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Genre: Mystery Thriller Drama
Starring: Rock Hudson (All That Heaven Allows • “McMillan & Wife”), John Randolph (Serpico • Prizzi's Honor)
Directed By: John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate • Birdman of Alcatraz)
Overview: When a man receives mysterious messages, he uncovers a plot that aims to fake his death and give him the life he always wanted… not that he has much of a choice.
Seconds opens with a chilling credit sequence that easily puts us into the Thriller mode. As opening credit sequences go, it’s one of the more memorable. With titles by the only name in titles, Saul Bass, combined with a haunting score and simple yet deliciously off-putting visuals, the mood is firmly planted by the time we watch the Noir-inspired first scene.
Seconds is a wonderful and thrilling Mystery, and as such, you may benefit from not reading my next ‘spoiler-free’ introductory plot paragraph that follows. I went into Seconds knowing nothing about it, and I found I rather enjoyed being as lost as our reluctant protagonist when experiencing the events that transpire.
Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a regular guy with a regular life and a regular wife. Frankly, there’s a bit of ennui in his everyday until he begins to experience some strange happenings. A stranger slips a piece of paper into his palm while he boards a train, he speaks on the phone with someone claiming to be an old friend who’s been dead for years. And, once he becomes too curious at the mystery he’s involved in to walk away, Arthur is invited to meet his long-passed friend to learn more. He embarks on a cloak-and-dagger scavenger hunt filled with double-cross and strange dream sequences. When he awakens, Arthur finds himself the ‘guest’ of a secret company that offers him a new life. With the stick of blackmail and the carrot of the life he always wanted, he is asked to literally sign his life away in exchange for life insurance benefits. Without much of a choice, Arthur Hamilton reconstructs his life - including his face with dramatic plastic surgery - to become Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a modern art painter.
From here the mystery goes on enticingly, leaving us in the same place our character is: unknown, uncertain, unsettled. And, through it all, Seconds delivers its tale with cinematography that is breathtaking by James Wong Howe (Yankee Doodle Dandy • Sweet Smell of Success), vast sets and masterful editing of several memorable montages. Seconds makes frequent use of a steady cam focused on the face of a character as he walks, illustrating their surreal side, their drunken side, their fear-filled side. There’s fantastical dream sequences that tips an exaggerated hat to the expressionist style reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The scene where Arthur undergoes plastic surgery is wonderfully extended, elaborate and detailed. Another scene celebrates skin in an orgiastic party where people strip nude and make wine the old Roman way. And, best of all, the scenes take their time in unfolding, leaving us satisfied or uneasy without ever seeming rushed.
I can’t decide if it’s the visuals or the plot that is the most impressive aspect of Seconds. The story is exceptionally intelligent, even downright literary in its telling. It’s original, the mystery is tense and the thrills are constant. Seconds has that head-shaking “don’t go in there!” predictability to give you that ‘you-shoulda-known-better’ feeling. But at the same time there so many deep twists and surprising turns that Seconds will keep your mind reeling and guessing to the very end.
What a wonderful predicament to be in - having to decide if you prefer the cinematography or the story and being pulled in both directions. Either way, I definitely invite you to decide for yourself.
Performance: 9 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 9 Mood: 8
Overall Rating: 84% (You'll Keep Coming Back For More)
It’s no wonder this film is in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. It’s another one of the beautiful surprises that came to me thanks to the tome that has helped educate me in all things cinema. It’s also the first time I’ve seen an entire film starring Rock Hudson, and I must say, what a marvelous role he plays in Seconds.