B&W, 1966, 107m.
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Starring Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph, Jeff Corey, Murray Hamilton, Frances Reid, Richard Anderson
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Paramount (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.75:1) (16:9)
High up on the list of the most disturbing films of the 1960s you will certainly find Seconds, a feature-length dark night of the soul from director John Frankenheimer that placed screen idol Rock Hudson in a career-warping mixture of science fiction, paranoia, and gut-wrenching horror. The end result had audiences scrambling for the exits upon its initial release, with Paramount essentially relegating it to a dusty shelf and keeping it unreleased on home video for a very long time. However, frequent cable airings (mainly on Cinemax at very odd hours) and revival house appearances helped it build word of mouth, turning it into a cult classic and critical favorite.
Plagued by mysterious phone calls, financially comfortable banker Arthur Hamilton (blacklisted actor Randolph) is unsettled when a voice on the other end finally speaks. It's Charlie, his best friend from college, who had recently died. Charlie insists he's actually alive and happier than ever before, urging Arthur to share the same experience after proving the truth of his claims by pointing out an inscribed trophy from school in Arthur's house. Arthur relents and finds himself at a secret firm where, for $30,000, he can change his entire identity and start live over as a vibrant, healthy younger man. Dejected by his own empty existence and his loveless marriage to Emily (Reid), he agrees to a second chance at life with his death staged courtesy of a company supplying a cadaver with a similar build in his place. Extensive plastic surgery and physical training transform him into Tony Wilson (Hudson), now living a readjusted life in Malibu where he strikes up a rapport with one of his neighbors, Nora (Jens). However, the stirrings of inner torment and dissatisfaction still seem to be inside him...
A film truly ahead of its time, Seconds pulls off the remarkable feat of exposing the unspoken anxieties of the suburban male, laying the groundwork for the classic paranoid cinema of the 1970s (along with Frankenheimer's previous The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May), and perfectly depicting an entire culture convulsing as the establishment tears itself apart while coping with jealousy and fear of the youth movement. It's hard to believe this was shot in 1966 as Hollywood was still just beginning to revolt against the Production Code; significantly, another iconoclastic black-and-white film was also released the same year (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) to a much warmer reception, but this one has aged at least as well. It's also impossible to watch now without watching Hudson's remarkable performance (for which he became heavily intoxicated for real during one unforgettable party scene) without reading the film as an anguished cry over his own personal circumstances, the full truth of which wouldn't become public for two more decades.
On a purely technical level, Seconds is equally valuable for the contributions of cinematographer James Wong Howe (whose astonishing distorted lenses produce deeply creepy effects in the viewer), the nightmarish score by the great Jerry Goldsmith, and the riveting main titles by Saul Bass, easily among the most nightmarish ever created (and possibly the inspiration for the killer's appearance in Torso!). Though the film isn't usually classified as a horror film, it certainly works as one and delivers a final ten minutes as harrowing as the celebrated finale in The Wicker Man. On top of that, you even get some real-life nose job surgery footage in the first act to ensure the audience won't be able to sit comfortably for the rest of the film. Hats off also to the screenplay, adapted from an excellent 1963 sci-fi novel by David Ely courtesy of screenwriter Lewis John Carlino. Incredibly, this was the first feature film script for the future writer/director of The Great Santini and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, who also wrote The Mechanic and the TV favorite Resurrection (which in essence plays like a more uplifting flip side to this story).
Originally released in an MPAA-approved version in theaters, Seconds made something of a splash in cineaste circles in 1996 when a longer, much more daring cut turned up in circulation, around the same time similar discoveries were being made for other films like Strangers on a Train. In this case the big change was during the hallucinatory grape-stomping bacchanal scene, which now featured a slew of full frontal nudity (and topless footage of star Salome Jens) shot by Frankenheimer but deemed impossible to include in the original release version. This new edition appeared on laserdisc with an R rating and has become the de facto print ever since, later turning up on a 2003 DVD release complete with a terrific Frankenheimer commentary in which the now deceased filmmaker covers every topic imaginable about the film's genesis, the numerous former backlistees in the cast, Hudson's wrenching dedication to his performance, and the stormy critical and public reception the film received upon its release.
The 2013 revisit from Criterion manages to better that edition by several miles, starting with a pristine HD presentation that makes the Blu-ray a real thing of beauty for Frankenheimer fans. The cinematography always looked spectacular even on regular TV airings (or, God help us, its one VHS release as an LP-speed tape), and here it really shines with a crisp, beautiful presentation that pushes the film's jittery aesthetic into overdrive. Likewise, the original mono soundtrack sounds immaculate, and optional English subtitles are also included.
Frankenheimer's commentary track is carried over here from the DVD (though, as with fellow Paramount-to-Criterion title Harold and Maude, the theatrical trailer is discarded), while several new substantial extras have been added. Actor Alec Baldwin provides a very articulate and sometimes hilarious 14-minute discussion of the film, sharing his memories of the "Machiavellian" Frankenheimer and pointing out the merits of this film in particular. Be warned though that this, as with the other new video pieces, is crammed with major spoilers, so be sure to watch the film first. The 18-minute "A Second Look" features the director's widow, Evans Frankenheimer, talking about the film's relevance to cultural attitudes in the '60s and its production at Paramount, with the studio urging the casting of Rock Hudson over the original choice of Laurence Olivier. The choice of leading man led to the idea of casting two separate people as the before and after versions of Arthur, a move that ultimately worked to the project's benefit. Joining her is Jens, who explains how she was cast in the film and recalls the vivid filming of the wine making scene including the invaluable contributions of Howe.
Film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance also offer a 12-minute visual essay about the film, covering Frankenheimer's background in the '60s and the visual schemes running throughout this particular title including the unusual use of architectural and cinematic space. A 1971 Canadian TV interview with Frankenheimer, produced by filmmaker Bruce Pittman, is sourced from VHS and offers a more general chat in which he covers the experiences and trials necessary to become an effective director. Finally, "Hollywood on the Hudson" offers a pretty fascinating reel of color footage from the film's shoot, originally captured for a WNBC news special, with Hudson contributing a voiceover interview. It's wild seeing the star, director, cinematographer, and other crew setting up shots and just hanging out smoking cigarettes on the set in full vivid color, a stark contrast to the finished work itself. As usual, the liner notes booklet has its own rewards courtesy of an essay by David Sterritt who eloquently studies the film's subversive attacks on the psyche-battering techniques of modern advertising, the sinister nature of all-powerful corporations, and the narrative's perverse twist on the ideas of death and resurrection. An absolutely essential release.
Reviewed on July 28, 2013.