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Seconds, written by Lewis John Carlino from the novel by David Ely, directed by John Frankenheimer, 1966, 110 min.

Note: I am reviewing the Director's Cut, which restores the controversial grape-stomp scene to its intended length.

Seconds is a fascinating nightmare, done with style and wit, and no small amount of irony. Some moments seem melodramatic and silly, but the movie functions as a whole surprisingly well, and as such, improves on reflection. The central conceit of surgical "youthening" is ridiculous (much like the recent Face/Off), but if the film is granted its premise, it pays off for the viewer like few other movies. For me, most of the power of Seconds comes from the fact that Frankenheimer cast Rock Hudson as Tony (which I'll discuss at length in a moment) -- this is a coup of the first order. Hudson gives a brilliant performance, especially in the grape-stomp scene. As for the ending, I applaud Frankenheimer's decision to follow the implications through to their logical conclusion. That's all I will say about the ending -- I was a little distressed to read a number of reviews which disclosed it in entirety. Fortunately, I had already seen the film and experienced it as Frankenheimer intended.

The opening of this film is one of the best sequences I have ever seen. After the funky "distorted body parts" intro, we see an older man walking through a train station. A man in the crowd passes him a note. Why is the older man so uneasy? Why is the music so odd and piercing? We don't know, but the mood has already been firmly set. Upon getting home, the man is short with his wife, and stays up late in his study, terrified of the phone. The phone rings, he grabs it quickly, and... Nothing is explained until half an hour or more has passed, but everything is so consistent and yet so odd that the audience is on the edge of their seats even though nothing "exciting" or "action-packed" has happened. The opening of Seconds is a perfect example of in medias res -- the classical dictate for epics to begin in the middle of the action. But in order to do so, you have to have all your pieces figured out and ready to march. Frankenheimer does this masterfully.

Seconds is extremely well-cast, especially in the crucial roles of the older man and his wife (John Randolph and Frances Reid). Randolph's performance as the old man is perfect, and deepened in retrospect by another brilliant scene with Reid later. Rock Hudson as the youthened version of Randolph goes back to visit his unyouthened wife (who does not recognize him). What he learns there makes the haunted look on Randolph's now-vanished face even more tragic. I liked the employees of the nameless company, they were all suitably surreal in their functional way (the founder was especially hallucinatory). Salome Jens does well with her girlfriend role, and also in the moment of revelation when we see her last.

I saw Seconds on TVOntario, uninterrupted, with various interviews following. The host, Elwy Yost, asked Frankenheimer about the story of casting the main character. Apparently, Frankenheimer had flown to London to talk to Laurence Olivier, who agreed to play the part. Then he flew back to L.A., only to have the studio execs veto Olivier, on the grounds that he meant nothing to American audiences (!). Then Frankenheimer was approached by Hudson, who gave Frankenheimer the idea of casting two actors, one for the older man, and Hudson as the younger version. And the result is of course a brilliant movie, with the cutting irony of Hudson, one of the biggest matinee idols of the time, discontented with his appearance and easy life. Hudson, the macho hunk of the day, finds that there is more to life. Why would he want to do this part? The Hollywood system had given him fame and fortune, and Seconds seems to be a direct attack on the constructed fantasies that Hollywood sells. I don't know enough about Hudson's life, but I do know that he was gay (and unfortunately died of AIDS in 1985) -- which must have added a curious doubleness to his status as ladies' man. Would Olivier have been able to portray the part? Without a doubt. But there would have been less of the same postmodern interest.

In the same interview, Frankenheimer talked about the grape-stomp scene. He claimed that the mandated cuts in the theatrical version (which I have not seen) made the scene seem like a sexual orgy. In the Director's Cut, it is indeed clear that the group of naked people are simply stomping grapes in a big vat (which made me more worried about hygiene than censorship -- did they drink that stuff afterwards?). And with the clever camerawork and Hudson's acting, the scene is quite effective. It is also crucial in the way it is twinned with the party -- these are the two places that mark Hudson's journey to self-knowledge. He then goes to visit his former wife, which sets the machinery of the conclusion in motion.

Seconds does produce a few nagging questions, like exactly how did the surgery work? Or how much money is this costing? But the emotional and intellectual impact of the movie far outweighs any of that -- Seconds is perhaps the best example of how a movie can successfully use a silly premise. Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score also demonstrates how melodramatic or pulpish elements, when interwoven with an effective whole, can be interesting and intelligent. The theme of the movie is simple yet powerful -- make the most of where you are in life -- and Seconds gives the viewer the necessary perspective to see that elusive truth. The perspective that comes at a tragic cost for the character of Tony, that Frankenheimer gives to us in a very polished package.

DVD Note: Seconds is now available in a decent DVD version, with the restored Director's Cut, proper aspect ratio, and a full-length director's commentary by Frankenheimer. It's been nearly five years since I'd seen this movie, so it was interesting to come back to it after so long. I definitely enjoyed it just as much this time around, and was struck by the gorgeous black and white cinematography; the cinematographer, James Wong Howe, in fact won the Oscar for his achievement here. Frankenheimer's commentary is kind of spotty. For one thing, he talks too much about technique, the size of the lens used in each shot, and so forth. Some of the on-set stories are worth listening to; he has an especially funny story about how they filmed in the opening scenes in Grand Central without closing anything down. He also mentions how many of the actors or crew in Seconds were blacklisted right up to this movie. Frankenheimer died recently, as of writing, so it was good chance for me to look back at what I think of as one of his greatest achievements.

First posted: September 12, 1998; Last modified: March 14, 2003

Copyright © 1998-2003 by James Schellenberg (

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