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Seconds

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Running Time: 107 minutes

Starring: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph

Directed by: John Frankenheimer

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $24.95

Features: Audio Commentary with Director John Frankenheimer, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Mono, French Dolby Mono, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (12 Scenes)

Released: January 8th, 2002

 

 

What if, instead of growing older, once you reached middle age, you were granted the golden opportunity to regain your wasted youth and gain an entire new persona at the same time? Would you subject yourself to the complete loss of self? Would you trade in your wrinkles and lines for a smooth, blemish-free complexion courtesy of the best team of plastic surgeons unknown to mankind? See, there's the rub that Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) faces in John Frankenheimer s, surrealistic, nearly science-fictional "Seconds." There is an elite force at work, an agency that assists ennui-enhanced middle aged men through their dreaded middle-age crises, offering a brand-new face, name and life in exchange for one recommendation of another man who might just need what the agency has to offer. Of course, this is a very simplistic statement concerning one of the richest, yet most despair ridden films of any generation.

Arthur is trapped in a musty marriage, the kids have settled down and leaving lives of their own; and patient wife Emily (personified perfectly by Frances Reid) eagerly anticipates one attempt at passion, a passion which has long since burned out. A telephone call from an old acquaintance sends Arthur on an Orpheus-like trip into a nether world, which is hardly the Never Land his Peter Pan fantasies promises to be. Vividly rendered visuals, a steamy Chinese laundry; a teaming meat market; a black blindfold reinforce the mythological weight of the film. Arthur Hamilton s journey is going to be of operatic proportions, the stuff that legends are made of.

Emerging from a series of graphically depicted rounds of plastic surgery, and a highly specialized regimen of exercise, Arthur Hamilton has become a Greek god personified (Rock Hudson, who more than fulfills the promise of talent demonstrated in his work with director Douglas Sirk). Armed with a new identity, Antiochus Tony Wilson (which harkens back to an ancient race), as well as a new profession, the company sends him off to sunny California, where Tony will begin his re-emergence into society. It is a melancholy Malibu that Tony faces, as he takes small steps towards rewriting his future: dabbling at painting, walking the desolate beach, dining alone on meals prepared by his company-provided Man Friday, John. Tony finds himself attracted to a young woman (Salome Jens, who with her slight lisp is completely believable) who seems to be a lost soul as much as he is. This utterly normal woman, ironically named Norma, re-awakens the inner fires of the former Arthur Hamilton, when she takes Tony to a wine festival, which becomes an Bacchanal of wine-stomping. Freed of inhibitions, and freed of his mortal coil of clothing, Tony may be in Norma's company, but his former self's thoughts are of the woman he left behind.

Seeing his wife will prove to be a Herculean labor, as Arthur is bound by his contract with the company, as Orpheus was, to never look back. The company has eyes everywhere, and when Tony does indeed drop in on Emily Hamilton (claiming to be a friend of her late husband), he is captured by the company (presided over by a God-like Will Geer) to face his final face-off with Fate.

I've got to say that Seconds captivated me many years ago, when I saw it on a double bill with Frankenheimer s Cold War masterpiece, "The Manchurian Candidate." The person responsible for that particular double bill must have had a streak of sadism in him, since both films are very bleak, but beautifully crafted, nearly nihilistic portraits of these United States in post-war paranoia. "Seconds" also happens to contain my favorite performance from Rock Hudson, that stalwart 1950's bit of beefcake, whose acting ability was often underappreciated by those who could not get past his chiseled, glamorous features. Much pain is on display in Hudson's performance, an honest portrait of a man forced to hide his true identity in plain sight; which given Hudson's own closeted homosexuality, makes his acting turn in "Seconds" one of the bravest characterizations ever committed to film. This is Hudson exposed, and the resonance between his personal life and the life of Tony Wilson makes this a memorable film. Already a cult classic, "Seconds" is not a film for everyone's taste; quite possibly it is the most depressing movie ever made, rarely free of an unending sense of despair.

 

 

James Wong Howe s extraordinary, stark black and white photography is richly transferred by Paramount in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Though several second-unit shots are grainy; a few shots of a beach at dusk, "Seconds" amply provides the emotional power associated with monochromatic films. There is a great balance of tones as well as a wealth of varying shades of gray. Blacks are constantly firm and stable, keeping shadows from becoming murky. There are some minor instances of age-related artifacts, none of which should detract from viewing pleasure.

 

Paramount has released "Seconds" with all its original monaural glory, supplying both English and French Dolby Digital 1.0 channel soundtracks. Dialogue is constantly front and center, working within a quite narrow soundstage. Jerry Goldsmith s piano-based score is never overpowering, but a rather subtle presence. There is some stridency to the dialogue, and only rarely does it sound studio-recorded. The disc is Closed Captioned for the Hearing Impaired, with Paramount s usual literal adherence.

 

It's always a pleasure to sit down and listen to John Frankenheimer discuss his movie-making techniques, and "Seconds" does not disappoint as he provides an erudite, entertaining and resourceful Audio Commentary. Frankenheimer seems to know what the viewer wants to hear; well, he has done enough commentaries to know what they should be about, and he more than adequately presents his take no prisoners view on filmmaking. Frankenheimer s comments on this roller-coaster ride into the heart of darkness film should be savored by "Seconds" fans. A rough in appearance Trailer, which is as unnerving as the film itself, is the only other bonus offered.

 

As Frankenheimer as stated of "Seconds," It s the only film I know that has gone from failure to classic - without ever being a success. Paramount has produced a dvd which can only be considered a qualified success on nearly all counts: looks good, sounds good and has a director's commentary, too! Though it is a difficult film to watch, "Seconds" is definitely worth seeking out for a bleak and unnerving cinematic experience.