Our review of Seconds (1966) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published August 14th, 2013, is also available.
A second chance to live. A second chance to die.
Here we go again. Bit by bit these films are being released and here is another one of in a series of great movies a lot of people have never heard of. In this case we have John Frankenheimer's (Seven Days In May, Ronin) 1966 film, Seconds. This bold, downbeat, and experimental movie is a testament that even though film is a product of its time often the greatest films fail to connect upon their initial release and it takes careful reconsideration for a work to find its true critical resting place in the sun. Break out the sunscreen because Seconds has finally arrived. For its DVD release Paramount is presenting the uncut version of Frankenheimer's nightmare vision. A very good video transfer, as good as can be expected sound, and an excellent commentary track highlight this worthwhile release.
Facts of the Case
Imagine if someone opened a door for you that lead to a different life, as a different person. Banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph—Prizzi's Honor) is given just such a chance. Hamilton begins receiving mysterious phone calls in the dead of night from an old college friend who is supposed to be dead. These phone calls stir an innate unhappiness within Hamilton and send him on a quest for knowledge. His quest brings him to "The Company." Here Hamilton is made a remarkable offer. His death will be faked, his family (with whom he has always been distant) will be provided for, and he will undergo radical plastic surgery that will literally turn him into a different man. That man turns out to be an artist named Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson—Pretty Maids All in a Row, Ice Station Zebra). Wilson is soon set up with a beach front home in California as he begins his new life in a community filled with other "reborns" such as himself. It is a community that guards its mutual secret with a fervor and will defend said secret with an equal passion.
It is here that the film really starts to ask questions. Can he maintain control of his new life and what of the beautiful neighbor that he has fallen in love with? Is she all she appears and can she be trusted? As the film begins to twist those superficial questions give way to more fundamental and disturbing queries. What happens to the man inside when you change the man outside? Can a man exist in the world when he tries to ignore his past? Finally, is it possible to go back again and would "The Company" allow that to happen?
If any movie ever took the old adage "be careful what you wish for, sometimes you get it" and ran with it, it would be John Frankenheimer's cult classic, Seconds.
Coming at the world in 1966, Seconds was a film from a director at the height of his powers and starring an actor nobody would have thought of in the lead. Yet, it was a film that defied expectations and confused (and in many cases angered) its audience. So, in retrospect, it should come as no surprise that in many ways it was a movie doomed to failure. Still, in spite of all that, here we sit going on 40 years later, and if anything the issues that Seconds deals with are in many ways never more relevant than they are today. The need to belong and find your place. The feeling of isolation, that as a human being we are all trapped in surroundings of our own construction. In a lot of ways, this movie could be best described as "the grass is always greener" crossed with "The Twilight Zone."
Seconds is a daring movie that asks its audience to buy into it with a couple of huge leaps of faith. It needs us to believe that middle aged John Randolph could be transformed to Rock Hudson. Then it dares those watching to believe that once transformed the handsome, wealthy, and talented Hudson could become so miserable and so lost in his new and seemingly idyllic life. I think it was that very dare that caught people so off guard and angered them. After all, here was the everyman who has worked so hard all his entire life, provided for his family and done the right things being given a chance to become something different, someone more desirable and he runs away from it? Remember, this was a movie going public used to seeing Rock Hudson pal around with Tony Randall and getting the girl in form of Doris Day. So, it's easy to see that the train of thought Seconds was putting forth was downright subversive.
Subversive? Quite, but done with an enormous amount of skill and guile by a man in total control of his talent and his craft. To look at film history you will see John Frankenheimer is a director who has been making films for 40 plus years. As one of the most prominent directors to make the leap from the golden age of live television to feature films with his 1961 effort The Young Savages, nary a decade has gone by since that we have not seen several efforts by the prolific Mr. Frankenheimer. The ability to control an audience's perceptions from moment to moment is one of paramount skill and precision and it is one that Frankenheimer handles with blinding accuracy. There is an economy and a drive to his direction that few directors before or since his arrival have been able to muster. It is this skill, this ability to walk the tightrope of expectation, that allows Seconds to be a difficult film to pigeon hole.
The screenplay of Lewis John Carlino (The Great Santini) starts off as a thriller, moves into its questioning phase, then veers back to its thriller aspect, all the while maintaining its sly sense of dark humor. Yet, while all these important human issues are being raised, there is a constant feeling of unease and dread very clearly present. This comes not just from the from direction and the screenplay but also from the cinematography of one of Hollywood's pioneers behind the camera, James Wong Howe (Hud, Picnic) and the razor sharp editing of David Webster. Together this team throws the viewer off balance with its combination of odd lighting, stark camera angles, and in-your-face cuts. Combine all that with a truly haunting score by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and Seconds looks and sounds like nothing that had come before it.
If everything that went on behind the camera was executed with great skill, then the performances onscreen are equally impressive. To look at Seconds, you have look at a lead performance that is really a two-headed monster. John Randolph opens things up as a man tired of his life but not knowing what he can really do about it. He lives a life of routine. He has his toys and his indiscretions but nothing that stirs his soul or challenges him. He has come to the painful realization that this is all he is ever going to be. It is complex stuff and Randolph does an outstanding job of showing every bit of it. He translates the ennui, but he also shows the fear this character feels when it has come time to say good-bye to it all. It is at this point that Arthur Hamilton turns into Tony Wilson in the person of Rock Hudson. To watch Hudson work is to feel a sense of pain that this man was not given more opportunities to stretch himself as an actor; he really is that good. Fear, confusion, longing, a momentary lapse in happiness that is undone by his own inherent weaknesses, which leads to self discovery and ends with blind terror. That is a hell of a laundry list of emotions, but Hudson truly hits every one of those notes. The moment where he realizes his life the second time around is pretty much what it was the first time, I could almost hear a song in my head—to quote the late Miss Peggy Lee, "is that all there is?" It's a powerful moment and a remarkable performance.
Seconds also boasts a pair of remarkable supporting performances. As the chief salesman and owner of "The Company," Jeff Corey (True Grit, Little Big Man) and Will Geer (Winchester '73, Grandpa on The Waltons) respectively combine for a wicked one-two punch. Together they represent a banal and overly earnest kind of evil. Dressed up as a respectable business all they really are showmen, offering people a chance at a more superficial life. There is a calmness to their evil, and in Geer's case a touch of madness.
As the women in Hamilton's/Wilson's life we have television veteran Frances Reid as the comfortable and controlling Emily Hamilton and Salome Jens as the wild and savage beauty, Nora. Both offer up outstanding work and both fit within the mosaic of the life of one man as he lives in two bodies.
As the disc, Paramount offers up a very good video transfer. In the audio commentary, Frankenheimer says the film was shot 1.66:1, but for the disc the framing looks closer to 1.85:1. Either way, information seems comfortable and does not look to be crowded or cramped. The film was shot in beautiful black and white and Howe used different film stocks and different cameras to give the movie its off-kilter look and disarming style. It's to the transfer's credit that so much of it is reproduced with such clarity and detail. Blacks have depth while appearing full and without bleed or breakup. Grays and shadows are shown to good effect, while contrast is quite good with nary a hint of enhancement. As for the source material, the image shows little in the way of grain, while imperfections rarely are seen until the very end of the film. Overall, it's a solid piece of work.
As for the sound, things are pretty solid there as well. It's 2.0 mono, and clarity is once more of major importance. Dialogue, sound effects, and score are all well mixed. It is clean sounding and possesses a surprising amount of fullness in the bottom end considering the age of the source material. Once more, a nice job from Paramount.
On the extras front, there is the film's theatrical trailer, but the real highlight is the commentary track from director John Frankenheimer. Now, if you have listened to any of the many commentaries Frankenheimer has recorded (no David Lynch or Steven Spielberg here!), you know what to expect. It's a no-nonsense affair that throws a lot of technical information mixed with amusing memories at the listener. One certainly understands the respect the director had for his cinematographer and it's funny to hear him tell the story of shooting the California house scenes in the very home that he owned at the time. The thing that stuck with me was in talking about how Hudson had to lose it while getting drunk at a party with a bunch of other "reborns." Seems Hudson went to the director and told him he could not play the scene sober. Thus, as you watch Hudson fumble around drunk, he really is. It's that kind of detail that makes listening to these things all worth while. Frankenheimer talks of a deleted sequence that he has been unable to locate and that is something I really wish had been found. Otherwise, it's a nice package of an unjustly neglected film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In all honesty, Seconds is not an easy film to enjoy. It's not a happy film and it ends in a way that would upset quite a few people. The closest thing I can compare it to is the end of Terry Gilliam's classic Brazil where the only moment of peace and happiness the character is able to experience is as he slips away. It's brutal, upsetting stuff. If your idea of a movie is to sit back and be entertained, Seconds is not for you.
Brilliant. Infuriating. Honest. Upsetting. These are all words that I use to describe Seconds. I think it is a forgotten masterpiece from one of America's most underrated directors and features a sensational performance from Rock Hudson that should redefine his place in acting history. Yes, it's that good and I can't recommend it highly enough. It features the kind of creative energy that makes cinema what it should be when we think about the power of the movies. I've watched it several times now and I continue to be blown away by the power of its imagery, its writing, and its message. This one is a keeper. Place in your shelf with pride.
This is one movie that fits in my "if you love film, you have to love this" category. Hats off to Rock Hudson, wherever he may be, and a big tip of the cap to John Frankenheimer. Everyone charged is found not guilt of all charges. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director John Frankenheimer
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