I admit it's something of a misnomer to call Rock Hudson's performance in Seconds underrated. For years, Hudson has been praised for his turn in the John Frankenheimer thriller and deservedly so. But ask even the most avid film buff if they've seen the movie and you usually get something along the lines of, "I keep meaning to, but I just haven't gotten to it yet." Well, that should change after today with the Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray release.
One doesn't fully feel the impact of the harrowing Seconds until maybe its final nerve-shredding minutes, at least the first time you see it. Frankenheimer himself believed it was the kind of movie that should be seen twice. Fitting given its title because there's no doubt that the second time one watches it, the atmosphere of dread is pervasive. Then again, it's hard for first-time viewers to ignore the creep factor even in a first viewing when you think about it. The movie's first image is that of an extreme closeup of an eye that quickly bends with the kind of distortion you'd get from a funhouse mirror. More images of distorted and isolated facial features flash in succession as the credits roll, a title sequence designed by Saul Bass that masterfully sets the funereal mood when underscored by Jerry Goldsmith's dissonant violin and organ composition. Once the movie proper begins, the great cinematographer James Wong Howe's imaginative use of extreme wide-angle lenses throughout signals that though this world resembles ours, there is something definitely askew.
All the while, Frankenheimer skillfully uses real-life locations such as Grand Central Station, Scarsdale suburbia, a dry cleaner's steamy backroom and a frigid meatpacking plant ('Honest Arnie's, The Used Cow Dealer,' it's called) replete with foreboding hanging carcasses to maintain a sense of verisimilitude. At the train station, banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) receives a slip of paper with an address scrawled on it. This after receiving two phone calls from a close friend he is certain is dead. Following the circuitous route I lay out above ('Honest Arnie's' will remind you of Isaiah 53:7 the second time you watch this), Hamilton is lured to a meeting with a Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey) where he gets what appears to be the opportunity of a lifetime: for a sum of money Ruby can stage Hamilton's death, subject him to radical surgery, mental and physical conditioning and set him up with a new life in Malibu as Antiochus Wilson (Hudson), an accomplished painter.
After Frankenheimer and Howe successfully convince you to acknowledge the outlandish setup, the remainder of Seconds rests fully on Hudson's square shoulders. In a recent post titled "Seconds and the Semiotics of Rock Hudson" my friend Glenn Kenny does a brilliant job of laying out why Rock Hudson shouldn't be underestimated as an actor despite the reputation he had earned after coming off of a string of what I would call... fluffier... romantic comedies with Doris Day. I encourage you to read Kenny's post in full, but I want to zero in on this thought--
Some sources say that he made the movie at around the time he was just beginning to share the reality of his life as a gay man with some of his friends; arguably, this dimension added some genuine depth to the who-am-I tortures his character puts himself through.--because, in my mind, it is this double-life that the private Hudson kept quiet for so many years that truly enhances his performance as Tony Wilson né Arthur Hamilton.
In playing the increasingly self-loathing Wilson, Hudson seems to be laying his soul naked onscreen for all to see. Tony Wilson, a Reborn (as he and other subjects like him are called in Seconds), can be read as a metaphor for actors playing a new part, sometimes immersing themselves in the kind of hobbies and lifestyle they believe would best delineate their role until their roles become second nature to them. But when you apply Wilson's characterization to Hudson's closeted private life the parallels are even more pronounced. Like Wilson, who Ruby's company provides with finished paintings and certificates of study until he learns to develop his own artistic style, Rock Hudson was one of many fictitious creations cooked up by studios and personal managers trying to cover up an actor's homosexuality. His real name was Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., and he went through the same rigorous classes in everything from dancing to horseback riding that all studio contract players did back then. But this sex symbol also went further, marrying his agent's secretary in order to maintain the illusion of his sexual orientation for his fans.
In retrospect it's hard not to believe that Hudson's unease with his public persona didn't inform Seconds. Wilson is clearly uncomfortable with the mountain-top bacchanal his Reborn girlfriend Nora (Salome Jens) takes him to where men and women disrobe and jump into giant barrels of wine for an orgiastic grape-stomping ritual. In the disc commentary, the late Frankenheimer says that Hudson himself felt ill at ease with the celebration, a real one that he had decided to shoot with actors in tow as was typical for the filmmaker. But Seconds is rife with other examples. There's the party scene in which an inebriated Wilson begins to crack up and share his secret with other partygoers. Hudson really had to get drunk for the scene, Frankenheimer believed, in order to let down his carefully crafted film persona and allow the real Hudson out. So I believe it's more Hudson's cynicism than Wilson's coloring his laughter when one wife calls her husband a "sneaky two-face." When another woman tells him about her fad religion in which they "change sects" every week, I believe it's Hudson, who mistakenly understood that they "change sex," doing the double-take. In this light, perhaps the most potent monologue delivered in Seconds belongs to Emily, widow to the ostensibly deceased Hamilton-now-Wilson, who he visits in a painful attempt to reconnect to his old life. Of Hamilton, who she stills believes is dead:
I never knew what he wanted, and I don't think he ever knew. He fought so hard for what he'd been taught to want, and when he got it, he just grew more and more confused. The silences grew longer. We never talked about it. We lived our lives in a polite, celibate truce.She could just as well be referring about the kind of public/private duality Hudson had to juggle in order to simply maintain a successful career in Hollywood.
I'm confident that in the coming years Hudson's affecting performance will be reappraised and appreciated enough to make it unthinkable that I ever called it underrated. It's as subtle a piece of self revelation as any you'll see in contemporary cinema and the single most important reason to watch Seconds.