Release Date(s)1966 (August 13, 2013)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Criterion - Spine #667)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A
Up until 1966, John Frankenheimer was known primarily for making political thrillers, which included The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, as well as the Oscar-winning drama Birdman of Alcatraz. Venturing out of the box he made Seconds, which was based on a novel by David Ely about a man who deciding that, after a long and unsatisfactory life, would pay a company a large sum of money to completely change his identity and become someone new.
Seconds, at least in the first half of the film, is very much akin to an episode of The Twilight Zone, but comes off very much as a Roman Polanski or French New Wave project. It’s basically science fiction in form, but functions more as a human drama. It’s unique visual style for the time, courtesy of cinematographer James Wong Howe, gave a certain panache that many other films didn’t have. The story, and its eventual outcome, were certainly not the typical Hollywood outcome at the time. The only Hollywood-type aspect to the film was the presence of Rock Hudson in the lead role. It was ultimately an opportunity for the actor to perform in a more unusual role than he was accustomed to.
While watching the film, and later reflecting upon it, I had two different reactions. While watching it, I felt as though the first half of the film was the strongest. The camera angles, the visuals, the score, the performances, and just the plot of the film itself, left me engrossed and intrigued. I was constantly in a state of trying to figure out what was going on and if there was anything more to the proceedings than what was on the surface. It grabbed me right away and was all well-paced. Yet in the second half, it felt as if it was throwing all of that built-up aesthetic completely out the window and de-evolving into a very mundane story about a man who steps outside of his own boundaries and explores new notions about life (that is, until the ending). There was even a moment that felt completely out-of-character for the movie when said man took part in a nude grape-smashing/hippie party. It was thoroughly jarring and caused me to lose some of my interest in what was happening. However, upon reflection (as well as re-watching), it’s clear that those scenes in the second half were absolutely necessary. You were with the character and felt how out of place he was through his eyes. He was a young man on the outside but a conservative world-weary man on the inside, and the juxtaposition of the former thrust upon the latter was crucial for the decision that he would later make. Director John Frankenheimer’s widow has quoted him as saying that Seconds is a film that “needs to be seen more than once.” I couldn’t agree more. My knee-jerk reaction to the film’s content in the second half could have caused me to miss vital subtext that could have spoiled a perfectly well-made film, and since I’m in the position to see it more than once, I can have a change of opinion if I so choose.
Critics at the time of the film’s release didn’t feel the same way though. The film wasn’t well-received when it was released, but over the years became a cult classic. Elements vital to the film, including those previously mentioned, as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score and just the adaptation of the book itself by Lewis John Carlino (who also wrote The Fox, The Great Santini, and The Mechanic), have been re-evaluated and appreciated by contemporary audiences and critics. The proof of it is the film being included as a title in the Criterion Collection.
Speaking of which, Criterion’s Blu-ray release features a newly-restored 4K digital film transfer from the original camera negative. The transfer for this film is one of the most organic-looking presentations that I’ve seen lately. There is a completely even layer of very fine film grain throughout, with amazing depth and clarity to the images. Detail is rampant in both foreground and background elements, even shadow details. There are plenty of strong blacks, as well as whites, and perfect contrast levels. I didn’t notice any signs of damage anywhere and the transfer is free of digital tampering. Rest-assured, this is a straight A presentation that couldn’t look any better unless it was the film print itself (or presented in 4K). The audio portion is equally impressive, stemming from an English mono LPCM track. Dialogue is completely crisp and easy to understand, while score and sound effects have had new life breathed into them. Goldsmith’s score sounds particularly good (good enough for a soundtrack release if you ask me). It sounds perfect, it looks perfect... it is perfect. I couldn’t praise it any higher. There are also optional subtitles in English for those who might need them.
Supplemental materials include an audio commentary with director John Frankenheimer; an interview with actor Alec Baldwin about the film; A Second Look, a featurette on the making of the film containing interviews with Evans Frankenheimer, the director’s widow, and actor Salome Jens; a visual essay on the film by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance; two pieces of Archival Footage, which include an interview with Frankenheimer from 1971 and excerpts from Hollywood on the Hudson, a 1965 TV program featuring on-set footage and an interview with actor Rock Hudson; and finally, a 20-page insert booklet with an essay on the film by critic David Sterritt.
Seconds is the kind of film that could have been a game changer if it had been released a couple of years later. It was nominated for a Palme d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival the year of its release, which shows just how appreciative audiences outside of the U.S. were toward the film. Frankenheimer’s direction, Hudson’s performance, Goldsmith’s score, Wong Howe’s cinematography, and even Saul Bass’s trippy opening credit sequence, all go into making a creepy and paranoiac film that will stick with you long after seeing it. And if you haven’t seen it, Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the film is the perfect place to start.
- Tim Salmons