In their latest (8.1) newsletter, the board of the Elitist Fraternity of Film Dweebs reminded readers that (and I quote) “under no circumstance will any EFFD members be permitted to say anything that doesn’t enthusiastically praise Criterion’s Bluray of John Frankenheimer‘s Seconds.” I understand the ruling, but I bought this Bluray at Amoeba last night and then drove home and watched it. And watched it. And watched it. And I’m telling you it’s a black drag to sit through. A dark, creepy, chilly-hearted downer from start to finish. Mainly about malevolence and threats and intimidation and dread. “Interesting,” yes, because of the creepy Orwellian (or do I mean Burroughsian?) tone and James Wong Howe‘s nightmarish black-and-white cinematography. But it’s mostly punishing.
Seconds lasts 107 minutes and aside from the grape-stomping scene there isn’t even a 30-second passage that delivers anything that comes close to enjoyable. The movie makes you feel like there’s a needle in your neck the whole time.
Rock Hudson spends pretty much the entire film looking over his shoulder and sucking in cigarette smoke and acting like one of the most haunted and miserable fucks who ever agreed to star in a film about a haunted, miserable fuck.
The dweebs like Seconds because it’s a modern horror story about middle-class entrapment and corporate malevolence, and because some of Howe’s camerawork vaguely recalls the severe angles and surreal set design in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But if you watch it from a gut Joe Popcorn level (i.e., without your honorary scholastic film lover cap on) it will send you into a tailspin of depression. It’s not “scary” — it’s suffocating. It’s about “how much longer does this last?” It’s about hitting the fast-forward button during the slow scenes.
The fundamental thing that you can’t buy is that John Randolph could be transformed into Hudson through plastic surgery. It would have been ten times more interesting if Frankenheimer had just had Hudson wear lots of older-guy makeup with a putty nose and chin and neck wattle. Randolph is maybe 5’11 or six feet tall compared to Hudson’s six-foot-five, and it’s just ridiculous that plastic surgeons would be able to add five or six inches of height to his frame.
On top of which Randolph is a miserable dead man at the beginning — a faceless organization stooge who takes a train to Manhattan every morning and then back to Scarsdale every night — and he’s the same guy inside Hudson all the way through. Why should we, the audience, want to hang out with this colorless terrified man…this flat glass of water? Why should we care what happens to him? It’s wonderful when Randolph finally “dies” on the operating table because at least he’s gone and we have only party-pooper Hudson to deal with.
All you know as a viewer is that you’re expected to be fascinated by Seconds because the dweebs have written in their reviews that it’s a classic cerebral horror trip, and so you’re sitting there going “what’s wrong with me…why is this movie making me feel so bad and bored when the dweebs have told me it’s a really brave and special film, and that it made them feel cool and elated and should be part of the national archives?”