Thursday, August 15, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Seconds - The Criterion Collection

The Film
A harrowing, heartbreaking and ultimately terrifying sci-fi thriller, John Frankenheimer's Seconds is surely one of the most distinctive American studio films of the 1960s. The discomfiting distortion of Saul Bass's opening titles fuels up the film's paranoid, disoriented core, and Frankenheimer plunges us into the world of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) without offering any explanation as to why he's given a slip of paper with an address on it on the train platform or why he's receiving enthusiastic phone calls from an old friend thought to be dead.

Seconds is remarkably economic with its storytelling, revealing key details in quick, expressionistic strokes and trusting its audience to catch up soon enough. Like Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate from several years prior, Seconds has a far-fetched, potentially risible high-concept premise, but the plot specifics feel less important here — more than anything else, they're a framework for the themes of modern dissatisfaction, suburban suffocation and the cold hard truth that the alternative might not be much better. The nearly peerless black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe amplifies and illuminates these feelings with wide-angle lenses and unsettling dutch shots.

So, as for the plot summary, well, Seconds really does work better without a lot of foreknowledge, seeing how key disorientation is to its premise and themes. Suffice to say, Randolph's Hamilton gets a chance to trade in his loveless marriage and drone-like job for a new identity as a wealthy painter and a new relationship with a free spirit played by Salome Jens. Oh, and he gets to look like Rock Hudson too. Not a bad trade, right?

A couple key scenes demonstrate the mastery of Frankenheimer's directorial hand and the multiple, diverse ways Seconds functions as indelible horror film. In one, the new Arthur Hamilton — now known as Tony Wilson — attends a Bacchanalian orgy of grape-pressing and nudity that grows increasingly raucous and challenges his own newfound perception of self. The editing is jagged; the handheld camerawork matches the chaotic energy of the performers. In another scene, Tony visits the woman who used to be his wife in what used to be his home, and hears an unvarnished account of their relationship. Here, the camerawork is calm, elegant; the tone of the scene is even-keeled. And yet the horror of being on the outside looking in at yourself is all too painfully real. Among other things, that's what makes Seconds a masterpiece.

The Blu-ray Disc
Seconds is presented in 1080p high definition and a 1.75:1 aspect ratio, windowboxing the image ever so slightly on a widescreen display. This has to rank up there with one of Criterion's best-looking black-and-white discs and one of the best black-and-white Blu-rays period. Rich blacks, clean whites, unimpeachable clarity and an exceptionally film-like image are present in every frame. Grain can be prominent, but it's well-resolved and never looks like noise. Fine detail is abundant and the image is frequently tack-sharp. The uncompressed monaural track is also excellent, presenting dialogue and music cleanly and crisply with no obvious distortion.

Special Features
Carried over from the previous Paramount DVD release is a Frankenheimer commentary track, recorded in 1997. Criterion's new features include an interview with Alec Baldwin, who talks engagingly on the film and his relationship with Frankenheimer, interviews with Frankenheimer's widow, Evans, and actress Salome Jens, and a brief visual essay by scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance, who touch on the film's political undertones. Archival features include short interviews with Frankenheimer and Hudson. The set also includes a booklet with an essay by David Sterritt.

The Bottom Line
A masterpiece is given its due with the incredible transfer and solid package Criterion has lined up for Seconds

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