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Criterion Collection: Seconds | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: Seconds Blu-ray cover John FrankenheimerSelected for the Main Comp at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds is a grim, nightmarish thriller that embodies many distinctive aspects of 1960s American cinema. Largely forgotten – one could argue for good reason – by all but the most devoted Frankenheimer fans, the film combines classic noir stylistics with the era’s emerging tremors of social revolution. Folded into the mix are elements of Sci-Fi and speculative fiction, creating a “what if” story filled with metaphors, meditations and mind-games.

The snappy plot begins with some odd occurrences in the quietly desperate life of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a 50-ish, dry as toast bank manager who commutes into the city every day from his tidy colonial in leafy Scarsdale. Recently, the unnerved Hamilton has been receiving phone calls from an old college buddy long thought to be dead. This voice from the past entices Hamilton with vague promises of a new and exciting life, eventually leading him to a shadowy corporation that specializes in turn-key makeovers of their clients’ lives. For a price this outfit will fake your death, perform extensive plastic surgery and supply you with a new identity in a distant city. It’s the witness protection program on steroids.

Seconds has the look and feel of an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, appropriate since its creepy high concept seems torn right out of the Rod Serling playbook. The film features a number of surreal, hallucinogenic sequences with forced perspective sets and fish-eye lenses enhancing this mid-life crisis from hell. When Hamilton’s lengthy rehab is complete, he finds himself transformed into Tony WIlson (Rock Hudson), a not-so-struggling artist with a fondness for cashmere sweaters – he even wears one while painting – and a swanky California beachfront bachelor pad.

At this point, the main question is how well the newly minted Wilson will adjust to his rebirth. Unfortunately it’s also the point where Frankenheimer’s taut thriller begins to sputter and wobble. Hudson’s Wilson knows only two speeds: traumatized remorse or oblivion drunkenness, and neither state is particularly convincing. One morning on the beach he meets a shapely, poetry-spouting blond (Salome Jens) and the pair begin an affair devoid of anything resembling true passion, even though the director attempts to force the issue. They attend a hippie party at a Santa Monica vineyard that turns into a full fledged orgy when folks decide it’s a good idea to get naked and hop into the grape tank. Frankenheimer shoots the sequence with as much prurience as the era would allow, with lots of full frontal jiggling for his handheld cameras.

When Wilson decides a life of debauchery does not suit, he returns to Scarsdale, sparking a final act with more hairpin twists than a mountain road. Along the way we are treated to Second’s tastiest morsels: a number of superb performances by the film’s veteran supporting cast. The great Will Geer is indomitable as the creepy proprietor of the identity change shop, with insincere sleaze oozing from every pore. Jeff Corey’s porcupine eyebrows are put to good use as a case manager for lost souls and Murray Hamilton, ever the scene stealer, is at his dodgy best as Wilson’s bridge to happier days. In an interesting bit of trivia, with Geer, Corey and Randolph the film boasted three of the actors whose careers had been most deeply damaged by Hollywood’s Black List in the 1950s. Clearly, the liberal Frankenheimer relished this opportunity to thumb his nose at the HUAC.

Disc Review

James Wong Howe’s cinematography was nominated for an Oscar – one of the nine Oscar noms and 2 wins he received in his legendary career – and Criterion’s superb restoration showcases his handiwork in its full glory. The son of immigrant Chinese railway laborers, Howe’s filmography spans hand-cranked silents to film noir to widescreen Technicolor musicals. Presented in the original aspect of 1.75:1, the disc is crisp without introducing excessive grain. The shadows fall to black at precisely the right tonality to preserve the aura of mystery and dread. In all Seconds is a visual feast for fans of well executed B/W.

 The audio remains in the original mono, featuring composer Jerry Goldsmith’s chilling string and brass lines peaking with arresting dynamics. Music, dialogue and ambiance are presented with excellent clarity and balance.

Audio commentary featuring director John Frankenheimer
The late director treats us to a fascinating lecture, with equal parts technical and aesthetic insights. Frankenheimer respectfully avoids talking during the actors’ dialogue, which allows the viewer to follow the proceedings while learning more about them. Among the topics discussed are the film’s editing, the use of wide angle lenses and the actors’ two week rehearsal period, from which many subtle aspects of characterization were derived. The commentary has its lighter moments as well. Frankenheimer relates a number of funny stories; in particular a hilarious tale of crew members fainting during the surgery scenes – which were filmed in a real O.R. with actual patients – leaving only he and James Wong Howe to capture this critical material. In all, The track is a most valuable addition to the disc and will add greatly add to one’s appreciation of Seconds.

New interview with actor Alec Baldwin
The director and Baldwin worked together on Frankenheimer’s last film, the HBO movie Path to War (2002), but the men had been good friends for many years. Here, Baldwin shares his impressions of the director, both as an artisan and a human being. There are a number of humorous stories, along with poignant memories of Frankenheimer’s last days. Throughout, the 30 Rock star shows himself to be a serious and knowledgable student of cinema and the supplement offers astute and savvy observations about Second’s place in cinema history and its reflections of the 1960s era. 14 minutes.

Excerpts from Hollywood on the Hudson, a 1965 television program featuring on-set footage and an interview with actor Rock Hudson
This 4 minute package from WNBC is a nostalgic reminder that TV news used to be a thoughtful, slower paced environment with careful reporting and features that were more like stand alone documentaries than today’s breathless live shots. Here we see Hudson relaxing under a shady Scarsdale oak while he discusses the craft of acting in voice-over. There are also scenes of Frankenheimer and Howe visualizing scenes while heavy equipment is muscled into place. The piece has an eerie time capsule quality and offers an intriguing glimpse into the past. Highly recommended.

New program on the making of the film, featuring interviews with Evans Frankenheimer, the director’s widow, and actor Salome Jens
Mrs. Frankenheimer offers a lot of detail on the making of Seconds and clearly has an expert knowledge of all aspects of filmmaking. She describes how Laurence Olivier was her husband’s first choice to star in the film, but he was overridden by Paramount, who were enthralled with Rock Hudson. Jens discusses how Frankenheimer discovered her at Actor’s Studio and how he saw her character as “the essense of doom.” She also relates some amusing recollections of the grape stomping sequence and how the actors and crew prepared themselves psychologically for filming the nude scenes. 14 minutes.

Interview with Frankenheimer from 1971
Filmed by Bruce Pittman for Canadian television, the interview is presented with intensely dramatic close-ups. Frankenheimer touches on many topics, including the influence of painters, especially J.M.W. Turner, on his work. He discusses the differences between amateurs and professionals and poignantly reveals that sometimes he is plagued by doubts about his own creativity. 10 minutes.

New visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance
This scholarly presentation, illustrated by film stills, offers a thorough analysis of Frankenheimer’s background in liberal politics and the role his beliefs played in shaping his filmography. The authors make a compelling case for Frankenheimer’s inclusion among the art-house greats, drawing thematic parallels from Seconds to such European classics as Winter Light and La Notte. 12 Minutes.

A booklet featuring an essay by critic David Sterritt
Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, delivers a sharply written essay that delves deeply into the after-effects of McCarthyism and how it profoundly influenced Frankenheimer’s world view. In addition, the 16 page pamphlet includes film stills and notes on the creation of the disc.

Final Thoughts

Seconds is an absorbing, stylish entertainment that’s prevented from entering the realm of true greatness due a tragic production flaw. Simply stated, the transition from paunchy, middle-aged John Randolph to buff and robust Rock Hudson requires a suspension of disbelief way beyond the abilities of this reviewer. Plastic surgeons are capable of impressive transformations, but in this case it’s a bridge too far. Still the picture can be admired for its prescient tapping into a developing and not yet well understood vein of the 1960’s zeitgeist. In the world of Seconds, people who have devoted their lives to the endless pursuit of wealth and property are finally able to slow down, start over and smell the roses. A year after the film’s debut, Timothy Leary would utter his famous counter-culture mantra “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” With this visionary film, one could say John Frankenheimer beat him to the punch.

David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

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