I don’t think it’s even possible for a person’s image to flip quite so completely as Rock Hudson’s did over the course of his lifetime. Hudson now is viewed as a hugely important gay icon, whose coming out of the closet and disclosure of AIDS had a huge impact on the public’s perception of these things and shifted the conversation. But it only had this impact because before this, Hudson was such a huge heterosexual icon, the foremost example of male physical perfection of his era, like Clark Gable in the 1930s or Brad Pitt in the 1990s. He looked like he could defend himself if he needed to, tall and rugged, but he also had an easy charm and tenderness that made his many comedic films big hits. He had all the right stuff to make a generation of women obsess over him as a protector and a fantasy boyfriend. Still, despite this he did try to push himself as an actor and take roles outside of his usual wheelhouse: his most famous such was in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, where he plays an introverted, working-class gardener. But the best of these films is Seconds.

It’s not so much that Seconds wouldn’t work without Hudson: someone like Robert Mitchum could have fit in the role, and that would be an interesting movie to see as well. But Hudson gives it a special quality just by being Rock Hudson: to look like Rock Hudson, living beachfront on Malibu without concerns about money, would be something close to the ultimate American fantasy. So, really, only Rock Hudson could possibly make it convincing that such a thing would be a nightmare, the stuff of horror films, which Seconds essentially is. That Hudson was perceived as such a happy, uncomplicated presence makes his depressed, internal character all the more riveting and interesting. And while all that is true, Hudson’s casting would be a gimmick if he didn’t have the goods to pull off what he needs to in the movie. And he sure does.

Seconds is simple enough in plot. An elderly banker who is deeply unhappy with his life decides to throw in his lot with a shady company that offers a service to people like him: a fresh start, thanks to experimental surgical techniques and the company’s own substantial resources. Hudson plays the banker post-surgery, nicely channeling the weary energy that John Randolph provides as the “old” version of the character. At first it seems so promising: a new house, replete with a company-provided butler, a new vocation in painting, before long a younger love interest (played by Salome Jens, who I mostly know as the female shapeshifter from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). But this is where the movie gets interesting. Hudson isn’t at all happy with the new life. He’s frustrated by his inability to paint. He’s angered by the pressures to fit into the local social scene. There wind up being a few more strings attached than he thought to his new life, and even the woman winds up having a few secrets of her own. The new life winds up not being quite what it was billed to be, and I’ll reveal no more.

Seconds is, like Chinatown or Point Blank or, somewhat more recently, Inside Man, a political critique that backloads the message and initially sucks you in by pretending like it’s just a normal thriller. It’s very easy to imagine a conventional version of the film, which would probably involve Hudson triumphing over the company and getting away with the girl. Thankfully it doesn’t have such an uninteresting ending. Despite coming out in the 1960s the movie, in tone and substance, feels more like the cinema of the 1970s. Corporate America is presented as essentially amoral: the corporation in the film is unregulated and, due to the nature of the business, essentially all-powerful so far as its customers are concerned. It openly uses them up for everything they can get from them. American values–the real ones, like fame, appearance and wealth, not so much the stated ones–are shown to be a shallow mirage. Hudson’s banker realizes–too late–that the reason he was unhappy in the first place was that he bought into what he was told he wanted instead of trying to figure out what he actually wanted, and with his rebirth, he committed the same mistake again. The deathless American conceit that perfect exteriors can somehow lead to an inner perfection is skewered here, as improved exteriors really have no effect upon the protagonist’s unhappiness. The only truly happy people we encounter seem to be the Santa Barbara hippies that Hudson and Jens visit about 2/3 of the way through the movie at a major turning point, though they aren’t referred to as hippies since that wasn’t a thing yet in 1965. A positive view of the counterculture, of all things. It’s frankly kind of amazing this movie got released at all!

Seconds is just a great film. There are so many little details that you pick up on a rewatch, such as that painting is actually Hudson’s second choice for what he wished he were, or the significance of Hudson returning to the “quiet room” full of men that he encounters early in the movie. Are these scenarios designed to fail? It doesn’t seem like it would be profitable if this company were bankrolling all these guys’ lavish lives for decades. (Also very interesting that it’s only men who seem to avail themselves of this option.) It’s definitely a thinky movie, which is probably why it wasn’t popular when it was released. (Also, it was a bit “off brand” for Hudson, so his fans didn’t show up for it.) Some attention must also be paid to the cinematography by James Wong Howe, which is excellent, as well as John Frankenheimer’s direction, which is truly unnerving and savage in a way that studio movies rarely ever are. (Again, it’s amazing the movie ever got released!) But in the end, this really is Hudson’s movie. More than anything, it’s a parable about the dangers of mindlessness whose observations don’t seem at all dated. Hudson’s performance gets this across perfectly.

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