DVD Vault: Seconds (1966)

Relentlessly creepy and coming off like a better Twilight Zone episode, Seconds tells us the story of a bored middle aged banking exec played by John Randolph who gets a phone call one night from an old friend of his that he thought had died. But he’s not really dead! You see, there’s this secret place where they fake your death in order to erase all your ties to your old boring life, and then using miracles of plastic surgery, completely transform you into a brand new man with a new face, body, identity, career… whatever you want for a price. Look! They turned John Randolph into Rock Hudson, and made him a swingin’ artist by the Malibu beach! Oh, and in case you have cold feet about the whole thing, they’re really really good at blackmailing you. Don’t like your new life? Well, that’s too bad since they’re watching you, you know. There might be other “seconds” around you, making sure you don’t spill the beans about the company and all. Or things might get very bad indeed.

I’d caught this one on TV several years ago and was happy to find it on DVD to see again, and it was definitely as good as I remember it. Except for a wine-soaked dirty hippie orgy up in Santa Barbara that goes on w-a-a-a-a-y too long (we could get the idea that Hudson, in his new life and body, is finally loosening up much more quickly), the film moves along at a good pace, and director John Frankenheimer uses a lot of close-ups throughout, with and without a fish-eyed lens to add even more of a sense of disorientation, but mostly the huge number of close-ups in the film serve to show us the slow and often sweaty desperation of the characters involved – we’re sucked into the horrors of this dark world (literally photographed with a lot of menacing shadow by the great James Wong Howe) and pulled so close to it all that we’re feeling pretty uncomfortable ourselves after a while. In the party scene where a drunken Hudson babbles too much about his real identity and the other guests converge upon him, carrying him into a bedroom to shut him up, it feels like they’re converging on us as well. (The final third of this movie feels similar to The Prisoner in parts.)

Another reason to see this movie is that it probably contains one of Hudson’s best performances. Being Mr. Handsome and endlessly cast in romantic fluff opposite Doris Day, or even in the lushly over-the-top soaps of Douglas Sirk, Hudson was underrated as an actor, and here in Seconds he gets to do more subtle things with facial expressions, with hand twitches, and with expressions of genuine terror that make for some wonderful screen acting. And it’s pretty obvious how the story of someone who has to hide his true self or be destroyed would appeal to Hudson, closeted for years in a gentleman’s agreement with the Hollywood powers-that-be that went so far as to arrange a sham marriage for him back in the 1950s.

I had recently screened what’s considered to be Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, the original The Manchurian Candidate, and while discussing his other works went on a pretty good rant defending this one, especially since so few people have heard of it or have seen it. It’s a pity, since this may have bombed at the box office back in 1966 when people were expecting more fluff from Hudson and not something like Seconds, but it holds up beautifully and the themes it deals with concerning what we make of our lives and how we must live with those decisions, as depressing as the movie presents them, still ring very true. F. Scot Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, and except for William Shatner who is on Act 12 or so by now, it’s usually true.

3 thoughts on “DVD Vault: Seconds (1966)

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  1. Good analysis of one of the most fascinating, disturbing, and undeservedly unknown movies of all time. I thought the Frankenheimer commentary was informative, too, for a change. The frontal nudity of that blonde babe stomping those grapes in the vat (originally only shown in Europe, it earned criticism of America’s prudishness from Euro critics) is worth the price of admission. You say the “orgy” goes on too long but there’s a mini-character arc in that scene. BTW, it’s said that Hudson’s obvious anxiety at the characters’ behavior was real. Those were genuine hippies brought down from the Haight and they were doing more than just letting it all hang out. I was genuinely impressed at Hudson’s acting during the drunk scene. It seemed to authentic and he got drunker as the evening wore on. Most actors can’t quite nail acting as though they’re really drunk (my expert eye is not easily deceived on this). Turns out that Hudson really was drunk during that scene. But I’ve heard that if it’s hard to act drunk convincingly, it’s even harder to act convincingly while really drunk. So, kudos to Hudson, not just for these two scenes but across the board. He played the finale beautifully. What a pity that audiences wouldn’t give him a chance.

  2. I remember reading that about Hudson & the wine/orgy scene – that he was genuinely shaken up by the reality of it on the set & that he is genuinely drunk during the party scene (a fantastic piece of acting, even if he wasn’t drunk!). I think that despite being drunk, the way in which the content of that scene, of a man forced to hide from himself, rang true to Hudson in his own life helped him to communicate those emotions no matter how soused he was.

    But I still get a little bored during the wine orgy – maybe it’s my visceral reaction to hippies, maybe it’s that I get the idea of it a lot more quickly than the scene unfolds, or maybe it’s simply because I hate the thought of opening up a nice bottle of cabernet and having it taste like Wavy Gravy’s ass.

    Thanks for your comments, Tom – it’s definitely an undeservedly unknown movie. I recommend it to people a lot when they’re asking me for Netflix suggestions.

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