Seconds is arguably director John Frankenheimer’s best film. Based on the excellent novel by David Ely, in it we meet middle-aged bank executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph in a masterfully shaded performance) whose life is so miserable he walks as if the earth might open at any moment and swallow him whole. His job drains him of humanity. His marriage is hollow and cold. His self-respect is rattling its last breath. He doesn’t know how things came to this. He knows that he was once a decent man but he isn’t any longer and he can’t understand why. He feels alien to the world around him.
Then one day a stranger in the subway hands him a card with an address written on it; the stranger knows Hamilton’s name, and as soon as we see the expression on Hamilton’s face, we know that he has some idea why he’s been handed this slip of paper.
That night Hamilton is called by a supposedly dead friend. “I have a wonderful new life!” he tells Hamilton. “I’m happy, old buddy, and I want to do the same for you!”
It seems there are these “people” who can give you a new life. A new face. A new voice and identity. They can give you a life where you are successful at the thing you always dreamed of (in Hamilton’s case, being a famous artist). It costs a lot, and once the process has begun there is no turning back.
Hamilton, after much soul-searching, decides to go through with it, and embarks on a chilling journey to the secret headquarters where these “people” make arrangements for a new life. (He is taken there in the back of a meat delivery truck–some of the most unnerving black-humored symbolism I’ve ever encountered.) There he meets with the company president (Will Geer, Grandpa Walton himself, who is quietly and absolutely terrifying in the role) who has created this program. The decision made, the work begins, and soon Hamilton is transformed into the younger, more vital Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (played by Rock Hudson), given a new profession, a new home, a new life. Things are idyllic for a while, but eventually Hamilton’s conscience and its questions about his old life drive him to return to his widow in an effort to find out where he went wrong.
Frankenheimer always dealt with extremes in his best pictures, and Seconds is possibly the most extreme film he ever made. His penchant for lean storytelling and muscular pacing is at its peak here, as is his use of his ought-to-be-patented foreground framing technique.
The film’s biggest surprise, perhaps, is the performance of the late Rock Hudson. In a role originally slated to be played by Laurence Olivier (who the studio decided didn’t have Hudson’s box-office clout), Hudson displays a depth and power that viewers of Pillow Talk would never have thought possible.
Hudson’s face is a subtle prism of conflicting emotions; every joy, every sorrow, every triumph and regret is there, etched into his expressions like words on a headstone. When something hits at his core, you see it on his face–and not in any heavy-handed, watch-me, watch-me way; Hudson’s performance is one of impressive constriction, understatement, and substance, heart-felt and affecting, and (like the superb performance of Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler) a rare glimpse at a good but limited actor’s one moment of true and undeniable greatness–which gives this film an added dose of bitter irony when viewed today: had Hudson lived, would he have wanted a second chance to prove his worth as an actor of substance and power?
Release Date: 1966
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rating: R (disturbing sequences and some nudity)
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Writers: Lewis John Carlino (screenplay), David Ely (novel)
Rock Hudson: Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson
Salome Jens: Nora Marcus
John Randolph: Arthur Hamilton
Will Geer: Old Man
Jeff Corey: Mr. Ruby
Richard Anderson: Dr. Innes
Murray Hamilton: Charlie
Karl Swenson: Dr. Morris
Khigh Dhiegh: Davalo
Frances Reid: Emily Hamilton
Wesley Addy: John
John Lawrence: Texan
Elisabeth Fraser: Blonde
Dodie Heath: Sue Bushman (as Dody Heath)
Robert Brubaker: Mayberry