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Might as well get thirds.

Patrick Crain September 17th, 2013

Director John Frankenheimer camps in a unique place in the story of American film. Too young to be active during Hollywood’s last great period before it fell into stagnancy but too old to be considered part of the hot-shot New American Cinema movement, Frankenheimer instead navigated the Cold War cinema of the early sixties, crafting some of his best known work like The Manchurian Candidate and Birdman of Alcatraz. And for all of the accolades heaped upon those movies, for my money, 1966’s Seconds remains his crowning achievement.

Seconds tells the story of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a terminally unsatisfied and bored executive whose familiar life has grown stale. Lately, he has been in communication with a supposedly deceased friend who promises him a chance at a new life. Taking the plunge, Hamilton wanders into a shadowy corporate world of identity transplantation in which he is “killed off” and surgically transformed both physically and professionally into a younger, freer spirit, Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).

With a new identity in place, Tony is plopped into an environment conducive to his new profile as an artist (including a bitchin’ beach pad that belonged to director Frankenheimer). This being a cautionary tale, these things aren’t quite what they seem, and his new life comes with a hefty emotional and psychological price tag.

What makes Seconds stand apart from Frankenheimer’s better-known films is how solitary it is. Where Manchurian Candidate belongs to many actors, Seconds, despite great turns by Murray Hamilton and Will Geer, pretty much rests on the shoulders of Rock Hudson. Wandering around aimlessly only to find out that all that glitters is not gold and that, in the end, you are what you are, Hudson gives a marvelous, tortured performance.

Of course, there is a certain self-reflexiveness to his performance now that everyone knows that Rock Hudson did, indeed, mostly live a lie, surrounded by people who would keep his secret but never truly free of the social construct Hollywood created for him. And the parallel is not lost on the audience.

Aside from the nerve-jangling story and performances, the film should be celebrated for the simple fact that it’s the last black and white film shot by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Precious few did black and white as brilliantly as Howe and Seconds is one of his best. By using multiple lenses, deep focus and complicated camera set-ups, Howe helps capture Seconds claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere.

A high-water mark for all involved, Seconds comes to Blu-ray by way of the always-reliable Criterion Collection. On top of the Frankenheimer commentary (ported over from the long out-of-print Paramount DVD), the set is loaded with extras that range from retrospective essays, interviews with Hudson on the set of the film, a making-of feature and a 1971 interview with Frankenheimer himself.

However, the real reason to get this is the movie itself. Working like a standalone Twilight Zone episode, Seconds is a masterpiece of paranoid cinema and not one that is soon forgotten. — Patrick Crain

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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