Wednesday, April 14, 2010


"Seconds" (John Frankenheimer, 1966) Post "Star Wars," science fiction films have been pretty cookie-cutter—fleet-ships, a Hero with a Thousand Names, odd plasticized bi-ped creatures in supporting roles. Science Fiction used to be about concepts, and technology was just an aspect of futurism. That's why to see "Seconds" is still a thrilling experience, as it calls to mind a feature-length, subtler "Twilight Zone" episode,* that takes an idea and turns it around in its hand, exploring the angles...and the consequences.

Bank executive Arthur Hamilton (
John Randolph) is receiving mysterious phone-calls from someone who claims to be an old friend but doesn't sound like him. A note is slipped into his hand as he enters the subway, and upon further exploration (and prompting) learns that he is being offered a second chance in life. The anonymous corporation will transform him with plastic surgery (even replacing his finger-prints) and an exercise regimen, while setting up a planned "accident" with an unrecognizable "similar body-type" to explain his absence. To the world, he will die, but he'll be resurrected as a new man, with a new life, in a new community—everything re-arranged neatly and clinically.

From the ashes of Arthur Hamilton will emerge Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson), bohemian painter. "Wilson" makes a go of his second chance, but he's still the man he used to be inside, and he struggles internally with his new choices...and the ones he left behind. Changing his mind becomes the greatest challenge.

Filmed in black and white—
this film would have been over-powering and kinda ugly in color—by the master cinematographer James Wong Howe (with assistance by John A. Alonzo), "Seconds" is filmed in disorienting tight close-ups, and with unnerving wide-angle lenses that contort, bend and mold the right-angles of life into constricting prisons. The helter-skelter editing of David Newhouse and Ferris Webster keeps the viewer from becoming complacent, and Jerry Goldsmith's bizarre discomiting score only adds to the unease.

This is Hudson's best role—if you're like me and aren't into rom-com's—and his best movie. But it's contradictorily a one-sided performance—there's not an awful lot of joy (I think that may be the point), and he's unsure, disoriented or drunk throughout most of it. And, as Frankenheimer says in his commentary, he really worked hard in this role...especially towards the end.

One should also be aware that in one scene in the corporation's stark "briefing room," the cast is comprised of
Randolph, Will Geer (he's especially creepy in this role, while being his most benevolent) and Jeff Corey—all "brethren" in the secret society of blacklisted actors.

This version of "
Seconds" is not the one released in the States in 1966. A disorienting wine-making festival sequence with pre-hippie free-thinkers orgiastically stomping grapes in the buff was deemed too risque for its release (and Hudson wasn't comfortable with the sequence, as is evident in his performance), but it has been restored for the DVD release.

It's still an affecting film, even now, over 40 years later, a cautionary time-capsule of that era when the concerns of the speculative writer was society and not space-ships. Somtimes, fantasies have a nasty habit of becoming nightmares.

* Director Frankenheimer worked in the Golden Age of Live Television and worked with Rod Serling, pre-TZ, and post-TZ—Serling wrote the script for Frankenheimer's "Seven Days in May."

No comments: