The Savage Stack - SECONDS (1966)

John Frankenheimer's existential horror picture is a work of perfect paranoia.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The thirty-seventh entry into this unbroken backlog is John Frankenheimer’s paranoid existential horror picture, Seconds

The opening credits of John Frankenheimer’s B&W existential horror picture, Seconds, seem to last for an eternity. As Jerry Goldsmith’s score shrieks at you, all piercing organ keys and abrasive orchestration, reflections of a man’s mug are contorted and disfigured as if he’s staring into funhouse mirrors. Eyes are bisected, lips elongate to the ears, and his mouth becomes a cavernous tomb. The titles Saul Bass picked to contrast with the queasy photography stand out like fluorescent tubes in a dank parking garage, emanating an almost blinding radiance that trails and smears with the grain of film stock. At the end, we’re face to face with an anonymous monster, who is either crying out for help or cawing at us like an agitated bird, his wail drowned to silence by the opening theme’s final notes as we dive into his spittle-stained maw. Three minutes of surrealist nightmare fuel that knocks the audience out of their chairs and sets the movie’s creepy, macabre tenor.

The vertigo-inducing visuals don’t stop once Frankenheimer’s name is ominously displayed. Strapping the camera to a nameless man (Frank Campanella) as he pursues another through a crowded train station, waves of human chaos flow around us. But the hunter is laser focused on his target: Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a seemingly innocuous businessman who is preoccupied with his daily commute home. Once the pursuer reaches Arthur, he slips the man a knowing look and a note, which simply reads: 34 Lafayette Street. Paranoia grips the ostensibly everyday Joe for the rest of his ride, as he sees blurred double and the walls close in. Time is running out, friend. But why? The sequence is a flurry of intrusive close-ups, constantly shifting camera angles and rapid fire cuts, manufacturing an overwhelming sensation of dread.

Strangely enough, the fear dissipates once Arthur reaches his stop, as he’s picked up in the family car by his wife, Emily (Frances Reid), and everything seems sane in sunny suburbia. Idle chit chat gives way to Arthur getting angry over further inquiry into his day. That night, after Emily goes to bed, the man receives a phone call from a friend he thought to be dead, Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton). Incredulous at getting calls from beyond the grave, Arthur isn’t convinced until Charlie describes an old college photo of the two that hangs above the mantle. He begs Arthur to join him at 34 Lafayette Street; to give up the “little” he’s living for in favor of the “greatest time of his life” After he hangs up the phone, Emily asks who called, and Arthur brushes the question off, along with her goodnight affection. This marriage died long ago, and there’s no hope of ever resuscitating it.

Unhappiness has long permeated the work of John Frankenhiemer, stretching all the way back to The Young Savages (’61). But here, Frankenheimer was ignoring the Cold War angst that dominated The Manchurian Candidate (’62) or Seven Days in May (’64), opting instead to meet mid-life malaise head on, with the marquee star of another pioneer on the subject, Douglas Sirk. Sirk had made a mint off of woman’s weepies starring Rock Hudson in Technicolor dreams such as Magnificent Obsession (’54) and All That Heaven Allows (’55). Under the tutelage of the German transplant auteur, Hudson had become quite the actor, and was perfect to bring that everyday existentialism and amalgamate it to Frankenheimer’s distinct brand of distrust.

Arthur takes an Alice In Wonderland style trip to 34 Lafayette, only instead of falling down a psychedelic rabbit hole, Arthur is traversing through a gauntlet of blue collar masculinity. Passing by men in a meat packing plant, these blue-collar beefcakes are the very same kind he’d more than likely deny credit to as an officer at his financial institution. As he waits on one of the lavish couches at Lafayette’s hidden, book-lined bureau, he dozes off and dreams about forcing himself onto a writhing, beautiful woman, who screams as he lowers himself onto her. The jagged, obtuse angles from the opening credits return, as we recognize that this surrealism is nothing more than the labyrinth of repressed memories and sexuality Arthur keeps stowed away in his mind. Upon awakening, he’s taken into the back and pitched the deal of a lifetime, but there’s a caveat attached to this arrangement. Should he ever disclose the existence of these self-described “relocation experts”, his dreams have been recorded and will be released to ruin him – reveries regarding the strangulation of young frail females. How can he say no to this offer now?

Arthur is trapped at the end of a long, ordinary life. A husband with a wife and grown daughter, there’s nothing left for the man to truly embrace in the world as he waits for an inevitable end to come and take him away from this mortal coil. It’s no coincidence that Charlie reminds Arthur who he is through a captured moment from their long-gone college days. And this is what the Company promises a return to: the peak – an effervescence of an existence yet to be lived. No family holding him down; no heartless banking position for him to toil away at, day in and out, for a measly paycheck. There are parties to attend and women to woo — the swinging '60s he was never allowed to embrace once his masculinity was forfeited in favor of domesticated responsibility. As Charlie tells him, “you owe to yourself.” His death will be faked. A new face will be forged. A chance to start again. Even when Arthur relents, he can’t offer up anything beyond “we get along” in regard to his relationship with his wife. The sales pitch is suddenly transformed into a buyer’s confessional; an emotionally raw eulogy to the dreams of youth.

The bed is prepped and surgery ensues. Upon awakening from anesthesia, Arthur is now Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson (Rock Hudson). A handsome playboy, Tony is everything that Arthur wasn’t. Broad chinned and beautiful, Tony has degrees from reputable universities. Instead of crunching numbers, he’s a successful artist with a private Malibu studio. Best of all – he’s a bachelor, free to pursue whatever women come his way. Tony Wilson is the personification of what every Average White Male desires during their mid-life crisis: complete and total freedom. He’s the next decade’s representation of Ron Kirby – strapping gardener who forged his own path in Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, despite what society thought of him. Only instead of shears, Tony Wilson uses a paintbrush to express himself.

Nevertheless, loneliness creeps in as Tony adjusts to his new life. Aided by the ceaselessly polite John (Wesley Addy), whose job with the Company is to ensure a smooth transition back into the world, Tony finds that he is now an empty vessel, unsure of what to even do with himself on a daily basis. On the beach he meets Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), a woman who, like Arthur, had it all (the husband, the kids, the station wagon, etc.). But that didn’t stop her from waking up one morning and just leaving, only to occasionally visit over the next four years. “It’s different now,” she says, attempting to explain her inability to connect with the family she helped build, but he totally understands where she’s coming from. The beauty of Tony and Nora’s connection is the fact that it shows that this intense wanting for a “better life” isn’t limited to the Rockwellian patriarchs of the period. Restlessness is blind when it comes to gender and strikes with an equal amount of vigor. Tony and Nora are one of a kind – damaged boats adrift in a still river.

An unavoidable generation clash was bound to occur at some point, as Arthur, a sixty-plus year old man reborn as a bachelor in his early forties, is now very much an “old soul” in a literal sense. when Tony is hurled into the middle of a nudist wine party, his more prude instincts prevail. Being that this is very much her people, Nora revels and imbibes, and he remains a teetotaler, eyes agape at the wanton naked flesh. Drunk and caught up in the moment, Nora strips off her clothes, and runs for one of the grape tanks, hoping to stomp naked with the other partiers. Tony chases her, screaming at her to “get back here” like a disapproving father. It isn’t until the rest of the party forcefully remove his clothes and throw him into the vat that he finally gives in to the bacchanalia, and is nearly drowned in fresh wine, the values of his former existence cleansed with alcohol.

As Seconds is a John Frankenheimer film, Tony’s new life, of course, is a lie. The artist becomes a drunken mess at a party he and Nora throw, confessing in a fit of intoxication to the adjustment the company has put him through. The men at the party quickly smuggle the obnoxious gust into the bedroom, revealing that they too were all “reborn”. As for Nora – she’s a company woman, just doing her job. Everything that Tony has touched and felt has been fantasy, no more meaningful than what he used to pine for at his desk. It just became tangible. In a weird way, Seconds feels like the first metaphor for Corporate America, well before that phrase even entered our collective lexicon. Happiness in America is discovered through a conglomerate, who surrounds you with their products and delivers what you believe you value. But the moment you rebel against the Company’s wishes, and intervention is staged, and you’re surely fired.

Tony returns “home” and requests to do a posthumous portrait of Arthur, which has Emily struggling to define what she loved about her dead husband in the first place. She swears up and down he was good man, but also a stranger. “He worked hard. He became more detached.” Hudson plays the scene as if he were some kind of detective, gathering background on the recently deceased so he can work the case. As a memento, Emily gives Tony one of Arthur’s old tennis trophies. The way the actor hides Arthur’s crushing sadness behind a chiseled mask is incredible, clutching the ancient achievement like a wino does an empty liquor bottle as he staggers away from his former suburban domicile. He is man without a company or a country now, with no life jacket to save him from drowning.

Tony wants to go back. He wants to be Arthur again. The Company agrees that being “reborn” just isn’t a good fit. The waiting becomes the hardest part; back at the office in a room with a dozen other men, all hoping that the next go will be the one where they get it right. Yet most people never get one do-over, let alone a second attempt, and Arthur’s final fate is the stuff out of the most horrific episodes of The Twilight Zone. However grotesque, the climax of Seconds hammers home the film’s ultimately positive message: you have to create meaning in your own life. There is significance to be found in being a husband and working to provide for your children, just as there is in being an artist on the beach. It’s up to the individual to ensure that they are always striving toward achieving a dream, no matter how inconsequential it may seem.

“I don’t know if I had a dream,” Tony says at the end, realizing his ultimate mistake too late. One can’t help wonder if Frankenheimer is commenting on the lack of passionate aspirations an entire generation shared. While resurrected into a body that can buy him anything, Arthur’s soul is still dead. Much like Mary Shelley’s famous monster, a beast can be constructed out of dead parts but a living spirit cannot be re-created. Even though Tony is an artist, his portfolio has been completely manufactured by the Company; a complete body of work whose only purpose is to provide a living for a hidden man who “once thought about painting”. Those who come to Tony’s seaside estate have no interest in his work, they simply want to mingle amongst the other socialites who have gathered. Much like the perfect house Arthur provided for his family, Tony’s art is nothing more than a commercial definition of self — a means to establish status to the other dead-eyed dilettantes that are, at their core, no different than the suburbanites waiting out the corporeal clock.

Seconds is currently available on Blu-ray, courtesy of the Criterion Collection.