Judge Patrick Bromley goes back for thirds.
Our review of Seconds, published February 13th, 2002, is also available.
A second chance to live. A second chance to die.
John Frankenheimer's Seconds has its classic status rightfully cemented with Criterion's excellent new Blu-ray release.
Facts of the Case
Businessman Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph, You've Got Mail) is unhappy. He's unhappy with his life. He's unhappy in his marriage. He rarely sees his daughter. He is adrift—that is, until he is visited by a friend he believed to be dead and told of a way to get a second chance at life. He can visit "The Company," a mysterious organization that will fake his death and give him a new identity, a new life, even a new face, for a price.
Hamilton signs the contract (through unconventionally "persuasive" means) and appears to die in a fire, only to receive extensive plastic surgery and be reborn as younger, more handsome painter Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson, Pretty Maids All in a Row). Tony's life is more bohemian: he lives on the beach, he's an artist, he begins dating a free-spirited woman (Salome Jens, Green Lantern), who introduces him into the hippie subculture. Here, he has found the happiness he was missing in his own life.
Or so he thinks.
As dissatisfaction creeps back into Tony/Hamilton's life, he begins to open up about his relationship with The Company. Before long, Tony's looking to start over yet again…
John Frankenheimer's Seconds is a movie way ahead of its time. What starts out as something resembling a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone has, by the time it ends, become a fascinating and prescient examination of identity, of mortality and the pursuit of the American dream. Though not overtly a horror film, the movie brilliantly mounts a sense of creeping dread that puts it right alongside more traditional psychological horror movies like Repulsion and Carnival of Souls. It's not often mentioned in the same sentence as those movies. It ought to be.
John Frankenheimer, a journeyman director who migrated from television to film (like pretty much every director in the '50s and '60s), is probably best known for political thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, or more recent efforts like Ronin (begging the question "Where is the love for Reindeer Games?). Having finally seen Seconds, though, I might be inclined to call it his masterpiece. His fingerprints are on it—it's easy to see that he made it—but it's darker and more challenging than his other work. It's clear that he's pushing himself into new territory, and the resulting tension makes Seconds feel more alive, more unpredictable, more dangerous. It's a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
And, of course, there is the performance of Rock Hudson. Not to take anything away from John Randolph, who is very good as the sad and dissatisfied Hamilton, but Hudson's work is fascinating because of the way it works against the audience's expectations of a "Rock Hudson movie," particularly when the film was originally released. If you're not happy as Rock Hudson, the film posits, how will you ever be happy? And just what is the price to be paid in order to become Rock Hudson? Watching a star known for being handsome and masculine and likable actively work against his own image is compelling, particularly when the star is as dismissed as a pretty boy as Hudson so often is. Between this and Pretty Maids All in a Row, I have seen only two Rock Hudson movies and both exist to comment on his screen persona rather than establish it; one of these days, I'll have to get around to seeing Pillow Talk.
There is a dark inevitability to what happens in Seconds, and while the film's cynicism and paranoia feels at home with the American cinema of the late '60s and 1970s, the movie was made even before that movement began. Frankenheimer was ahead of the curve. The movie works almost as a document of the 1960s, as it transitions from a square, post-WWII working man's pursuit of the American dream into a bacchanalian hippie nightmare before deciding that neither outlook contains the secret to happiness. What's next, then? Savvier viewers raised on a diet of movies inspired by Seconds may see a number of the plot turns coming, but it doesn't dull the impact of the film. It's a punch to the stomach that we know is coming, but that doesn't make it any easier to take. And isn't that what's in store for all of us?
Remastered from a 4K digital scan, Criterion's 1080p HD transfer is good enough to warrant a reevaluation of the entire movie. The contrast on the black and white photography has never looked better, and HD reveals new levels of unseen detail. The image carries with it a heavy layer of film-like grain, which is nice for the purist in so many of us. The only audio option on the disc is a remastered LCPM mono track that does a good job with the dialogue and really spotlight's Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score, which upon one viewing sounds to be one of his most underrated. It's great.
Director Frankenheimer's commentary from the '90s DVD release of Seconds has been carried over, and it's a good discussion of the movie. Frankenheimer knows so much about moviemaking from a technical standpoint, but also considers some of the narrative aspects of the movie. It gets spottier as it goes on, but it's well worth a listen. New to this edition is an interview with Alec Baldwin about his love for Seconds and his feelings about Frankenheimer as a filmmaker; it's interesting, but probably not something to return to in the future. There's a 20-minute documentary called "A Second Look" that examines the whole production and contains interviews from star Salome Jens and Frankenheimer's widow, Evans. Two pieces of archival footage, one a 1971 television interview with the director and the other an interview with Rock Hudson shot during the filming of the movie. Finally, there's a "visual essay" by scholars Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer that explores some of the ideas behind the film, albeit in a slightly dry way. As with all Criterion releases, there is an extensive booklet included that features an essay by film critic David Sterritt.
There's a lot of The Twilight Zone in Seconds, down to the stark black and white photography and twisty O. Henry plotting. But there is more to the movie than just reversals and reveals—the movie is full of ideas. It's is the kind of movie that's open to a lot of discussion to explore its varying interpretations, and Criterion does its usual great job of packaging the film with bonus content that allows for just that.
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