SECONDS counts off in 107 minutes of visually abstract, thematically arresting paranoia, years ahead of its 1966 audience reception (flopped) and critical reviews (hostile). Now, it’s regarded as a classic. Second chance. Spirit-sapped middle-aged banker gets clued in to a secret corporation that remakes people’s identities, giving them new looks (literally) and lifestyles. As it turns out, they are a little less altruistic when it comes to caveats.
Director John Frankenheimer was on a zeitgeist roll when he made this nightmarish thriller, which took viewer dislocation to uneasy levels with James Wong Howe’s outstanding cinematography, warping the camera’s eye-view to mirror the out-of-it state of the characters perceptions, while Jerry Goldsmith contributes greatly to the weirdness with his eerie, often atonal score. The cast is superlative. Frankenheimer gave second chances to the formerly blacklisted actors John Randolph (marvelous), Will Geer and Jeff Corey. (Actually, what he did was give them chewy, sizable roles: they’d all been working, mostly in TV, for some years prior to this release, slowly coming back from a decade of blacklisting, but putting all three of these guys up front in a major film pretty much slammed the blacklist back into the jerks closet it crawled out of).
It was a big attempt at a second chance for star Rock Hudson, desperate to escape the increasingly dreary puff pieces he was stuck in (Strange Bedfellows, Blindfold, A Very Special Favor) and prove to those who wrote him off that he had more on the ball than light comedy and great looks. Hudson’s distress over his hidden lifestyle played into his performance here—he really bares some utterly believable confusion, pain and distress. The drunk scene and the nerve-wracking final moments are sensationally good.
The failure of this movie wounded Rock deeply, and he reverted to a string of mostly indifferent pictures. Geer, Randolph and Corey gathered steam and worked steadily for the rest of their careers. Frankenheimer’s defeat with this film’s boxoffice was countered by the success of Grand Prix the same year. That big racing movie was good to look at, but was a major bore, and the director’s output thereafter showed little of the flair of his vintage early years, certainly nothing like this movie. Howe’s camera magic got an Oscar nomination.
Apart from its bizarre look, challenging theme and committed performers, it’s usually overlooked that, besides the drama (and final trauma) in the movie, it also has a number of deep black comedy elements, especially in the work from Corey and Geer. Their line readings make miniature wonders of satire out of purposely banal dialog that if played with less insight (into how truly messed up we are) would be plain boring. Randolph’s agony, meanwhile, is far from funny.
With Salome Jens, Murray Hamilton, Khigh Dhiegh (hilarious), Frances Reid, Wesley Addy and Richard Anderson (a treat seeing how forceful he could be when not consigned to playing dull lawyers and FBI agents on TV).