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‘Seconds’ rises in stature, features Hudson at his best

1966 suspense thriller available on DVD format

SHARE ‘Seconds’ rises in stature, features Hudson at his best

The suspense thriller "Seconds," directed by John Frankenheimer, flopped at the box office when it was released in 1966, but through the years it has risen in stature. Viewed today, this neglected and underrated work deserves to be seen as a worthy successor to Frankenheimer's brilliant "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) and tense "Seven Days in May" (1964).

Moreover, it features perhaps the finest performance ever given by Rock Hudson, one of the most prominent leading men in 1950s and '60s Hollywood but a star more than an actor.

Now available for the first time on DVD (Paramount, $24.99, rated R), "Seconds" is about getting a second chance at life, or being remade.

John Randolph stars as a successful New York banker with an elegant house in the suburbs but an empty life. His marriage is, for him, proceeding only through inertia, and he rarely sees his married daughter. He appears to have no spark left and little to live for when one of his best friends, who had apparently died the previous year, contacts him about an organization that can give him a fresh start.

Reluctantly at first, he eventually agrees to take up with a mysterious group that arranges for his fraudulent "death" in a fire, performs major plastic surgery on him to transform him into Tony Wilson, played by Hudson, gets him in shape and gives him a new identify as a moderately successful painter with a house on the ocean in Malibu.

Despite some difficulties making adjustments, Wilson begins to get used to his new life, aided by a butler supplied by the company and, more significantly, by a woman (Salome Jens) he meets while walking on the beach. She introduces him to a less uptight existence, taking him to a wild grape-crushing party in Santa Barbara, sort of an early hippie frolic in the woods where everyone takes off their clothes (the DVD version shows far more nudity than the censored original theatrical release), climbs into a large vat and exuberantly crushes the grapes along with their inhibitions. At first shocked and horrified by the sybaritic activities swirling around him, Wilson eventually gets into the swing of things.

But later, at a party he's giving for his Malibu neighbors, Wilson drinks too much and begins to reveal more than he should about his secret. He soon discovers that his new life has its own unforeseen constraints, and he also begins to miss his old life, or at least misses having had a past history.

The consequences of this discovery lead to some shocking, even terrifying, events. Some people turn out to be very different from what Hudson's character originally thought about them, as the apparently benign switches to the sinister. Frankenheimer and Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Wong Howe employ a variety of camera angles, lenses and distorted images to expertly convey the film's changing emotions of paranoia, confusion and horror.

Without question, Hudson gives a performance of greater complexity and range than he had exhibited before. But as Frankenheimer explains in his feature-length commentary on the DVD, the movie flopped because it didn't deliver what Hudson's fans expected — a romance — yet failed to attract its natural audience because they wouldn't go to a "Rock Hudson film."

Frankenheimer's commentary is filled with insights into the filmmaking process, especially the major role cinematographer Howe played in developing the exceptional look of this black-and-white film.

The director also provides entertaining anecdotes about different scenes, in particular how he and Hudson prepared for them, plus background information about the various cast members (at least four of whom had previously been blacklisted, including Randolph and Will Geer) and many other informative pieces of information. As he has shown in his commentaries accompanying the DVD editions of his other films, particularly "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), "French Connection II" (1975) and "Ronin" (1998), Frankenheimer has few peers in this area.

The DVD of "Seconds" features Dolby Digital sound and a wide-screen format. The director's commentary is the only special feature included here, except for the original theatrical trailer, but since the director doing the commenting is John Frankenheimer, it's enough.