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In 1964, Rock Hudson saw his popularity with American moviegoers drop, as reflected in the Motion Pictures Film Buyers' annual poll. For seven years he had occupied the number one slot but for the duration of the decade he would have to content himself with simply placing among the top ten before he dropped off the chart entirely. Hudson's decline as a top earner coincided with his most interesting work as an actor. After having served his internship as a handsome hunk in such oaters as Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952) and Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), he gained a measure of gravitas in the Douglas Sirk melodramas Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956). He was nominated for an Academy Award® for his work in George Stevens' Giant (1955) but enjoyed his greatest success in a string of romantic comedies for Universal, three in profitable partnership with actress-singer Doris Day.
Hudson lost the male lead in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) to Sean Connery but no doubt felt Seconds a worthy consolation prize. Based on the 1963 novel by David Ely, the Paramount production attends the midlife crisis of an New York banker who ditches his gray flannel doldrums for a new identity as a surgically-altered "second." Thrilling initially to a new life of total freedom, the newly christened "Wilson" is confronted with his essential emptiness and makes an ill-fated attempt to renege on his Faustian pact.
According to its own theatrical one sheet, Seconds marked "an astonishing change of pace" for Rock Hudson, yet the character arc of its divided protagonist wasn't so dissimilar from the former Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. Growing up fatherless during the Depression, Hudson was a shy youth whose star persona was manufactured by agent Henry Willson. Willson dreamed up the immortal stage name, hired drama and movement coaches, capped Hudson's teeth and labored to keep his homosexuality a secret (to the point of arranging a sham marriage). In many ways, Rock Hudson was a "second" long before Lewis John Carlino's screenplay fell into his lap. Kirk Douglas had optioned the novel but demured from starring in Paramount's film. Director John Frankenheimer preffered Laurence Olivier, whom he considered a natural for the dual role of Arthur Hamilton/Tony Wilson, but Paramount wanted a bigger name. Against Henry Willson's better judgment, Hudson lobbied for the part of Tony, doubtful he could pull off both roles. A skeptical Frankenheimer refused to meet with him but Hudson prevailed and the job was his. (Hudson later filmed a test as Hamilton but the part remained in the capable hands of John Randolph, a HUAC victim making a belated return to pictures.) While principal photography wrapped without incident, Hudson insisted on playing a third act drunk scene under the influence of alcohol, convinced there was no other way he could hit the required note of naked honesty. For three days of shooting, Hudson maintained a constant state of inebriation, undaming a flood of banked emotion that embued the scene with a frightening candor.
Seconds is considered the final installment of John Frankenheimer's "paranoia trilogy," following The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). The New York native had served with the US Air Force's Motion Picture Squadron and honed his craft as a director during the heyday of live television. Although Frankenheimer often remarked that he would have been content to remain in TV, his frustration with the limitations of the medium was evident in his work. As early as The Young Savages (1961), his second feature film, Frankenheimer was experimenting with unusual camera angles and lenses to add layers of psychology to the human drama. At the behest of star Burt Lancaster, Frankenheimer replaced Arthur Penn as the director of The Train (1965). That film's success gave Frankenheimer his choice of action scripts but his commitment to Seconds was already in place. Paramount had high hopes for the production, which became America's official entry in the 1966 Cannes Film Festival. The crowd at the Palace of Fine Arts booed its downbeat coda while giving Hudson a standing ovation for the movies he had made prior to Seconds. Although it would eventually find its cult, Seconds was relegated to the Paramount vault and forgotten apart from the odd repertory screening and late show broadcast. Nevertheless, Rock Hudson often name-checked Seconds as one of his favorite performances.
Thematically, Seconds has been compared to everything from Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray to such paranoia-stoking horror films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Stepford Wives (1975). Some critics see the narrative as an inversion of the classic second chance tales A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). The film's surgical vignette (shot by DP James Wong Howe during an actual rhinoplasty, with Frankenheimer operating a B-camera dropped by a squeamish crew member) is as disturbing in its clinical detachment as anything seen in Eyes Without a Face (1960). In Japan, Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another (1966) concerned a disfigured industrial scientist who gets a new lease on life via a realistic facial mask that emboldens him to (among other things) court his estranged wife.
Seconds also belongs to a subset of mystery and horror films in which the hero's journey leads either to destruction (Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor, Chris Marker's La Jete, Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now) or to the realization that he or she has been either dead the whole time (Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense) or is the unwitting root of all evil (Alan Parker's Angel Heart, David Lynch's Lost Highway). Seconds' innovation is in braiding this tangle of shock contrivances into one surpassingly potent throughline, and in so doing laying bare the hollowness of the acquisitive postwar American dream of boundless renewal. The film's final frames, in which Tony Wilson meets his destruction while flashing on what could be either a distant memory or a self-comforting imaginary construct, suggest a discomfiting home truth that postwar American acquisitiveness and the abdication of personal responsibility has turned the land of the free into the realm of the dead.
Producer: Edward Lewis
Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: Lewis John Carlino
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Art Direction: Ted Haworth
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Film Editing: Ferris Webster, David Webster
Cast: Rock Hudson (Antiochus Wilson), Salome Jens (Nora Marcus), John Randolph (Arthur Hamilton), Will Geer (The Old Man), Jeff Corey (Mr. Ruby), Richard Anderson (Dr. Innes), Murray Hamilton (Charlie Evans).
by Richard Harland Smith
Rock Hudson: His Story by Rock Hudson and Sara Davidson
Rock Hudson by David Bret
The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson by Robert Hofler
The Cinema of John Frankenheimer by Gerald Pratley
Cult Movies 3 by Danny Peary
John Frankenheimer interview by Tim Rhys and Ian Bage, MovieMaker, April 1, 1996
John Frankenheimer interview by Scott Tobias, The Onion A. V. Club, February 16, 2000