The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, May 04, 2005


Seconds is the story of a rich, middle-aged banker who gets a telephone call from a friend who, supposedly, leapt into an active volcano some time before. The friend tells the banker about a rejuvenation service provided by a nameless organisation for very wealthy clients. Calling himself Wilson (we are never told his real name), the banker makes an appointment with the company - just to have a look, he tells himself.

A series of encounters with the company's personnel follows, including two sexual - one given as a relaxant and assurance of the company's good intentions ("We love you, Mr Wilson"), and one set up and filmed to look like rape as insurance against any possible indiscretions by Wilson. A scarred and sardonic doctor unnerves Wilson ("They gave you all that crap about love and rebirth, and now you find it's just a boneyard like everywhere else..."), but finally the elderly, rather forlorn figure of the company's founder appears at Wilson's bedside. Wilson, who has spent most of these preliminaries protesting that he is not a client, allows himself to be gently persuaded in favour of rejuvenation.

The author, David Ely, writes superbly, alternating black humour with poignant evocations of the emptiness of Wilson's existence. As the whole idea of rejuvenation is to leave their old lives behind, the company's clients have to choose the manner of their "death". Suicide is cheap, because judicious use of a shotgun obviates the need to find a corpse which bears a passable resemblance to the client. Wilson is "found very nicely dead of a heart attack" and, his physical youth restored by surgical means, sets off to take up a new life as a painter.

Naturally, it isn't quite as simple as that. Wilson quickly discovers that the resort to which the company has sent him is peopled entirely by other clients, dragging out an existence which is just as tedious and pointless as the one he left behind, if a bit faster paced. Worse, Wilson becomes obsessed with his old identity; indeed, however empty it may have been, he is unable to escape from it. Writing in the third person but entirely from Wilson's point of view, Ely beautifully points up the pedestrian presence of the fifty-year-old banker inside the youthful playboy's body.

Eventually, Wilson commits the cardinal sin of visiting his "widow", and is brought face to face with the sterility and emptiness from which he was, however equivocally, trying to escape in the first place. He is returned to the company establishment, where he spends his days in a vast room, filled with failed clients like himself, playing card games and board games. This, of course, is where the company gets its dead bodies. Even with the employment of this practical economy, as the old president explains to Wilson, the company's financial position is far from ideal. Indeed, the old man has found that his philanthropic enterprise is severely flawed in its very conception - why should a man who has fouled up one life do any better when given a second chance? But one cannot simply stop; the company has employees, responsibilities. Wilson is not rancorous: "It really doesn't matter," he says.

In 1966, Seconds was filmed by John Frankenheimer, who four years earlier had made the original The Manchurian Candidate. Shot in glorious black and white by James Wong Howe, and scored with eerie organ music by Jerry Goldsmith, the film starred John Randolph as the banker and Rock Hudson as the rejuvenated version. The sad, elderly president of the rejuvenation company is played by Will Geer, unfortunately better known for his role as Zebulon in the television series The Waltons.


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