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SECONDS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, Will Geer, John Randolph, Murray Hamilton
Director:  John Frankenheimer
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono (2 Channel)
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  January 8, 2002

“Isn’t it easier to go forward when you know you can’t go back?”

“I can never go back?”

“Fact is, you really don’t WANT to go back.”

Film ***

From the opening “magic mirror” distortions of an unknown figure, Seconds toys with the idea of the malleability of human flesh.  It’s a concept that will prove central to the story.  A man gets another chance at life, with a new face, a new identity, and a career he’s always dreamed about…but will it really be everything he’s always wanted?

This picture plays like a full length episode of The Twilight Zone, and I mean that as a compliment.  Not only does it toy with a creepy, surrealistic subject matter, but it does so with a strong central character that we never get really close to, but sympathize with nonetheless.

That character is aging banker Arthur Hamilton (Randolph), who lives an empty existence with a wife he’s no longer intimate with, a grown daughter that barely writes, a job and a boat.  A series of phone calls from a college chum he thought long dead begin to awaken a desperation in him.  He follows an address given to him to learn what fate has in store for him.

It’s a strange company run by a sweet-to-sinister old man (Geer) that gives people a chance to be “reborn”.  A few legal and monetary details, a carefully arranged “death”, and a healthy dose of plastic surgery, and anyone can escape their mundane life for a more fulfilling one.  It seems to be a pretty good service, at first…when Arthur comes out of the procedure, he has a new identity, Tony Wilson, and he looks just like Rock Hudson.

Tony sets out into his new life with hesitation…at first, he simply shuts himself away and refuses to get out and meet people.  But a chance encounter with a lovely young lady, Norma Marcus (Jens), starts to open him up.  It leads to one of the film’s strangest sequences…a gratuitous Bacchanalian grape stomping fest that seems equally liberating and scary.

We later see Tony at a party, hitting the booze a little too harshly.  We begin to wonder if his composure wearing down will lead to him revealing his secret.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Tony’s ultimate dissatisfaction with his choice will lead him to seek out the company once again for yet another shot at “rebirth”.  What happens next, I will not reveal.

John Frankenheimer, who made a name for himself in television and as the director of The Manchurian Candidate, offers a simply constructed film that relies on extreme camerawork, lighting, and design to tell a rather bizarre tale of second chances.  Though the concept behind the story is nothing new, his sense of direction brings a heightened sense of surreal tension to the material…often, by his restrained use of sound.  Long stretches of time are almost too quiet for comfort, and these usually get offset by moments where the noise levels rise to an equally uncomfortable din.  It keeps Arthur/Tony’s world in a constant state of extreme desperation.

Special praise must go to Rock Hudson, however, who turns in one of his best and most memorable performances as Tony.  Hudson is the right actor for this part, as his combination of pent-up frustration and vulnerability make us respond to his predicament with sympathy and sorrow. 

Seconds is a satisfying, strange thriller overall…one that dares to suggest that having the chance to do it all again may not be as good as it sounds!

Video ***

Paramount offers an anamorphic presentation for Seconds that’s quite good overall…the black and white photography renders crisply and beautifully throughout, even with the often extreme lighting schemes.  Whites are clean and bright, and shadows are effectively dark and deep.  There is only a very light amount of specks on the print, and really only noticeable during the very darkest scenes.  Apart from that, sharpness levels are generally good throughout, and grain is non-existent.

Audio ***

For a mono mix, this soundtrack earns high marks for its faithful rendering of Frankenheimer’s specific audio schemes.  The track offers better than average dynamic range, with clean, clear dialogue throughout.  Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score also sounds terrific, offering the picture a bit of dramatic punch at the right moments.

Features **

The commentary by director John Frankenheimer is a little sparse at times, but he’s a good speaker with a fond memory.  He gives plenty of credit to those who worked with him, from the cameramen to the set designers, to the actors themselves…best of all, he adamantly defends the use of widescreen presentations over pan & scan, with specific examples from his film about how shot constructions would be ruined without letterboxing!  It’s not a bad listen overall.  Also included is the original theatrical trailer.  Missing are some production photographs that Frankenheimer mentions in his commentary track that he hoped would be included on the disc.

Summary:

Is a second chance all any of us really need?  The price may be too high, and the results less than we imagined.  That is the premise of Seconds in a nutshell, a deceptively simple, well-acted, and well constructed thriller that proves a second chance at life may not be an escape at all.