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Seconds (Blu-ray Review)

19 Aug, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph, Murray Hamilton.

Playing something like a “Twilight Zone” episode that would have been too unhinged for CBS to air, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds is a movie I liked a bunch from the get-go, though even as an Ohio teenager, I was fully aware from the trades how wretchedly it had been treated at Cannes. On one of the rewarding Criterion extras here, Frankenheimer’s widow Evans Evans (as ever, a great name) says that it “wasn’t well received.” Actually, it got all-out booed, and as I recall, lead Rock Hudson, who comes pretty close to delivering his career performance here, didn’t quite know what to do when he got sent out on stage to mount a defense. Oh, well: didn’t Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud get booed as well at one of the major festivals? (And, for that matter, I personally heard some clown hiss the villainess in Murnau’s Sunrise at a Museum of Modern Art showing.) We should always treat people who boo good or great movies with civility — as in stopping to buy a No. 4 from their pencil stand years later.

Adapted from a David Ely novel by screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, Seconds has to be one of the most uncompromised major studio releases before the 1970s, and you can see why it didn’t go over with masses who’d have probably preferred to see something along the lines of the same year’s Not With My Wife, You Don’t (Tony Curtis, Virna Lisi) if given the choice. Very much a part of the culture in which professionally successful but depressed middle-aged guys were just starting to think about locating their inner selves, the movie casts character actor John Randolph (then just back from the Blacklist) as a Scarsdale, NY, banker who’s never even thought about his emotional plight until a surprise encounter on a commuter train sets his own wheels to turning.

The mechanism for change is a murky concern run by Will Geer (man, this film was a Blacklist haven) whose supposed mission in life is to supply the dissatisfied with new identities following major plastic and fingerprint surgery. In Randolph’s case, he is transformed into Hudson via a terrific scene that avoids the viewer giggles that such an unlikely switcheroo might have elicited. As part of what must be an expensive tab, Hudson is reconstituted as an artist and gets whisked away to a beachfront artists’ colony where recreational delights include nude grape-stomping in a vat large enough to hold a couple dozen other close friends. Including a slim but busty nicely tanned blonde (Salome Jens) with whom he’s taken up.

It sound good, but as Seconds fan and Frankenheimer friend Alec Baldwin correctly notes in a lovely Criterion intro, this is a thriller — so matters can’t go well, no matter how keenly the grapes have been stomped. Beyond this point, we’re into spoiler territory if too much gets divulged here, except to say that the great James Wong Howe’s Oscar-nominated cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s super-intense score combine to heat up the action — which is the only way to go when too many practical questions (e.g. how do you maintain a super-secret society when movers have to set you up with office furniture in Manhattan?) would keep getting in the way were the story told conventionally. The rap at the time on the picture, even by its fans, was that the movie’s midsection sagged some after a terrific opening and before an equally accomplished finale. This is still true to some extent but now notably less so, and one of the movie’s best scenes (Hudson’s visit with his “widow”) comes around the midway point.

The bonus extra with actress Evans (remembered as Gene Wilder’s on-the-porch girlfriend in some memorable Bonnie and Clyde comedy relief) also features Jens, who talks of how skittish she was to leap into the grapes. There’s also Frankenheimer audio commentary; another good Criterion essay by critic David Sterritt, a 1965 promotional short with Hudson; a brief but revealing 1971 interview with the director around the time of The Horsemen; and a visual essay whose on-the-ball content is somewhat diminished by its academically lackluster narration. I can’t quite recall how the old Paramount DVD of some years ago looked, but this presentation is a tad grainier than I recall from my 1966 (plural) viewings and the times I showed Seconds in 35mm at the AFI. It will be interesting to see what Criterion does with cinematographer Oswald Morris’s Paramount black-and-white with its release of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (which the studio released about 10 months earlier) three weeks from now.

It’s fascinating to see tides turn and chuckle that commercial underperformers are often the movies that send the test of time to end up meriting Criterion treatment – the final gotcha to all the weekly weight we put on box office performance, a phenomenon that began in the 1980s. So many of today’s successes are tomorrow’s ephemera and vice versa – but then, this has always been true, hasn’t it?

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