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.
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
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
'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
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
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
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,
Supplements: director commentary, trailer.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 19, 2002
1. A bad one? Try and watch Liz Taylor as the bohemian free
spirit in The Sandpiper.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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