August 2013

SecondsFirst-Rate Sleeper Gets the Recognition It Deserves

The Criterion Collection 667
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment

Picture Quality

Sound Quality


Director John Frankenheimer enjoyed a strong series of hit movies in the early 1960s: All Fall Down, Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Manchurian Candidate (all 1962), Seven Days in May, and The Train (both 1964). This incredible track record preceded Seconds in 1966, based on the novel by David Ely and starring Rock Hudson. It was not well received. Some theorize that Rock Hudson fans didn't want to see their favorite romantic comedy star in anything serious, and people who weren't into Rock Hudson simply passed on it.

In the years since its release, however, it has become a cult hit. I saw the movie in Washington, DC, without any advance warning. All I knew was that it was supposed to be some kind of "horror" film, and ever since I was 12 I've gone to every one of those I could find. I went in expecting little, and came out totally revved up. I told everyone I knew that they had to see this movie, because it was exciting, thought provoking, and thrilling, and it would cause everyone to question every minute of their prior life. Rock Hudson? It was arguably the best acting he had done in his extensive career.

The story concerns middle-aged Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who has grown weary of his middle-class life. He has all of the things he set out to get in life, and he finds them all boring. Through an old friend he finds out about a company that creates "reborns." They use cadavers so as to pretend to kill off the old person, so everyone will think he's dead, and then through extensive surgery and training, they make the client into a new person, one with no background. This might have worked -- had they cleared Hamilton's mind. Though Hamilton becomes Antiochus "Tony" Wilson (Rock Hudson) and has just about everything he could want, including beautiful girlfriend Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), he's unhappy. He makes the mistake of going to see his wife (Frances Reid), who of course thinks he's dead and doesn't recognize him with his makeover. Thoughts of the past begin to bother him. He realizes that we're stuck being who we are, and though we can make many improvements, the past is still part of our makeup.

He wants to go back, but as far as the Company is concerned, that makes him defective. And you know what happens to defective merchandise that's beyond repair.

Criterion has lavished its usual care on this minor masterpiece, giving it solid video and audio transfers augmented by an interesting set of extras. The video is crisp black-and-white with excellent contrast and comforting grain for those who like a real movie experience. I felt the grain got a little out of hand in the scene where Tony visits his wife, but that's not too long a stretch. Cinematographer James Wong Howe used many tricks to give this little film a sinister and uncomfortable feel, using wide-angle lenses to keep foreground and background in focus, tilting the camera, and going for extreme close-ups. It reminds me a lot of German expressionism. Jerry Goldsmith's eerie, uncomfortable music score helps in creating a claustrophobic atmosphere, and the mono track, taken from the original 35mm magnetic soundtrack, is exceptionally strong.

The commentary track is by Frankenheimer himself, so it is naturally screen-specific, the director explaining how he filmed certain scenes and how "Jimmy" (James Wong Howe) worked to get the shots exactly right. There are several featurettes of interest, the main one for me was a 1965 television program called Hollywood on the Hudson, which shows the filming of scenes in Scarsdale, New York, and has a lot of genial interview footage of Hudson. These are all in color, so you can compare and see what a good choice it was to film the movie in black-and-white.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 11, Tony Wilson gives a party and proceeds to get drunk, and the atmosphere becomes so hostile it'll make you wince. We learn from Frankenheimer's commentary that Hudson really got drunk and thus the scene was done in one take. If you've ever suffered a guest like this or perhaps been that person yourself, it hurts to watch it. But that's the point.

. . . Rad Bennett