Film studies

John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966)

New to Auteur’s Constellations series, Seconds explores John Frankenheimer’s criminally overlooked monolith of paranoia, part science fiction, part body horror, part noir thriller cum black comedy. In this blog post authors Jez Conolly and Emma Westwood reflect on their study of the 1966 film.

Writing a book about John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, arguably Hollywood’s bleakest ever film, was always going to pose some challenges. Titles in the Constellations book series demand a passion on the part of the writer, so to do the subject justice one must immerse oneself in the world of the film. In the case of Seconds, it’s a world one wouldn’t ordinarily choose to inhabit, one of fraught inescapability and a paranoid mistrust of the systems that bind society. In the real world we can suppress these notions of how things are under the surface, and while we can recognise Seconds as a deliberately concentrated distillation and a cautionary tale, it was a film ostensibly designed to be experienced and inhabited purely for its running time, not be a place of the mind in which to reside for months (and, in our case, years) on end. As a result, and quite aptly, a consequence of compiling the book is a little mental scar tissue.  

Just as aptly, there is a certain curious beauty to be found in this scarring. It helped enormously that the writing project resolved as a collaboration – an extended neurosis shared is an extended neurosis halved. This perhaps paints a picture of a thoroughly tortuous writing and researching experience. It was anything but, although on occasion the creation of the book felt like a prolonged spell spent in a movie mortuary, running a magnifying glass over an exquisite cadaver. However dark the experience was at times, it always seemed deeply worthwhile, and we were undoubtedly propelled by a shared belief that Seconds is a film that deserves attention from a wider audience. 

The hallmark of a great film is that, even after you’ve excavated it and brought 40,000 words about it up to the surface, you can still continue to mine it for fresh seams of interest. Just as Seconds’ sinister ‘Company’ extracted every scrap of value out of their clients, we drilled down into the film to find its precious minerals, and we sincerely hope that there are gems aplenty in the final book for everyone to enjoy.  

Seconds is such a wellspring of inspiration, there is so much more we could have covered, and as time goes by since signing off on the finished manuscript, it has become clear that many other elements could have made the final cut. The presence of art runs through the film, and is certainly explored in the book; we see artistry not just in the narrative – the post-surgical protagonist’s constructed occupation as a painter being the prime example – but also in the stylistic choices made by director John Frankenheimer, frequently in conjunction with his Academy Award-nominated cinematographer James Wong Howe. The often dizzying camerawork, combined with the use of black and white photography, leaves the viewer with the impression that they are witnessing a sequence of preparatory sketches for an action painting. There is movement captured in monotone sweeps and blurs, like expansive charcoal drawings or splashy, messy ink renderings. 

Yet punctuating the many sequences of kinetic adventure there are also moments of remarkable stillness. Some are born of tense inertia – for example, we witness the central character waiting in a frozen state for a phone call in the middle of the night – while others are more serene. The early beach scenes between Rock Hudson and Salome Jens offer some respite from the frequently hectic visuals, and in a film that is full of startling edits designed to fray the viewer’s nerves, there is a short succession of dissolves in the middle of the film, linking its pivotal grape stomp party with the protagonist’s house party, that borders on sublime. We see Hudson and Jens intertwined in the dunes with the tide gently lapping at the shoreline, and for a moment we can believe that the Company’s client will find happiness.  

So in many ways Seconds is a film of contrasts, alternately through its tone, pacing and performance, and not least in terms of its bold, sometimes almost reckless visual decisions. On several occasions throughout the film lighting is directed straight at the camera, not exactly a textbook production technique, unless of course you are deliberately trying to disrupt the viewing experience through a string of brilliant obliterations. One soon comes to realise that destabilisation was one of the filmmaker’s key aims. Frankenheimer actively sought to make the film’s audiences feel uncomfortable, and he succeeded, which goes a long way to explain why many turned their back on it. When a film gets shunned in the way that Seconds did upon release the circumstances are set in place for a delicious disinterment in due course, and so it proved to be; we were there ready and willing when the film was finally ripe for reappraisal. In writing the book we sincerely hope that we have done justice to this dark star in the cinematic firmament. 

For more information on Seconds, visit our website.

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One thought on “John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966)

  1. Pingback: On the LUP blog: SECONDS – EMMA WESTWOOD

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