgot it existed. Thanks.
posted by griphus at 3:31 PM on January 22, 2012

oh wow that's weird, from the Brian Wilson wikipedia bit:

Wilson found Seconds an especially intense experience, that affected him personally (beginning with his arriving late; the first dialogue he heard onscreen was "Come in, Mr. Wilson", taking him by surprise). His state of mind shifted over the next months, between fantasies of escaping his own life in a similar way, and thoughts that perhaps rival producer Phil Spector had somehow convinced Columbia Pictures (sic) to make the movie "to mess with my mind". Wilson later abandoned the Smile sessions, and did not see another movie in a theater until E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982.
posted by mannequito at 3:38 PM on January 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

Miracle Mile ftw, sorry.
posted by spitbull at 3:51 PM on January 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

I watched this just a few months ago. Good movie, though a little rough around the edges: there's a number of scenes in which the dialogue is overdubbed, something that takes me right out of the movie. I know it's just a technical thing, but low-budget movies from the 60s and 70s are just full of ADR. /rant

Seconds borders a bit on SF--there's a big character change that relies on your full suspension of disbelief. But the ending is appropriately disturbing, if for no other reason than the people doing the bad thing aren't outwardly manifesting evil; they're just doing their jobs.
posted by zardoz at 3:54 PM on January 22, 2012

Love this film - thanks Trurl.

I have to say that I'm not sure what was unresolved, unless it's the meaning of the very, very last shot (which I interpret to be what is in the mind's eye of Rock Hudson's character at that moment). About that I will say no more for fear of being spoilerific, other than that the viewer can easily supply his or her own interpretation of it.

Very interesting that Rock Hudson and Will Geer, both gay (perhaps bi in Geer's case), were the principal stars of this film, and that the film can easily be interpreted as a critique of the socially-acceptable American hetero lifestyle(s) of the '60's. (I think it goes way beyond that, but that's just me.) Will Geer was also coming off being blacklisted by McCarthy and crew at the time "Seconds" was made.

I guarantee you that if you see this, you'll never think of Grandpa Walton the same way again. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, watch this film if you're prone to existential funks.
posted by Currer Belfry at 3:59 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'll second the "really good Twilight Zone episode" take, like an episode fleshed out for an grown up audience on the big screen.

I thought the casting was wonderful, especially like Will Geer's very creepy yet grandfatherly CEO character, Salome Jens as the mysteriously seductive bohemian and John Randolph's desperation as a stifled middle aged white collar wasp. The surreal and paranoid nightmarish feel by use of wide angle lenses, B/W film, and sometimes sparse dialogue brings to mind Frankenheimer's earlier movies like The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May. And of course, Rock Hudson, who brings a surprising amount of sensitivity and conflicted emotion to the part.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:06 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

God yeah, Miracle Mile. 20 years on and I still haven't shaken the depression that one caused.
posted by sourwookie at 4:13 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

(Speaking as a connoisseur of nuclear apocalypse movies, either of these makes MM look like St. Elmo's Fire.)
posted by Trurl at 4:19 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Threads in particular.
posted by philip-random at 4:30 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreed that Threads is a much rougher movie by any standard, but what Miracle Mile has going for it - and the only other film remotely like this I can think of right now is the 1970s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers - is that it dangles some scary stuff in front of you, sure, but always in an essentially predictable, Hollywood way. It's thrilling but not really hardcore.

And then right at the very end, much like in a nightmare, the reality that YOU ARE SCREWED comes crashing down in a shocking sudden fashion. It has real dread in it. Threads by comparison is grim grim grim from the get-go, and even that final clincher at the end is more of a foregone conclusion than an ugly twist.

Also: Seconds is an awesome movie. Everyone should give it a go.
posted by stinkycheese at 4:52 PM on January 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't know about "most depressing" or even very depressing when it comes to Seconds. One feels very sad for the main character, certainly. He takes a very unique and drastic opportunity to reinvent himself, discovers it doesn't fix the hole in his life, and tries to trace his steps to figure out where it all went wrong. I'm sure that predicament is one that almost everyone could sympathize with at some point in life. What makes the story creepy is the shadowiness and clinical nature of the company that offers Arthur Hamilton a new lease on life, and the price it commands in the end. Perhaps if there is a lesson, it's to appreciate whatever good fortune one has in life. As Hamilton recognizes the mistakes made, he seems wiser and ready to make a true effort at rebirth, only to find tragically that it's too late.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:03 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Holy shit, Grandpa Walton was gay?
posted by mediareport at 5:38 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Feel Bad-wise, what puts Seconds a leg up over your favorite nuclear apocalypse film - which sucks - is that the horror is internal rather than external.

Perhaps someone will start a nuclear war or perhaps they won't. But Seconds tells us that we're doomed in any possible reality simply by being ourselves.
posted by Trurl at 5:45 PM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

And while nuclear apocalypse is, for the most part, unimaginable, we already live in a world filled with companies marketing products that promise (more subtly, of course) to make our dreams come true.
posted by Trurl at 5:52 PM on January 22, 2012

Trurl, I love you. I love your fpps. I love your username. Thank you for posting this.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 6:11 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

For whatever reason, Shattered Glass is my Most Depressing Movie. It never attempts to make a case that what Stephen Glass is doing is anything but wrong, but he's so clearly immature, and we see the accolades and admiration he gets for doing something he is clearly talented at (albeit in exactly the wrong context) and then once it starts to unravel we mostly get a film about someone who is fucked no matter what he does, and it places him as the protagonist, with his inevitably futile attempts to squirm out of it.

The climactic confrontation between Glass and editor Chuck Lane just destroys me, because Lane is 100% in the right, and hates what he is having to do but knows that by duty and principle he has to do it, and Glass is watching his life finally come completely apart, and when he asks Chuck Lane for a ride home, because he doesn't know what he might do to himself, it feels like it might be true. We've been watching this story through Glass's POV this whole time, and we know that The New Republic is his entire life and that he has no capability of handling things. He is desperate. But we also know that it is a transparent last-ditch effort to gain Lane's sympathy, and that Glass is a pathological liar, and that Lane can't risk subjecting himself to that.

I dunno. It just depresses me (in a good way) seeing someone brought to a no-way-out point like that, and having no one willing to take up their defense, because they've destroyed that possibility.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:27 PM on January 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconds ran at the Boston SciFi Marathon back a few years ago, when it was still at the Coolidge theater (2003, maybe?). I do think the film runs a little bit long or maybe just sputters a bit in the middle - it felt like an extended Twilight Zone episode that was extended a bit too long. Still, very good. And depressing. I suspect I'd find it even more depressing now that I'm further along into middle age.

And, oh God, Miracle Mile. That film totally takes the prize for ... something. Staring off with a RomCom quirky flirty and end with, well, the end.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:34 PM on January 22, 2012

Er, quirky flirty encounter. Flirty is - thank God - not a noun.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:57 PM on January 22, 2012

As an aside: today I learned that Khigh Dheigh, who had a small role in Seconds, and was so wonderful in The Manchurian Candidate, founded a Taoist institute and wrote a book on the I Ching.

Bonus Khigh Dheigh trivia.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 7:14 PM on January 22, 2012

Damn. I mispelled his name, which is: Khigh Dhiegh (Wikipedia got it wrong, which is where I must have copied it from.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 7:26 PM on January 22, 2012

What's also interesting is that Khigh Dhiegh wasn't even East Asian, but a guy of Egyptian descent born with the name Kenneth Dickerson.
posted by jonp72 at 7:37 PM on January 22, 2012

"Ruby" is a great satan! Klapaucius likes Seconds, too.
posted by 0rison at 7:53 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconds is so, so awesome. Some of the best use of wide angle lenses ever.

It's pretty depressing, although in a very detached, clinical way - you don't really get sad from it, you just sort of nod your head and admit that we'd all probably screw up our second chances, too.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:57 PM on January 22, 2012

I love Seconds, but could do just fine never ever seeing it again.
This is one film that's aesthetic drives so much of its flavor, even down to the film stock.
It's not only in black and white but a kind of stark chiaroscuro black and white.
Just like the film's overall tone, theres very little light to buoy against all the stark and steady lurch of the story. I dont recall a single laugh or light moment in the whole flick.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:37 PM on January 22, 2012

[Some general, vague spoilers follow]

What makes Seconds more depressing than a post-apocalyptic (or even mid-apocalyptic) film is that the disaster pictures essentially take all of the control out of the hands of the protagonists. They're doomed, yes, but there's not anything they personally can do about the situation besides running around and screaming.

In Seconds, though, Hamilton/Wilson freely makes the choice to use the Company's services, and he does so for what are understandable if not exactly admirable reasons. He wants a second chance at life, and who among us doesn't at least toy with that idea? What if lost some weight and got back in shape? What if I quit the dead-end job I'm in right now and found something fulfilling to do with my life? What if I put myself out there and finally found my soul mate? (In contrast, I know I for one don't have fond fantasies about nuclear extinction.)

One the die is cast, Wilson's task doesn't seem all that difficult: after all, this is apparently the life he's always wanted to lead, so all he has to do is, essentially, to be himself. And yet he fails miserably.

What the movie says is, suppose you do get a second chance, and suppose further that your second chance is so unbelievably excellent that you end up being Rock Hudson, for God's sake! But you know what, that second chance is going to make you even more miserable than you are now. In fact... remember how the movie ends.

So, just forget about it,: there's no such thing as rebirth, no such thing as reinvention, no such thing as a do-over. The movie is about hope, and what it it says is... no matter how awful your life is now, hope will make it infinitely worse.

And note that this story doesn't take place in the old world: it's 100% American. Even in the Land of Opportunity, hope is deadly.

That's depressing. Realistic, perhaps, but terribly depressing.

There are certainly flaws in the film, most notably the deliberate introduction of "shock" elements: the bizarre camera angles and distorting lenses, the long creepy silences, and especially the artsy treatment of the grape-stomping scene. The piece would work better, I think, if the cinematography maintained banal, almost documentary feel of the opening scenes in the laundry, the meat-packing plant and the recovery rooms in the hospital. (On the other hand, a less lurid tone would have made the picture more difficult to market as a horror film, and even with that hook it did no business.)
posted by La Cieca at 8:47 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Have any of you ever read the original novel, Seconds by David Ely? It's great. Very readable, very chilling. I've never seen the movie, but I'd like to now-- although I'm sure I'll keep comparing it to the book.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 9:18 PM on January 22, 2012

Seconds is a great film, but it isn't the most depressing. I would give that label to: Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent
posted by Arthur Phillips Jones Jr at 9:50 PM on January 22, 2012

Ha! I was just going to say the same thing. The Seventh Continent is by far the film that actually depressed me the most. Kept me in bed for days. Probably the only movie I would actually hesitate to recommend to someone, depending on their mental state at the time.
posted by stinkycheese at 2:17 AM on January 23, 2012

I wrote an essay on Seconds when I was an undergrad (Thanks, JP Gorin!).
Relevant screenshots: posted by beerbajay at 3:30 AM on January 23, 2012

Speaking of Threads, a friend of mine semiregularly watches it as escapism: after all, how bad can your life be if you're not dying of radiation poisoning in a ruined world fighting for the last tin of baked beans?
posted by MartinWisse at 5:57 AM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

mannequito: "oh wow that's weird, from the Brian Wilson wikipedia bit:

Wilson found Seconds an especially intense experience, that affected him personally (beginning with his arriving late; the first dialogue he heard onscreen was "Come in, Mr. Wilson", taking him by surprise). His state of mind shifted over the next months, between fantasies of escaping his own life in a similar way, and thoughts that perhaps rival producer Phil Spector had somehow convinced Columbia Pictures (sic) to make the movie "to mess with my mind". Wilson later abandoned the Smile sessions, and did not see another movie in a theater until E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982."

You left out the part about how Wilson was regularly out of his mind on psychoactive drugs at the time, which is probably not the best state to watch a conspiracy thriller.
posted by mkultra at 8:54 AM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want to say that the theme of "You can escape your life but you will be doomed in your new life because you are flawed" has been done before and since, but I'm having trouble coming up with other high profile examples. It's like the opposite of Groundhog Day.

At its root, this is a sort of EC Horror Comics kind of plot, though. Except Randolph would have been an explicitly bad man rather than just a guy in the midst of midlife crisis.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:18 AM on January 23, 2012

One of the great things about Seconds, to me at least, is that it can be read both generally and specifically. It's a fantastic (and cautionary) moral fable about how we always take our problems with us, inside us, and any attempt to alter the contexts in which we exist as the route to changing our lives for the better is doomed to failure because we will inevitably pollute new surroundings with the internal chaos we cart around within ourselves. But I think it should also be read as a very specific meditation on post-war American society, in particular (in decade's terms) concerning how the fifties thought that it envied the sixties (and how such sentiments were perverse and doomed), but more generally on the cultures of conformity and commercialised capitalism that Wilson ends up questioning in his "The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important..." speech to Evans towards the end.
It's still amazing to me, especially considering the ending "is so downbeat it's practically six-feet under" (as one review I've read puts it), that Frankenheimer got to shoot that script. And shoot it in the way that he did. It's a minor miracle that it wasn't hacked up all to fuckery in the edit by studio wonks to try to temper some of its anti-hope rhetoric and crazed fish-eyes.
Finally, in amongst the plaudits for the score, the script, the photography, and all else that makes it, I've some mad love for Rock Hudson in this film. He really nails it down in the second half: the slightly off-kilter, uncomfortable, angsty, baffled air he pulls off magnificently. The scene with his wife, and then all his closing scenes back in the facility: he really turns in a fantastic performance. Not just a pretty face, you know?
posted by hydatius at 10:38 AM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just watched it again. So much agony might have been saved if the Company had just shut up for two seconds and let "Mr. Wilson" speak his mind. His last words to the Director were along the lines of "choice! You've got to give people choice!" and the Director's all like, "yeah, sure, so noted, we'll take that under advisement". One helps his end wasn't really in vain.
posted by stinkycheese at 12:21 PM on January 23, 2012

Great! Now I have some more items to add to my list headed "It's not the despair, I can take the despair; It's the hope I can't handle.'
posted by LD Feral at 2:18 PM on January 23, 2012

'Miracle Mile' is highly under-rated and really worth a closer look. I think of it as a screwball romantic comedy with a really intense ending. Also, it has a map of the San Bernadino Freeway made out of spaghetti.

'Threads' is pretty depressing. Also, the 'Red Fuji' serquence in 'Kurosawa's Dreams'.
posted by ovvl at 4:17 PM on January 23, 2012

Metafilter is becoming the internet's one stop shop for trolling poor bastards into watching Threads and being sad.

I am thrilled to be a part of this.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 6:09 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

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