John Frankenheimer’s genre bending, visually daunting 1966 film SECONDS defies both trends of the decade from which it came, as well as those that would follow. On its surface, it is genre cinema concerned with themes prevalent in most of Frankenheimer’s work up to and after its release: paranoia and isolation. But once into the nitty gritty of the tale it chooses to tell, it becomes about one thing: eternal youth.
The idea(l) of eternal youth is all over cinema both past and present; from 1945’s screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, to vampire David Bowie’s failed attempts to stay young in THE HUNGER, to the slapstick special effects fueled fantasy of DEATH BECOMES HER and all the way up to contemporary teen cinema, featuring characters seemingly destined to stay forever young in titles like TUCK EVERLASTING, THE AGE OF ADALINE and 17 AGAIN. Frankenheimer takes this concept and runs with it, twisting and contorting it into something singular, something sinister and something explicitly Frankenheimer.
A lot of writing concerning SECONDS pertains to – or at least discusses at length – its now infamous opening credits sequence. Shot by Oscar winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, the first few minutes of SECONDS set the stage for what is to come in murky 1.75:1 black and white with jarring edits and disorienting angles, keeping it at least aesthetically much more in line with European imports and work of the American avant-garde than what 60s genre cinema audiences were used to seeing at the local drive-in.
And Frankenheimer’s film has more in common with drive-in fare than may be readily apparent. Drawing on themes of science-fiction, in particular that which pertains to the body, SECONDS sits nicely alongside other “experiment” films of the 60s like X: THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES, FANTASTIC VOYAGE and THE FACE OF ANOTHER. In Frankenheimer’s film, age and the pursuit of youth becomes an experiment – wherein titles like THE FOUNTAIN or DEATH BECOMES HER it is rendered as something much more fantastical – putting our lead, played by Rock Hudson in a rather eerie medical light pre-AIDs, and his body at a risk much more explicit than in other cinema pursuits of eternal youth.
In a career spanning six decades, John Frankenheimer only made two other sci-fi films before his death in 2002: 1979’s PROPHECY and 1996’s ill fated THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Both involve experimentation and mutation, with the filmmaker’s trademarks present, even if the latter wasn’t entirely in Frankenheimer’s hands for the length of its production. SECONDS will always be Frankenheimer’s sci-fi film though, even if it feels reductive to try and push it into a genre classification. This year marks its fiftieth anniversary and it’s still as potent as ever, not only as a genre picture, but as a view of the 60s we seldom got in cinema. It’s harsh, confounding and offers very little respite for the viewer, which makes it essential Frankenheimer.