The director, the late John Frankenheimer, once commented that the problem with this movie is that it doesn't have a middle act, and he's right.
The beginning and the end are gripping, in a Twilight Zone kind of way. The use of fish-eye lenses, although sometimes excessive, helps lend a surreal quality to the proceedings, which is apt.
Here we have John Randolph, a nonentity, with a face that has all the appeal of a hard-boiled egg. He's converted into Rock Hudson, which is a considerable improvement, in appearance anyway. But both the organization and Hudson have botched it. Under hypnosis Rock has revealed that maybe his true desire is to be a painter, an artist.
He winds up at a very nice beach house in Malibu, with an understanding servant, a studio with all the amenities, and Salome Jens as a woman he picks up on the beach. Not bad, eh? And all this for a mere $30,000. (The house alone would run 30 or 40 times that much now.)
Well, to tell the truth, Rock seems a little unhappy in his new life. He dabs perfunctorily at his canvas. He doesn't smile much. He doesn't seem to be having a good time.
So far, so good, but then we enter the befouled middle act. Salome Jens hustles him off to a Saturnalian bacchanal in the forest. Everybody gets drunk, strips, plays musical instruments, and dances around in a vat full of grapes. Rock is at first repelled but is dragged into the vat anyway and gets drunk and ecstatically happy.
Fine, right? But then later, Rock is urged to give a party for his neighbors, all of whom turn out to be retreads like himself. Rock begins to drink cocktails and gets loaded. But what is the reaction of his guests? This time it's disgust. Jens cautions him to "take it easy" on the booze, but why? It's the only time we see him happy, and what's so worrisome about being drunk at a party where everyone else is drinking too? Disgust turns to a deeper concern when Rock begins making allusions to his previous life. He's a Harvard graduate and you can't keep them down.
Finally he realizes that he's not really made out for this kind of life, for reasons never made entirely clear. Well, not made clear at all. Not even explored in the dialogue. Was his dream of being a painter just a childhood fantasy, like wanting to be an astronaut? What is the source of his dissatisfaction?
There is a good scene in which he visits his wife, who now believes her husband to have died in a fire. He asks about some watercolors he'd done in his previous life and discovers that they were thrown out. No question about his original identity having been dismal.
So he complains to the organization that he wants yet ANOTHER identity. The very sensible and reassuring Will Geer handles him and tells him that everything is fine and they'll re-do him. Geer, in a perfect performance, doesn't tell him that a second renovation involves his death. Rock will provide a cadaver as a substitute for a new guy entering the program.
Nothing is more scary than the doctors, having strapped Rock down, lowering a bone drill onto his skull behind the ear.
How does Rock perform? Pretty well. It's certainly his best dramatic role.
And the supporting cast is flawless. The logic behind the middle of the story is its greatest weakness. The rest is well worth watching.