John Frankenheimer’s Seconds is a maddening, surreal and deeply distressing film. Fusing elements of science fiction, body horror and psychological thriller, the film defies generic boundaries to emerge as a monstrous assemblage more disjointed than anything born of the mad surgeon’s knife. In a 2018 article for American Cinematographer, Vincent LoBrutto described the film as looking like “a Twilight Zone episode directed by Jean-Luc Godard”. Although forming part of Frankenheimer’s iconic paranoia trilogy – along with The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) – Seconds eschews the broad geopolitical tensions explored in those other films to explore more personal themes of identity and agency. Perhaps it is because of the intimacy of its themes, alongside its formal experimentalism, that Seconds did not – at least, until very recently – achieve the same critical and popular acclaim as the other entries in the paranoia trilogy. Indeed, despite being a major studio production featuring one of the era’s biggest stars (Rock Hudson), Seconds was a box-office failure, booed at the Cannes Film Festival and largely dismissed by critics who were unsure of what to make of it.
Recent years have witnessed a critical reappraisal of the film, with numerous writers and filmmakers praising its surreal imagery, innovative camerawork and complex themes. Jez Conolly and Emma Westwood’s short monograph, simply entitled Seconds, not only forms part of this much-needed critical re-engagement with the film but raises the academic discourse surrounding it to an entirely new level. Published as part of Auteur Press’s Constellations series (an ongoing collection of short books discussing milestone works in science fiction film and television), Seconds is a nuanced, well-researched and, in places, experimental study of the titular film. The first thing that strikes the reader about Conolly and Westwood’s book is that it is not organised around clear topics (like production, release, reception, etc.). Instead, their book is, like the film it discusses, a much more complex entity. Each of the nine chapters that make up Seconds is an assemblage, suturing together contextual material, theoretical discourse and film analysis.
In the introductory section, Conolly and Westwood provide a brief overview of the film’s reception and its position in cinematic history. They also establish a key concern that will run throughout the entire book, the subtle interweaving of theme and form. The authors explain that the innovative camerawork of cinematographer James Wong Howe creates the sense that “the film stock, the very ‘skin’ of the film itself and/or the screen or the surface upon which one is viewing it, is being manipulated and pulled out of shape” (15). This technical deformation is inextricable from the film’s thematic interest in plastic surgery, transformation and the manipulation of identity. Consequently, the authors suggest that it is impossible to consider the formal aspects of Seconds as distinct from its thematic elements. They are inseparable, sutured together. For this reason, each chapter considers conceptual categories – such as theme, context, ideology and symbolism – alongside the more technical facets of the mise-en-scène (i.e., cinematography, set design, lighting, etc.).
Following on from the introduction, the first full-length chapter is perhaps the most conventional, providing a general overview of the film’s narrative. The subsequent chapter, entitled “Memory”, deals with how Seconds treats themes of memory and identity, exploring the fluidity and ephemerality of both. The chapter opens, appropriately, by asking the reader to recall their first viewing of Seconds, before moving on to investigate the role of memory – and its fundamental slipperiness – within the film’s narrative. The next chapter “Artist/Surgeon” pivots on the parallels established between artists and surgeons throughout Seconds. As Conolly and Westwood argue, artist and surgeon are “two pursuits that are occupied with the deconstruction and reconstruction of matter into something wonderful” (58). Although the chapter does focus on the presence of actual surgeons (the medical professionals employed by the Company) and artists (Arthur Hamilton [John Randoloph] and Tony Wilson [Rock Hudson) in the film, its primary subject is how themes of reinvention manifest in Seconds. Constructing the film itself as both an act of surgical reconstruction and a form artistic renewal, the authors explore its interstitial position between arthouse and mainstream Hollywood cinema. They investigate themes of creation (both artistic and scientific), connecting Seconds to both real-world surgical innovations (cosmetic and gender confirmation surgeries) and to other cinematic texts dealing with surgical transformations (Georges Franju’s Eye’s Without a Face  and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another ). They also creatively extend the theme of transformation to a nuanced discussion of Rock Hudson’s carefully cultivated star persona.
Probably the most engaging and challenging chapter in the book is the fifth chapter, “Skin/Meat/Fluid”. Centred around images of abjection and bodily metaphors, this section deals with the excessive corporeality on display in Seconds. In addition to illuminating the film’s meat-based iconography (Mr Ruby’s [Jack Corey] rhapsodic praise for cooked chicken, Hamilton’s journey through “Honest Arnie’s” abattoir), Westwood and Conolly also draw out the parallels between the narrative trajectory of Seconds and the human digestive system. The chapter links these images of consumption and expulsion to the bodily fluids (sweat, in particular) so carefully framed by Wong Howe’s camera. The next chapter, entitled “Sex/Drugs/Rock/Paper/Scissors” situates Seconds within the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s. Here, the authors connect Hamilton’s transformation into Wilson with the broader social transitions of the era, particularly those pertaining to sexuality, drugs and spirituality.
Chapter Seven, “Sound/Vision” is dedicated to one of the most important elements of Seconds, James Wong Howe’s extraordinarily inventive cinematography. Here, the authors argue that “The camera is not merely a recording device in Seconds, but an expressive tool” (93). Analysing Wong Howe’s use of wide 9.7 mm lenses, as well as handheld and body-mounted cameras, Conolly and Westwood demonstrate how the film’s cinematography is essential to visualising its core themes of distortion and alienation. This chapter also discusses how Jerry Goldsmith’s score accentuates Wong Howe’s unsettling camerawork. The following chapter, “Work/Consume/Die”, foregrounds the bleakness of Seconds and argues that this pessimism is closely imbricated with the film’s critique of middle-class consumerism. In the short concluding chapter, Conolly and Westwood sum up their discussion of Seconds and frame their book as a “kind of cinematic pathology” that meticulously dissects the film’s constituent parts.
Jez Conolly and Emma Westwood’s Seconds is truly a pleasure to read. Rather than attempting to write an introduction to Frankenheimer’s most vexing film or provide a beginner’s guide to the text (I’m honestly not sure that such a thing is possible), they instead engage in a creative mode of analysis that reads the film through its own thematic and iconographic lexicon. Foregrounding images of meat, flesh, fluids, surgery/art and alienation, Conolly and Westwood unravel the complex ideas at the heart of the film. Moreover, in connecting surgery with filmmaking (uniting their shared practices of cutting, splicing, manipulating and distending), the authors deftly show how the formal aspects of Seconds are fundamentally inseparable from the film’s thematic concerns. While Seconds is a short monograph, it is nevertheless rich, innovative and daring. It is an important addition to the critical discourse surrounding an often-overlooked masterpiece of twentieth-century American cinema and a critical intervention in the ongoing academic and popular reappraisal of the film.
Vincent LoBrutto, The Surreal Images of Seconds, American Cinematographer, January 31, 2018, https://ascmag.com/articles/the-surreal-images-of-seconds