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DVD SAVANT

Seconds

Seconds
Paramount Home Video
1966 /B&W / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 100-107m. /
Starring John Randolph, Rock Hudson, Will Geer, Frances Reid, Murray Hamilton, Richard Anderson, Salome Jens, Ned Young, Karl Swenson
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Art Direction Ted Haworth
Film Editors Ferris Webster, David Webster
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Writing credits Lewis John Carlino from the novel by David Ely
Produced by Edward Lewis
Directed by John Frankenheimer


Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Seconds is a purposely paranoid thriller, a science fiction parable that has always gotten mixed reviews. Some see it as an over-extended Twilight Zone episode, and refuse to see beyond the casting of Rock Hudson against type. Artsy and demanding, it was perhaps ahead of its time in 1966.

Synopsis:

Lost in a dull world of disappointment and disillusion, middle-aged banker Arthur Hamilton is shocked to hear the voice of a dead friend contact him by phone and invite him to reinvent his own life through the services of a secret company with futuristic resources. Arthur takes the bait and transfers the bulk of his fortune into the company's hands; his own death is faked and futuristic medicine and plastic surgery, therapy and coaching transform him into a much younger-looking man who goes by the name Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). Leaving his widow (Frances Reid) behind, 'Tony' is set up as a trendy Malibu artist, with a background and a clientele. All goes well, including a meeting with a sexy beach denizen named Norma Marcus (Salome Jens), but Tony finds himself slowly reverting to Arthur's pensive, apprehensive state of mind. He's intimidated instead of liberated by Norma's hedonistic friends, and worst of all, he's tempted to make contact with the life he's left behind.

John Frankenheimer pioneered the paranoid thriller in the '60s with the superlative The Manchurian Candidate, and the flawed Seven Days in May. After his thematic break into WW2 action with The Train, he created this intricate concoction that shrinks his previous conspiracies down to the intimate level.

This is Faust, of course, except our hero sells his soul not to the devil but for the ultimate consumer product, the ability to restart his life again in a new identity. It's a carrot so tempting that Arthur never questions the details, such as what that the room full of bored men waiting by telephones is all about, or where exactly the bogus body comes from, to fake his death. Arthur Hamilton is disenchanted and alienated from himself, drifting in a quiet nightmare of sameness and meaningless daily life, ruminating over his youth and ideals and wondering what went wrong. He compounds his grief, of course, by believing he can somehow start again and leave his previous self behind.

This earlier part of the film is nothing short of brilliant, with John Randolph projecting the petty problems of a modern podperson with perfect pitch. He conveys the lack of an inner light, a spiritual beacon, very clearly. Instead of looking for the answer inside, Hamilton tries to buy his dreams. The secret company that provides the secret services is tricked out without resorting to futuristic technology, but it's mostly their paranoid safeguards which make Seconds so sophisticated. Farfetched to the point of absurdity, the company undertakes its business with stringent secrecy and uses careful blackmail to protect itself, neatly sidestepping the obvious impossibility of keeping such a vast conspiracy secret.

The second half of Seconds ties up the story with a brutal irony, but even though most of the scenes are beautifully realized, something is lost along the way. It has to do with the transformation, of course. In movies, the amount of credibility we accept determines how we take individual leaps of cinematic faith along the way. In silly melodramas or films noir, we frequently accept labyrinthine 'trick' plotting that we'd never buy in real life. In Hollow Triumph (The Scar), our psychiatric-trained master thief just happens to run into a real psychiatrist who looks just like him, an identical double, thus facilitating a change of identity. We accept the silliness of this because we want to, as we're following a genre story as a theme, not as a credible sequence of events.

Saggy, soulful John Randolph becomes trim, hunkish 'mesomorph' Rock Hudson, possibly the man he would want to be, but it never seems right. We don't see any vestige of Randolph in Rock. Even if the company had transplanted John's brain into Rock's body, we'd expect to feel some of the older man shining through. Whether this is Rock's fault or the screenwriter's or Frankenheimer's, is not clear. Rock certainly stares and looks perturbed enough, but the problems he comes up with appear to be unconnected to the guy who roamed the subways like a lost soul. As a moral tale, it's not clear whether Hudson's fate is sealed by his flawed desires, or whether he's the total pawn of this evil corporation (which must experience this kind of 'failure' all the time). The movie excels at creating a first-person paranoid experience.

Extending the ideas in the picture, a case can be made for its being a critique of self-generating corporations that must continue to make a profit and roll forward. Since profit and self-preservation are what drives a company, this one has to victimize the very customers it fails to successfully serve.

A lowly Hammer Horror film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and the musical Damn Yankees both had powerful scenes with a brain transplant patient and a damned soul revisiting their wives from 'another existence.' Seconds has more psychological depth than either, but in keeping with the paranoid, cool stance, remains aloof. We've built up a strong desire to become emotionally involved in Rock Hudson's predicament, but the movie is more about the trap than the prey .. the more Hudson struggles against things he cannot control, the more we become convinced he's a doomed guinea pig, in a maze with one exit. Hudson's reactions are those of a dullard with no imagination. If Arthur Hamilton the banker is that big of a nothing, then our only reaction is to stop caring what happens to him.

Where Seconds soars is in its stylistic visuals. James Wong Howe's fisheye lens distortions of the hero's ghost world conjure up real feelings of isolation, and insect-like alienation, very effectively evoking our participation in Arthur's journey. In 1966, the only similar consistent look was to be found in experimental movies like Maya Deren's Meshes in the Afternoon. Frankenheimer and Howe's exacting, painstaking visuals were as technically sophisticated as could be for that time; several of the cameramen I knew in the '70s held up Seconds as their favorite artistic film for cinematography.

Frankenheimer populates Seconds with familiar faces and former blacklistees like Will Geer and Jeff Corey; Murray Hamilton is excellent as Hudson's connection to the company. Salome Jens gives one of the few Earth-mother Malibu free spirit performances in '60s movies.  1 She's intimate, sexy, and exhibits typical Malibu Mama behaviors like shouting personal messages to the ocean. (spoiler) We like her that way and resent it when the story pulls the rug out from under her character.

In the 1996, Paramount lengthened Seconds by replacing the original, racier cut of the scene at the Santa Barbara wine fair. It's been restored here without explanation, giving the film an R rating, and may confuse those who saw the original domestic release, which could never have contained this content. The nude scenes were found intact on an international negative for export, a French cut to be exact. Writer Bill Desowitz realized the source for the restoration was a French print by watching the earlier laser release, which also cut a scene where Rock Hudson is given fake credentials for his new persona as a high-toned artist. A reference to a counterfeit diploma from the Sorbonne was missing - apparently the French censor wasn't bothered by the nudity, but couldn't abide the suggestion that the Sorbonne's integrity could be compromised!


Paramount's DVD of Seconds is their dependable quality release, with the mindbending visuals looking a lot better in widescreen than they did on flat television. I was a bit disappointed with some scenes that had more white negative speckling than they should; this is the kind of stuff for which digital cleanup was invented. John Frankenheimer contributes one of his informative and self-critical commentaries, revealing that Rock Hudson had the idea of the main character being played by two actors, and that Rock was truly drunk during his breakdown scenes. The director's comments about the wild shooting for the wine vat scene are welcome, as is his candor about the movie's total inability to find an audience when new. He repeats what he said about The Manchurian Candidate, that it went straight from boxoffice flop to cult classic, skipping the success part.

A lurid theatrical trailer rounds out the package. The tracks are Dolby Digital mono. This is a fine disc all around, with very minor reservations about the picture quality.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Seconds rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: director commentary, trailer.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 19, 2002

Footnote:

1. A bad one? Try and watch Liz Taylor as the bohemian free spirit in The Sandpiper.
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