Middle-aged banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is walking to the train to work through Grand Central Station, not realising he is being followed until the stranger looms up behind him as Arthur boards the carriage and presses a slip of paper into his palm. Baffled, the commuter barely has time to register what has happened as the stranger walks off, but he has noticed odd things occurring recently, such as the telephone calls that don't make much sense. On the paper is written an address - should he investigate?
One of the major cult films of the nineteen-sixties, Seconds still retains that resonance today, even if it ebbs and flows into the cultural consciousness depending on how available it is for viewing - for a long time it was very hard to see at all. Yet while it has many fans, its initial reception was not entirely welcoming, indeed it was a flop for both director John Frankenheimer whose career had been going from strength to strength up till then, and star Rock Hudson who was intensely proud of his work here. Even with the critics who acknowledged its power, there were grumblings about the middle section which was viewed as a dip in the plot.
What they did not notice was that creeping dread was in no way diminished by the turns of the story that see Arthur Hamilton transformed into Antiochus Wilson through extensive plastic surgery and a transplanting of the man from one life into another. Randolph and Hudson concentrated on making both their performances recognisably the same man, and in that they succeeded admirably, as for Hudson especially his previous career highlights being more to do with his light comedies had eclipsed his dramatic skills, which were well to the fore here. Too often seen as a slab of handsome beefcake, Seconds amply demonstrated his talent.
He never got as good a role again, but the central notion that a man so unsatisfied with his life that he would be willing to turn into a movie star, giving his creative and hedonistic impulses full rein, was a potent one, and chiefly that was down to the uneasy revelation that rich, good-looking and successful Rock was just as dissatisified as the boring banker with his boring wife and a grown daughter who takes only cursory interest in him. We are in no doubt that Arthur is a man sliding into midlife crisis, and whoever contacted him recognises this when they invite him to leave that all behind, but the encroaching paranoia of the premise should have been enough to warn him well away.
When he does leave his old existence behind he becomes a painter with a new, attractive lover in Nora (Salome Jens) who introduces him to the delights of wine parties out in the Californian countryside. Yet just as physically the changes were cosmetic, so are the surroundings, and the desperation that haunted him before returns with a vengeance. One of the other stars of Seconds was cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose stark, often distorted black and white images constantly threaten to warp the whole experience into nightmare - it's a surprise to learn he and Frankenheimer did not get on while making this. Of course, the main thing that everyone recalls, even those who did not like it, is the ending, one of the most horribly bleak of all time not only because it represents a ghastly fate but because it emphasises with all the subtlety of a stamping boot that you will never get what you really want; yet after those horrendous last scenes, the final image is wretchedly sad. Watch out for Saul Bass's classic titles, and listen for Jerry Goldsmith's unsettling score.