Is there a person who doesn't wonder what would happen if they could get a second chance at life, and walk on the road not taken? I doubt it. Those thoughts strike all of us, and the next time it strikes you, consider watching Seconds.
Banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) lives a life of upper middle-class ennui and quiet desperation. His only child has grown up and married, he and his wife barely communicate and have lost all passion for each other, and he seems to have no life beyond work and his daily commute. Then a friend who is supposedly dead calls Hamilton and tells him about a mysterious company that can give Hamilton a chance at a new life. Hamilton pays the hefty fee and the company fakes his death, then through extensive plastic surgery that includes altering his fingerprints and vocal cords gives him a new appearance. Now played by Rock Hudson, Hamilton has become Antiochus "Tony" Wilson, a painter living in California. At first Tony has trouble settling into his new life, but starts to adjust after he meets a beatnik woman, Nora (Salome Jens), who has also forsaken her old life. But it's not enough.
Seconds is a frightening film, but its terrors are not of the jump-cut ooga-booga variety. What makes the film so unsettling is that Arthur Hamilton's life could be any person's life – surface pleasantness with dissatisfaction, frustration, and sadness lurking beneath. Worse, Tony Wilson's life is no better. He's unable to enjoy his new identity, and keeps going back to his old life to find out where he went wrong (something the company that gave him his second chance will not tolerate).
There's a strong feeling of paranoia throughout the film, generated largely by James Wong Howe's remarkable cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's score. Even in the normal, workaday scenes that open the film we feel that something is not quite right – this off-kilter feeling mirrors Hamilton's own dissatisfaction with his life. The paranoia intensifies as Tony tries to reconcile his new and old identities and finds himself spied on by the company.
Even stronger than the paranoia is the film's sense of loss. Hamilton has lost his chance at happiness both in his old life and in his new one, and in the end, he loses everything. Worst of all, the film implies that Hamilton never really had the chance to be happy at all – a man who's dull and boring in his first life will be dull and boring in his second as well.
None of this would work if not for the performances, which are note-perfect across the board. Randolph and Hudson turn in remarkable work: Randolph's performance is quieter, more understated – in a lengthy scene with no cuts he perfectly describes (while actually saying very little) the drab existence his life has become. Hudson's performance, while more showy with a drunken breakdown and a horrifying scene in which he struggles vainly for his life, is equally good as Randolph's. The actors have a certain facial resemblance (particularly around the eyes) and Hudson studied Randolph's vocal mannerisms and inflections – as a result what could have been a ludicrous premise (a la John Woo's Face/Off) is completely believable.
The supporting cast turn in excellent work as well, particularly Salome Jens as Nora, and future Grandpa Walton Will Geer as the seemingly benevolent, possibly mad head of the company. (It's worth noting that he hasn't taken advantage of his own company's services.)
At times the stylistic excesses of the film are a bit much – remarkable as Howe's camerawork is, it does call attention to itself. But those are minor flaws in a remarkable but thoroughly depressing film.
Decent extras include a trailer and a commentary by director John Frankenheimer that provides both technical details and interesting behind-the-scenes information about the film.