Cult Movie: Seconds a bad trip in film form

Hudson's performance is a million miles from anything he’d managed up until that point
Hudson's performance is a million miles from anything he’d managed up until that point

SECONDS, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 masterpiece, is a fascinating piece of work in anyone’s book. The final part in a trilogy of supremely paranoid thrillers from the director that began with The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and continued with Seven Days In May (1964), it proved a box-office dud on original release but is now rightly held up as one of the weirdest, most disturbing films ever to grace a mainstream cinema screen.

Odd, eerie and arty, it’s a disturbing science fiction-laced film with a plotline that tackles the age-old question of “What if you could live your life all over again?”

Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson gives the performance of this life as a man who buys himself a second shot at life. Question is, at what cost? It’s the kind of mind-warping premise that tends to evoke strong reactions in anyone who sees it. For Beach Boy Brian Wilson it allegedly even sparked a full-on mental break down.

The story goes the famously highly strung Mr Wilson, potentially chemically fried and certainly overly emotional with his mid-60s pop excesses, wandered in late to a LA screening to be greeted by a character muttering “Hello Mr Wilson” to the film’s troubled figurehead.

Brian’s paranoid state led him to believe the film and it’s tale of full-blown mental collapse was aimed squarely at him and he would never be quite the same again.

Watching it today in Eureka Video’s beautiful new Blu-ray print it’s easy to see why it sent a Beach Boy over the edge. From the distorted and disturbing close-ups of faces that make up Saul Bass’s opening sequence to the stark black-and-white imagery of lighting cameraman James Wong Howe, this is an arthouse film masquerading as a mainstream movie.

Frankenheimer unspools the dreamlike tale of a boring businessman who sees a way out of his drab middle-class existence when he’s offered a chance by a mysterious organisation called 'The Company' to be "reborn” with a new identity with a master’s touch. From the moment the film opens with a series of woozy point-of-view shots of commuters trudging machine like through Grand Central Station, this is a bad trip in film form.

When the listless Arthur Hamilton is “killed off” and brought back under the name of Wilson, he’s played by Hudson. A good looking, popular painter with a pad overlooking the sea, he seems to have it made. Adjusting to life as someone else is less easy than it first seems, though, and as Wilson unravels so does the sham of the organisation around him.

Given Rock Hudson’s double life as a Hollywood macho man who was secretly gay it’s fascinating to watch his tortured performance as a man who isn’t what everyone thinks he is. As a man lost and alone in a world he doesn’t understand, his performance is stunning.

As Frankenheimer ratchets up the tension on screen, events race towards one of the grimmest and most genuinely horrific endings in cinema history.

Apparently Brian Wilson didn’t see another film at the cinema until E.T. in 1982.