The third movie in what has been called his paranoia trilogy,* John Frankenheimer’s 1966 Seconds is an angry, menacing film that scowls at the very American idea of starting over and shoves the probable reality of that decision in our faces.
The Criterion Collection‘s new Blu-ray of Seconds goes deeper into this sci-fi horror thriller than ever before with a restored 4K digital film transfer that makes the stark black-and-white-cinematography by legendary DOP James Wong Howe pop the way it was intended to, with all of its forced-perspective camera angles and fish-eyed-lens glory.
To watch Seconds is to enter a special kind of Hell that leaves no one unscathed. It indicts the money-grubbing culture of businessmen and the burgeoning hippie aesthetic as equally hollow with a simple, sinister premise.
A secret organization called The Company is alerted to the situation of a middle-aged banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) in an unhappy marriage who feels empty. In most films with similar plots, the protagonist would be given a choice, but in Seconds, The Company blackmails the desperate man into accepting their offer by framing him for a rape. Brutal.
An abrupt change happens at this point and Arthur is “reborn” as swinging painter Tony Wilson, and he’s now played by — thanks to major reconstructive surgery on the character — Rock Hudson. At first, its difficult to identify with Hudson, being that he looks so different from Randolph. But gradually, due to an incredibly sorrowful performance on Hudson’s part, it becomes all too easy.
No other film I’ve seen quite captures the feeling of being trapped like Seconds does. Hudson’s new life seems at first to be ideal — he’s younger and handsome, owns a Malibu beach house with diplomas on the wall, has a gorgeous girlfriend (Salome Jens), and hosts parties. But the mirage soon fades when he learns that all his new friends are “reborns” too. This element is key the the movie’s unsettling feeling: No longer is it just Arthur pretending to be Tony, but everyone surrounding him are all doing the same thing — fake people wearing fake masks, all hiding something, and all unable to escape their past or their present. His new paradise quickly loses its luster, and with every mention of his old life, Tony realizes he’s breaking the rules. Suffice it to say, things do not go well.
Frankenheimer puts it all together with splintered editing that is as bold as it is disorienting. Speaking of disorienting, let’s not forget the intense close-ups of the Saul Bass opening-credit sequence, which are enough to send anyone straight to the medicine cabinet.
The 1997 Frankenhemier audio commentary (from the rare Paramount DVD that was briefly available, and recorded two years before his death) is here, and it has tons of behind the scenes info about this unique film.
A new 19-minute doc with interviews from Jens and Evans Frankenheimer, the director’s widow, is also included, as well as a brief 1965 Rock Hudson footage/interview, and a 1971 interview with John Frankenhemier filmed for Canadian TV. A very cool 2013 visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance and an interview with Alec Baldwin about Frankenheimer’s directing style round out this impressive Blu-ray Criterion set of an equally impressive movie.
* The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) are the first two movies on the paranoia trilogy.