Seconds (1966) *****
Dir. John Frankenheimer
Starring: Rock Hudson
Review By Greg Klymkiw
The myth of post-War prosperity in America created an endlessly compelling series of films within a variety of genres from the late 1940s and onwards, but for me, few are sadder, scarier and creepier than the great John Frankenheimer's chilling exploration of identity in a world seemingly bereft of genuine individuality. Based on John Ely's novel and superbly adapted by screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, we're introduced to a shell of a man, living in an upscale suburb with a wife he ignores, endless train rides to and from the city where he manages a bank and in spite of a very comfortable lifestyle, the surface trappings of his success merely mask a living death.
When he begins receiving telephone calls from a long-dead pal he is, at first, disturbed that someone would play this cruel practical joke on him until the voice on the other end of the line begins to reveal details that only his late pal would have known.
This is the middle-aged banker's chance to change his life.
You know, I've gotta say that if it were me, I'd be checking myself into a looney bin and/or visiting a priest or maybe, just maybe, I'd be looking for a better way to change my life. I, however, did not live in post-war America (though Gen-Xrs and beyond certainly suffered its influence in other ways) and given the after-effects of the horrors of World War II upon our fathers, the Korean War, the burgeoning Vietnam War, the Cold War and the horrendous assassination of JFK, maybe I too - like much of America then and now - would be looking for an easy way out.
Of course, what seems to come easy, always has strings attached. Though our banker friend falls for this macabre solicitation from the grave, he is plunged even deeper into a cruel and eerie existence that is as fraught with the surface trappings of prosperity as his previous existence yielded, but his inner life is also tinged with a surface gloss that eventually gives way to heartache and anxiety.
And believe me, the picture's been super-creepy and scary up to this point, but like any great thriller, things are going to get even more horrific than we'd ever imagined.
Seconds is a film that has so much going for it on every level. When scribes refer to "terse" direction, I'm not always sure they know precisely what they're on about, but I will say, from my standpoint that John Frankenheimer might well be the genuine grandfather of a directorial approach that's as concise and trenchant as one would hope for in genre pictures that are rooted in a boldly simple structure that allows for peeling back layers on thematic, narrative and stylistic levels that few have ever been able to genuinely master. Here, Frankenheimer seem to give almost free reign to the unparalleled cinematographer James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success) to create one shot after another that, taken on their own, seem like masterworks of lighting and composition. Movement is almost always subtle and crisp, though one's memory always comes back to dynamic activity bordering on the slightly jangling. Even more evocative the use of wide-angle lenses and, in particular, the consummately ghastly fish-eye shots which we never seem to forget.
In spite of these flourishes, they're used sparingly and so many of the compositions - whilst gorgeous - are simple and there to serve both the blocking, narrative and emotion. This was a style Frankenheimer developed in earlier features, most notably The Manchurian Candidate, but part of me thinks, that like so many great American directors of the 60s and 70s he cut his teeth with the kind of abandon afforded so many writers, directors and producers during the truly "Golden Age of American Television" where Frankenheimer directed oodles of "plays for television".
One of his great works during this period was the "Playhouse 90" production of Rod Serling's The Comedian starring a malevolent Mickey Rooney who was never, before or after, so downright brilliant. This "teleplay" (a magnificent amalgam of cinema, theatre and even radio drama that was most often broadcast live before millions on premiere broadcasts) is so original and compellingly grotesque, that it's extremely interesting to watch it within the context of Frankenheimer's best work for the big screen during the 60s.
Of course, there isn't a single performance in Seconds that seems false or out of place, but the movie really belongs to the late, great movie star Rock Hudson. His sensitivity and vulnerability (so often on display in the numerous Doris Day romantic comedies as well as some of his greatest triumphs during the 50s) is uncanny here. Though Frankenheimer initially had hoped for the likes of Laurence Olivier in the role, it's impossible to imagine anyone other than this bonafide movie star. The notion of a formerly dullish, slightly portly middle-aged cog in the upper levels of the post-war machine transformed into this gorgeous, hunky, Marlboro Man among Marlboro Men, is not only a brilliant stroke of casting in terms of an audience connecting to this character, but the film so expertly builds the empty frumpiness of this person's earlier life that when Hudson keeps looking in the mirror, he expertly yields a strange combination of disbelief, elation and yes, sadness. Rock Hudson, quite simply and movingly, breaks our hearts.
For all the creepiness and suspense Seconds delivers, what makes it resonate with such force and deliver several jabs to our collective solar-plexes is the heartbreak, the swirling sadness, the tragic search for a place in a world where identity has been stripped from those who thought it was all going to be better.
It doesn't get more real than that.
"Seconds" has been given the royal treatment on the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, but I urge you, as great as the accompanying materials are, watch the movie not once, but maybe even twice before you dive in. I didn't watch any of it prior to even writing the aforementioned and I can assure you this allowed me to experience the film on subsequent viewings with even more appreciation than I'd ever imagined was possible. Here are the disc's highlights: A stunningly restored 4K digital film transfer, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, a genuinely great commentary with Frankenheimer, a surpringly insightful interview withactor Alec Baldwin, excerpts from "Hollywood on the Hudson" TV show from 1965 that has on-set footage and a Hudson interview, a fine making-of with interviews from Frankenheimer’s widow and actor Salome Jens (who plays the film's "love interest"), a 1971 interview with Frankenheimer, a decent visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance and the de rigueur booklet that has the added value of a superb essay by movie critic David Sterritt.
Read my Review of John Frankenheimer's THE COMEDIAN, part of the Criterion Collection mega-box DVD set "The Golden Age of Television" HERE.