A beautiful x-ray of middle-aged existential crisis, Seconds is arguably a second-tier John Frankenheimer funhouse of paranoia, but the same might be said of any film that isn't The Manchurian Candidate. Four years after his 1962 sui generis satire-chiller, the former live-TV director made his third post-Manchurian movie, a dark science-fiction fable of a man assuming a new identity via regenerative surgery and obliteration of his old life, performed by the ominously shadowy Company. While ostensibly a thriller, albeit one pulling fewer overtly political strings than Frankenheimer's The Train or Seven Days in May, here the suspense is muted in favor of an almost suffocating aura of despair, and the central everyman changeling is defined by his silences—explicitly observed by his wife in a third-act monologue. And while Seconds provided Rock Hudson with a rare opportunity for an emotionally complex and demanding role, it may have been equally taxing on audience expectations, as the star doesn't appear for the first 40 minutes.
That Hudsonless first act sticks close to 51-year-old New York banker Arthur Hamilton (long-running character actor John Randolph), first seen trailed by a mysterious stranger en route to his 5:23 commuter train in Grand Central, part of a recruitment effort by Hamilton's old Ivy League buddy to sell him on the pleasures of a reset life. After a labyrinthine journey through a tailor shop and a meatpacking plant, the gray executive finds himself protesting feebly against abandoning his empty career and now-sexless marriage in the Company office, first to a brusque middleman (Jeff Corey, hilariously mooching his client's chicken dinner) and then the organization's elderly, soft-spoken CEO, portrayed by Will Geer with folksy charm supplemented by the unmistakable flow of ice water through his veins. Gently grilling Hamilton about the value of his current life until the interviewee reluctantly acknowledges that it's wholly disposable, the major-domo pushes, “Anything a'tall?” Thirty grand and a staged, drug-induced episode of blackmail later, the banker goes under the knife and becomes a “reborn” as square-jawed, youthful Tony Wilson (Hudson).
If Seconds never again casts quite the same spell, it's partly because the tour de force of its opening act is driven by the spectacular black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe, utilizing fish-eye lenses, canted camera angles, and a variety of Manhattan locations and studio interiors that run the visual gamut from documentary-like spontaneity to claustrophobic and agoraphobic effects, evoking The Trial and the work of Orson Welles in general. Once Hamilton/Wilson is placed in a swank Malibu beach house, with a forged painter's CV on which to build his abandoned dream of an artistic life, the principal weakness of Lewis John Carlino's script is not one, but two “wild party” set pieces, the Achilles heel of many a 1960s Hollywood production. Escorting his free-spirit neighbor (Salome Jens) to a Bacchus fest populated by pipe-playing, nude grape stompers (where Howe's handheld, vérité-style work is both on-game and splash-free), Wilson goes from paternal scold to neophyte sensualist in a heartbeat, and Hudson can't make the turnabout work. He is touchingly, messily convincing as a cocktail-soiree host who can't hold his liquor, or keep his secret, among his new crowd, who turn on him quickly for largely foreseeable reasons.
There'd be no drama to Seconds if its antihero's seconds proved nourishing, and as A Clockwork Orange would five years later, its climax revisits its earlier scenes, as Wilson's dissatisfaction leads him back to the Company's headquarters, with his counselors' and doctors' assurances of a repeat makeover sounding increasingly hollow, and ultimately dire. With its strings-oriented, sometimes hairy score by Jerry Goldsmith and inevitably bleak, cautionary ending, Frankenheimer's film is somewhat lazily, but not baselessly, compared to a glistening feature version of The Twilight Zone, with that series's sizeable humanist streak most evident in Wilson's unauthorized visit to his “widow” and former home (with Hudson uncannily suggesting Randolph in his burden of pain and desperate watchfulness). Says Mrs. Hamilton, of her husband to her husband, “He never let anything touch him…I never knew what he wanted, and I don't think he knew.”
The star of Criterion's digital transfer from the original camera negative of Seconds is certainly the versatile lensing of the great DP James Wong Howe, whose deep-focus black-and-white images particularly make the Company's lair, from light-bathed operating rooms to a purgatorial waiting area, a realm of clinical dread. While the often-handheld location shots of Grand Central Terminal and an orgiastic wine-vat bacchanal are of varying dramatic effectiveness, they're rendered with a satisfying quotient of grain and vivid depth of field. It's a visual knockout. The remastered monaural soundtrack is crisp, though I noticed a negligible amount of hiss whenever Jerry Goldsmith's musical score kicked in.
The solid supplements are led by late director John Frankenheimer's commentary track, recorded for laserdisc in 1997, in which he effusively praises James Wong Howe for his encouragement of the use of wide-angle lenses that gave Seconds a distorted, otherworldly aspect, as well as for the cinematographer's lighting and framing contributions and his personal operation of the camera in many sequences. Frankenheimer also expresses admiration for Rock Hudson's hard work and willingness to take on an unusual role, though he rues the department-store look of Hudson's wardrobe, and his decision to use his own Malibu home for the protagonist's ("Simpler would've been better"). His revelations are that star and director both agreed that Hudson should get authentically drunk for his party scene, and that most of the film was post-dubbed because of the production's mobile but noisy Arriflex cameras.
In a brief interview, Alec Baldwin (who acted in the director's final project, HBO's Path to War) sketches Frankenheimer's methods and observes how Hudson's performance mirrors John Randolph's uptight characterization. A dual featurette has the director's widow, Evans Frankenheimer, describing Paramount's refusal of Laurence Olivier in both incarnations of the lead role ("not a big enough star"), and Salome Jens recounting the reason for her casting (Frankenheimer told her she was "the essence of doom"). A visual essay by critics R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance astutely analyzes the anti-romantic bedroom scene between the Hamiltons in terms of lighting, lens, and framing. Frankenheimer calls himself "a professional" and not yet an artist in a 1971 Canadian TV interview, and a four-minute excerpt from a 1965 making-of TV special shows color footage of Hudson and Frankenheimer on the Scarsdale, NY location (taking time to review promo art on a break). Finally, a booklet essay by David Sterritt identifies Seconds as a dystopian tale of resurrection, "where the body is reborn but the spirit stays dead," and a withering critique of consumerism.
There's nothing a'tall salvageable about Arthur Hamilton's suburban drone mindset, but this restoration polishes his Kafkaesque tailspin down to the last whir of the cranial drill.