Seconds

Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: John Carlino (based on the novel by David Ely)
Stars: Rock Hudson (Antiochus "Tony" Wilson), Salome Jens (Nora Marcus), John Randolph (Arthur Hamilton), Will Geer (Old Man), Jeff Corey (Mr. Ruby), Richard Anderson (Dr. Innes), Murray Hamilton (Charlie Evans), Karl Swenson (Dr. Morris)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1966
Country: U.S.
Seconds Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
SecondsSeconds is a neo-Faustian cautionary tale about the dangers of wanting too much updated to an era of homeland political assassinations, fears about clandestine “organizations,” and the beginnings of significant social upheaval; in other words, it is very much a disturbing, ’60s paranoia-era thriller. It spins an intriguing web for the first half, then slowly slackens to the point of near absurdity before tightening for a crackerjack ending that is as horrifying as it is logical.

The film opens with veteran character actor John Randolph (who had been blacklisted for the previous decade and a half after pleading the fifth before HUAC) as Arthur Hamilton, a successful-on-the-surface Scarsdale banker who has grown distant from both his loving wife (Frances Reid) and the world he has created for himself, which is filled with material comforts (a big house, a nice car) that he has always been told he should want. Bored and frustrated with his life, but impotent to do anything about it, he accepts an offer by a mysterious group referred to as “The Company” to be literally reborn: His death will be faked, his face will be reconstructed with radical plastic surgery, and he will be placed in a new location with an entirely new identity—a chance to live again.

Life begins anew: Arthur’s visage is surgically reconfigured (the character is now played by Rock Hudson), his name is changed to Antiochus “Tony” Wilson, and he assumes the social position of a wealthy artist living in Malibu. He meets a beautiful, liberated woman (Salome Jens) and tries to live the wild life of carefree hedonism. He even attends a swinging bacchanal, complete with naked romping in a vat of grapes that goes on so long that it borders on the grotesquely comical.

Yet, despite this complete departure in lifestyle, Arthur/Tony finds he feels just as empty and unhappy as he did in his comfortable and unassuming married life as a banker. What is perhaps most disturbing about Seconds is this complete denial of potential happiness for the protagonist: Regardless of where he is, he finds that it doesn’t suit him, which makes him a perennial outcast in his own existence. That the film never supplies a reason for his unhappiness is a potential narrative weakness, but it also encourages you to assume that it is simply a tragic character flaw—he is doomed to be an unhappy man.

Seconds was seen as a significant acting departure for Hudson, whose career in the late 1960s was on a downward slide after successfully working in several of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas (including All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind) and a number of romantic comedies with Doris Day in the late ’50s and early ’60s (the most famous being Pillow Talk). As Barbara Klinger noted in her book Melodrama and Meaning, Hudson’s star persona during this period was highly reliant on the perception of him as traditional, clean-cut, and natural, in stark contrast to the “psycho-stars” represented by such troubled actors as James Dean and Marlon Brando (of course, the revelation of his life-long homosexuality in the 1980s gave this previous star image an ironic twist).

Nevertheless, in 1966, the casting of Hudson in Seconds as a surgically reconstructed man—a “second” or “reborn”—trying to have another go at life by indulging in social excess that was denied him in his palatable suburban existence was a subversive move. Hudson’s being cast here has often been referred to as a case of casting against type, but actually Hudson’s star persona of playing solid, uncomplicated men (read: boring) fits the inner dullness that is so crucial to Arthur/Tony’s failure to remake his life. In this respect, Hudson delivers in his performance, not only by supplying his nonthreatening good looks and gentle charisma, but by genuinely affecting us through his display of increasing desperation. The final scenes of his flailing and screaming while strapped to a gurney are memorably traumatic.

Yet, what really grabs you in Seconds is the unique visual style created by director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) and prolific cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose credentials stretch back to the 1920s. Filmed in stark shades of black and gray, Seconds is a highly subjective film, constantly employing cinematic tricks and stylistic flourishes to align you with Arthur/Tony’s subjectivity and question anything that might appear to be “objective.” The off-kilter nature of the film’s visual approach starts from the first images in the opening credits sequence designed by Saul Bass (who designed many of Hitchcock’s most famous openings, including Vertigo and Psycho), which presents us with grotesquely distorted and fragmented images of panic and agony in a man’s face. This effect extends into the narrative through the creative use of distorted and fish-eye lenses, expressionistic sets, jittery hand-held camerawork, and bizarre tracking shots in which we follow characters who don’t walk so much as glide across the ground.

Through camerawork and Jerry Goldsmith’s effectively minimalist score, Seconds generates an insistent sense of dread in even the most mundane situations, which casts a pall of paranoia across the entire landscape. Yet, the screenplay by Lewis John Carlino (based on the novel by David Ely) bogs down near the middle—the movie is lacking a compelling second act until the final moments. The dialogue becomes fairly silly, and the relationship between Arthur/Tony and Jens’ character doesn’t really work; it feels too contrived, and when she reveals her “big secret,” it is not all that surprising. Nevertheless, when it works, Seconds is an effective paranoid shocker and a defining mark of the era in which it was made.

Seconds Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Seconds is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.75:1
Audio
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary featuring director John Frankenheimer
  • Video interview with actor Alec Baldwin
  • Excerpts from 1965 television program Hollywood on the Hudson
  • Making-of featurette
  • Interview with Frankenheimer from 1971
  • Visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance
  • Essay by critic David Sterritt
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateAugust 13, 2013

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    The version of Seconds on Criterion’s Blu-Ray is the same one that has been available on video since 1996, which restores roughly one minute of footage that was deleted during the film’s initial U.S. theatrical run in 1966, but played in Europe. However, Criterion’s stunning new 4K transfer, which was made from the original camera negative, is a significant improvement over what has been previously available on home video. Framed at 1.75:1, the impressively sharp, well contrasted, and detailed transfer makes James Wong Howe’s superb cinematography shine. The black-and-gray photography is finely shaded, effectively bringing out the details of the mise-en-scene and creating an impressive sense of depth. Extensive digital restoration has corrected some of the issues with the earlier DVD, specifically a moderate amount of white speckling and at least one instance of fairly noticeable damage on the negative during a slow transition, while still maintaining a healthy sheen of film grain. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic soundtrack and digitally restored, resulting in a solid, clean presentation of dialogue, sound effects, and score.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The supplementary material is a mix of the old and the new. Criterion has wisely kept the screen-specific audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer, which was originally recorded for the 1996 laserdisc and later appeared on Paramount’s 2002 DVD. Granted, Frankenheimer’s commentary can be a bit spotty at times, but it is definitely worth listening to for the background information he supplies. He is also quite forthcoming on the film’s collaborative nature, giving credit where credit is due to James Wong Howe’s influences on the film’s visuals and the effectiveness of the score by Jerry Goldsmith (with whom Frankenheimer had worked extensively in his TV days in the 1950s). Granted, he can get a bit redundant in his listing of which camera lens was used when (“That’s an 18mm ... that’s a 9.5mm ... there’s the 18mm again”), but hearing some of the stories he tells, including one about using a fake cameraman and a Playboy bunny to distract the crowds so he could actually film in Grand Central Station, is worth it. The rest of the supplements are new to Criterion’s edition, beginning with a video interview with actor Alec Baldwin. And, while it might seem odd for Criterion to include an interview with Baldwin, who had nothing to do with the film, he was a friend of Frankenheimer’s and worked with him on his last film (2002’s TV movie Path to War), which affords him some nice insight into both the director’s manipulative working methods and the effectiveness of Seconds. There is also a new program on the making of the film, which features interviews with Evans Frankenheimer, the director’s widow, and actor Salome Jens, and an informative new visual essay on the film’s compelling visual aesthetics by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance. From the archive Criterion delivers excerpts from “Hollywood on the Hudson,” a 1965 television program featuring on-set footage and an interview with actor Rock Hudson, and a 1971 interview with Frankenheimer.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Pictures and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)




    James Kendrick

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