Seconds (Criterion Collection) Review

The lasting images alone in Seconds, John Frankenheimer's 1966 film and the third of his so-called paranoia trilogy, are as damaging as most anything found in American cinema during perhaps its most pivotal decade. After the Saul Bass-designed opening titles that depict the close-up of an eye (at times not unlike Bass' work on Hitchcock's Vertigo) against the horror movie sounds of organ music, the black and white photography on display in the film is the work of James Wong Howe. A master of noirish lighting, as evident in work such as Sweet Smell of Success and Pursued, it's actually more the framing and overall choices made by Howe in Seconds that particularly distinguish it. The initial protagonist is filmed in odd close-up as he shuffles through Grand Central when the film begins. Later we see claustrophobic, shaking camera work to great effect in scenes that both capture the disorientation of the lead character and prevent the viewer from ever regaining any sense of calm. By the time the film's final horrors play out, we're completely on the hook. Howe and Frankenheimer have so branded their theme of discomfort via the lens that seeing Rock Hudson convulse and attempt to break free up close causes a painful feeling. Seconds is the kind of film that leaves scars.

Those unaware of the picture's plot would be best off keeping it that way before watching. The visceral thrill and unease that comes from seeing what occurs, particularly in the first 35 minutes, with fresh eyes is an absolute treat. But after that kick has passed the real beauty lies in re-watching, over and over again as the years go by, what must be one of the very finest examples of the convergence of experimental and mainstream Hollywood cinema in the 1960s. That opening half hour or so sometimes seems like a different film than what follows but it's really more of a prologue into the Rock Hudson portion. Still, this section with John Randolph as unhappily married banker Arthur Hamilton draws you in so strongly as to almost command one's undivided attention. Alec Baldwin says something completely on point in his interview found on this Criterion edition. He remarks that some films you have to be in the mood to watch and others, like Seconds, put you in the mood to watch them regardless of how you were feeling. The first time or two I saw the movie I think I was disappointed by what came after that first half hour because it's fairly different in mood. Whereas the part with John Randolph is filled with mystery and tension and introduces a shadowy, monolithic organization that seems to predate an entire subgenre of films from the 1970s, the remainder is far more of a slow burn, yet rewarding on a different level.

Philosophical themes are what come to dominate. The dread and worry splashed across Rock Hudson's face are telling. This is someone pretending to be a completely different person, uncomfortable in his own skin and unable to distinguish between what is real and what is not. The parallels to Hudson's own life are obvious but interesting more in a gossip-y sort of way than anything. The real fascination comes in witnessing how one's existential crisis can morph into a dissolution of identity minus the requisite change on the inside. The character in the film finds himself with a new face, a new life, a new start - a rebirth. He thinks he wants this. He thinks it's the solution to what he's feeling. The irony is that everything he's now experiencing is more fake than the life he had previously. He has, essentially, paid for a false existence in which the agency provides everything, with or without his knowledge. This includes a mate, of course. Nora (played by Salome Jens) is first seen on the beach, sitting down and dressed in black. Hudson's Tony Wilson approaches her and it's not immediately clear what her intentions are. It's actually rather impressive how this relationship plays out since distrusting viewers might quickly suspect all is not right with her yet the relationship that develops is also, somewhat transparently, a positive step for him.

The whole Bacchanalian grape stomping scene that transpires, including some truly surprising nudity which was inserted years later by Frankenheimer, feels like the push-pull of the Hamilton/Wilson character. He's sort of making an attempt to broaden his horizons by being there but he immediately feels uncomfortable by what transpires. When most everyone begins taking his or her clothes off and jumping into the barrel of grapes, he's not just reluctant but even against Nora's participation. The eventual acquiescence comes with a hesitant acknowledgement of joy. Even with the clear intention of showing Wilson as retaining Hamilton's sensibilities, it's still the closest the film allows him to get to a sense of contentment in his new skin. Here we almost imagine Wilson as adjusting to his rebirth when he laughs and smiles amid those grapes. The terror remains in the eye of the beholder.

Wilson is unable to find happiness, in part because he cannot let go of his previous life. He visits his wife, now a widow who doesn't seem all that torn up about her loss. A scene filmed but not included in the finished cut has Wilson seeing his daughter and newborn grandchild. The solution, he thinks, is to try again. The seconds of the title gains new meaning and we also learn some disturbing truths about just how the company works. Wilson is naive to think he can simply get a do-over. A rather vast organization like the one seemingly controlled by a too-kindly old man (Will Geer) and his welcoming yet assertive employee Ruby (Jeff Corey) certainly won't just offer costly additional chances minus anything in return. The compromise is pretty significant, and, for Wilson, it's monumentally problematic. The resulting consequences are what cement Frankenheimer's film as a thriller that also flirts with the horror genre. In truth, there are few genres save for comedy and musical that Seconds doesn't at times appear to imitate.

As a sidenote, my other favorite film from 1966 is a close cousin to this one, and the two are similar enough as to make it seem almost unbelievably odd that they would be released in the same year. Hiroshi Teshigahara again brought a Kobo Abe story to the screen with The Face of Another, starring Tatsuya Nakadai as a man who gains a new appearance following a disfiguring accident. Certainly there are real differences between the two films but the central idea of undergoing a major operation dripping with science fiction complications is present in both. Seconds opts for a more cautionary tone replete with elements of the thriller and horror while The Face of Another puts a different spin on a similar idea. The latter tackles relationships. It asks whether we remain who we think we are in spite of a radical change in physical appearance. It's a masterpiece of how we approach identity and sort of an accidental cousin to Seconds.

The Disc

Paramount's R1 DVD of Seconds has been out of print for years so this new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the film is especially welcome. The Region A-locked disc is dual-layered. Criterion's cover art comes from the original Saul Bass-designed theatrical poster.

In his commentary track recorded for the Paramount laserdisc release but also contained here, John Frankenheimer mentions the film's aspect ratio as 1.66:1. Criterion has instead gone with 1.75:1 here, which looks perfectly fine. Indeed, the image quality on the whole is marvelous. The black and white photography by James Wong Howe impresses on every level. There's more detail and depth than ever before for the home viewer. Contrast similarly could hardly be improved. The non-intrusive but nonetheless apparent level of grain is ideal.

An English language PCM mono track has clear separation and sounds fantastic. The lossless single-channel audio allows dialogue and Jerry Goldsmith's score to emerge cleanly, with a pleasant sharpness. Most all of the audio, including the actors' lines, was inserted in postproduction to accomodate an overly loud camera but the result is more seamless than one might expect. Though there are instances when this technique becomes noticeable, it's actually integrated quite well. Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired have been included.

Criterion's set of special features combine to make a satisfying addition to the package. Frankenheimer's audio commentary, recorded in 1997, contains some interesting details on the picture, like how he actually got Rock Hudson drunk for the party scene, while also giving the director a chance to look at and talk about his film with several years' worth of retrospect.

Though he may not seem like the most obvious choice to discuss Seconds, Alec Baldwin does a solid job of expressing his admiration for both the film and its director (with whom he worked on the HBO movie Path to War) in a new interview (14:21).

In separate interviews, Evans Frankenheimer, John's widow, and Salome Jens, who plays Nora in the movie, give their rather unique perspectives on the production in a featurette (18:37) Criterion made for its edition. There's also a visual essay (12:38) put together by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance that, like all of the supplements here, helps to further flesh out what we've just seen.

A couple of vintage pieces are really quite interesting. One has Frankenheimer talking (10:26) to a Canadian interviewer in 1971 while the other (4:19) is a short but fascinating look (in color!) at Rock Hudson's brief time filming in Scarsdale, New York in 1965.

The included 20-page booklet, a Criterion signature, has an essay by critic David Sterritt that makes a point to place Seconds as the capper to Frankenheimer's "paranoia trilogy" while also, somewhat amusingly I think, declaring the film to be both "Frankenheimian" and "Frankensteinian" in a fun bit of wordplay.

Lastly, it's worth nothing that Criterion's brilliant package has one last surprise in store. When you lift the disc up from its spindle the team of doctors appear to be looking back at you in a horrifying first-person perspective shot taken from the film's final sequence.

9 out of 10
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