Although he's dealing with sci-fi elements and a storyline rife with generationally relevant concepts and familiar themes of paranoia and subjection, director John Frankenheimer instills 'Seconds,' his 1966 tale of upper-class misery and misguided belief in second chances, with a devastating sense of melancholy that speaks both to the human condition's endless pursuit of retaining youth, as well as the trappings of the pursuit of success and wealth, and the unfulfilled promises of happiness and contentment that accompany such endeavors.
Shot in gorgeous black and white by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe ('Hud'), 'Seconds' is a journey into a twisted reality that is as much a feast for the eyes as it is a fascinating tale of existential crisis and misplaced belief that an individual's exterior can ever become a more powerful designator of identity, place and self-worth than the accumulated memories and experiences that build, break, shape and refine a person over his or her lifetime.
The film begins as a middle-aged man, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), makes his way through Grand Central Station to the train that will eventually drop him in Scarsdale, where his wife of many years waits to drive them back to their idyllic, upper-class suburban home. But before Arthur can board the train, a stranger hands him a piece of paper containing a single address. Despite the questionable circumstances, this mysterious sequence of events puts Arthur into a contemplative, self-reflective frame of mind, rather than one of perplexed paranoia. It seems Arthur has recently been contacted by an old friend, long thought dead, who, as it turns out is merely living his life reborn as a new man who is supposedly free from the worry and expectations of a discontented life spent pleasing and doing the bidding of others, instead of pursuing the dreams that motivated him during his youth.
Spurred on by the implicit prospect of reclaiming his life, dreams and happiness, Arthur winds up in the hands of a clandestine organization – referred to only as The Company – run by a nameless old man played by Will Geer, whose outward charm and countrified epigrams are layered with a menace so thinly veiled it need never fully reveal itself to have the desired, chilling effect. Through a little coaxing, some handholding and a bit of blackmail, Arthur not-so-reluctantly hands over an obscene amount of money to fake his own death and undergo months of surgeries, rehabilitation and training to become Antiochus 'Tony' Wilson. And through the magic of cutting edge science and the suspension of disbelief, the man who would later become Clark Griswold's father is transformed into the star and Hollywood icon that was Rock Hudson.
The transformation from jowly middle-aged depressive, to the man who was an era's archetype of fame is a startling one – as much for the audience as for the former Arthur Hamilton – and Hudson does the role a great service by refusing to turn the miraculous alteration into a spoof on his own celebrity. Instead, Hudson instills the character of Tony Wilson with a profound longing and an absolute hollowness that was to have been corrected, not magnified, by the extreme cosmetic surgery and other procedures he underwent. For contemporary audiences, Hudson's chiseled features and strong physique, combined with his character's inability to connect with those around him or grasp the concept of happiness, success and even moderation, immediately evokes the character who today is the personification of existential longing and dual identity amidst the turmoil and social upheaval of the '60s. Of course, I am talking about famed ad man and connoisseur of whiskey and women, Don Draper.
But whereas Dick Whitman's rebirth into Don Draper was a product of circumstance, quick thinking, and plain old dumb luck, Tony Wilson's entry into the world is orchestrated entirely by The Company – right down to his new profession, friends and relocation to the devil-may-care land of Southern California. In that regard, Frankenheimer's work of existential angst featuring a thorny, disagreeable and dour protagonist is not merely reminiscent of 'Mad Men'; it is also suggests interesting parallels with David Fincher's masterful psychological mindbender, 'The Game.'
But unlike the therapeutic, reaffirming intent of Consumer Recreation Services, The Company of 'Seconds' isn't looking to rebuild anything beyond the superficial; their goal is to apply a false luster to the exterior of something broken on the inside. Those who have gone on to become reborn are given new faces and new identities, but their souls remain untouched; their spirits unmended. This makes Frankenheimer's vision of a world in which faceless corporations literally control the lives of their customers, and where cost and price mean radically different things, equally frightening, dehumanizing and tragically predictive.
This may be an entry in Frankenhimer's purported "paranoia" trilogy, but it is also manages to stand alone and convey a different, deeper and more personal connection with the audience. Although skewed and startling at times, the film's distressing take on the inefficacy of wealth, the depiction of the existential quandary of those coming out of a very prosperous period in American history, was tied together with an unconventional, but necessary denouement, making 'Seconds' one of the most riveting and affecting films on cultural ills that still feels razor sharp today.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Seconds' is comes from Criterion as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard clear Criterion keepcase. In addition to the usual smorgasbord of supplemental features, the disc also includes a 16-page booklet with an essay by critic David Sterritt. As an added bonus, the insert as well as the booklet features the film's original artwork by famed artist Saul Bass.
Criterion has given 'Seconds' a magnificent restored 4K digital film transfer that beautifully displays James Wong Howe's superlative cinematography and illustrates just how rich and tonally brilliant black and white film can be when used by such an artistically gifted craftsman. The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is another highlight in a recent string of fantastic black and white restorations, which Criterion has recently undertaken; namely, 'Marketa Lazarová,' 'A Man Escaped' and 'Lord of the Flies.'
Fine detail is and rich textures help bring out a tremendous amount of depth to the picture, as facial features show elements like pores, wrinkles and facial hair with fantastic precision. Texture is also present nearly everywhere, from surfaces to clothing, and the wide angle cinematography of the film keeps background elements in focus, which adds to the overall sense of incredible depth and detail. Contrast levels are also extremely high. Blacks are deep and inky (as they should be in black and white), while whites remain bright and pristine. Most notably, the gradation between the two is remarkable and manages to display a wide variation of grays that accentuate every scene – especially those filmed outside at dawn or dusk.
Naturally, 'Seconds' was shot on film nearly 50 years ago, so there is some grain that's present throughout the picture. In this particular instance, however, the grain manages to accentuate the thematic points of the picture, giving it a dark, seedy, noir-like tone that works as an extension of the already gorgeous cinematography.
'Seconds' has been given an uncompressed monaural soundtrack that actually works wonders for this quiet and brooding film, which, for the most part, has its audio driven by dialogue rather than sound or even score – although there is an ominous score by Jeffy Goldsmith that sounds quite good.
As expected, the mix handles all the dialogue quite well. Voices are clear and distinct – so much so, in fact, that the first time Murray Hamilton's ('Jaws') voice is heard, the actor is immediately identifiable – even though Hamilton isn't on-screen. And while there is the odd sound or atmospheric effect thrown in to add a little ambiance or to punch up a scene, the balance of the mix handles the additional sound quite well, and nothing is lost.
There's not much else to say about the mix, other than it is free of noise or other elements that might otherwise denote a film that's nearly a half-century old. It may not be a 5.1 mix, but the monaural track here will certainly get the job done.
The fact that 'Seconds' failed to ignite the box office and then fell into semi-obscurity, only to be resurrected as something of a cult film years later, is reason enough to see this movie. The fact that it is another fantastic entry in the Criterion line-up should be enough to convince anyone still on the fence to give the film a shot. This is a great library addition for anyone who likes strange, slightly dystopian films that touch on societal problems without being overwrought or unnecessarily didactic and for fans of the late, great John Frankenheimer as well. Criterion has done a tremendous job with the image and sound, and although the supplements are a little light, they manage to be informative and entertaining. Highly recommended.