“Split Second” (1953) straddles the portal from 1940s film noir to 1950s paranoia genre, and we can see an era turning before our eyes.
It almost aspires to a horror movie, but there are no giant insects or Martians. Just one atom bomb ready to explode at dawn, marking the end of this hellish night, with no new day to follow.
Keith Andes is a reporter assigned to cover the latest atom bomb test blast in the Nevada desert, but he gets taken off the story when a bigger one (if you’ve seen one atom bomb go off, you’ve seen them all) occurs. Murderer Stephen McNally and his partner Paul Kelly have broken out of prison and are on the loose.
Somewhere in the restricted test blast area.
McNally, one of the very best bad men in movies, whose handsome, rugged charm and wry, funny delivery to his lines, is offset by his suddenly volatile personality. We don't dare take our eyes off him. He's exciting.
Alexis, who we lamented in this recent post about not getting very good roles during her contract with Warner Bros., gets a good role here. She’s the restless, well-to-do wife of a doctor back in California. She’s run off with family friend Mr. Paige, who sells insurance.
Which, forgive me insurance brokers, cracks me up. Funny how insurance salesmen always end up being the fall guy in the old movies. Think of poor sap Fred MacMurray in our favorite insurance movie, “Double Indemnity” (1944) which we covered here.
Mr. Paige is likewise behind the 8-ball because of some very bad choices and a very bad dame.
Eventually, all seven unlikely travelers end up packed together in Mr. Andes’ big woody station wagon with the leaky radiator, driving through the desert like a Bizzaro World field trip. Mr. McNally, smart enough to work an ace up his sleeve, calls Alexis’ doctor husband, played by Richard Egan. McNally threatens to kill Alexis unless Mr. Egan comes to their hideout and takes the bullet out of his pal Paul Kelly.
Their hideout, until they can hook up with the rest of the gang, is an abandoned saloon in a ghost town.
In the atom bomb test range.
We’ve been well warned that the bomb will go off at dawn, so the alarm clock is ticking. Stephen McNally, with the bravado of a psychopath, is willing to play “chicken” with the bomb, until his friend gets medical help. The ensemble cast suffers agonies -- over the bomb, over their own past and present mistakes, and must submit to the brutality of their captor.
They are a collection of interesting contrasts. Andes, the reporter, is not your typical cynical tough guy with rapid fire speech. He is quiet, easy going, charming, but passive. He’s willing to watch and bide his time.
Jan Sterling has some of the best lines, which she delivers with her blasé pout. Her character does not grow or change much, but she is a tough cookie with a heart and a conscience. When the doc shows up, she’s the one who helps with the operation.
At one point, McNally orders her to the kitchen of this old saloon “with that other dame to fix us something to eat.”
Being women, Alexis and Jan are naturally in charge of meals though they have nothing to cook. I am likewise, by virtue of my gender, able to put together a four-course meal with nothing but a can of beans, two soda crackers (Crown Pilots, ayah) and a teaspoon of Crisco. It’s a gift. Any woman can do it.
We never do get to see what they’ve had for supper, but afterwards they all settle down to listen to the portable radio and smoke. Just a relaxing evening at home.
The soft dance music and melodious ballads are interrupted by the radio announcer gleefully telling them, “We’ll try to give you ample warning so that you can get to your roofs and watch the flash from the explosion.”
Were we ever so innocent? I recall some comment singer/actress Kitty Carlisle made in her autobiography about watching a bomb blast from a hotel terrace, I think, in Las Vegas, a momentary distraction from a party. Like Alexis Smith in this movie, dressed to the nines.
These are strange days. McNally jokes about DeKova’s comic book, “In the next chapter, the Martians invade.”
The old prospector is fascinated by the bomb. A veteran of World War I, he marvels, “Just think what we could have done with a couple of them things at the Marne.”
Jan Sterling quips about their predicament, “Quite a spot. Between the devil and the bright red bomb.”
They are waiting for Richard Egan to show up, driving all the way from California into the restricted area here in Nevada. I’m not sure how he makes it through security checkpoints, but he’s Richard Egan. We trust him to do the job.
Alexis doubts he will come, knows that a cheating wife need not expect such devotion.
“He wouldn’t cross the street for me, much less risk his life.”
Mr. McNally, with a coolness that belies his own anxieties this evening, calmly shoots him dead. And drags Alexis off to the kitchen.
With a tear-streaked face she begs him not to kill her, but then the penny drops and she realizes he’s got another use for her just now. Hedging her bets again, she lets him kiss her. She’s not being clever or calculating, she’s just in a dead panic, like a drowning person ready to cling to anything floating by. If he wants a woman, by gorry, she’ll be his woman with everything she’s got.
But we keep thinking about the sexual assault in the kitchen.
A funny paradox. An explicit scene of violence that hammers the message home tends to make us draw back. Here instead, lured into imaging the worst, we are drawn ever closer emotionally to the assault precisely because we have the safety of being voyeurs in our imaginations.
Alexis, tense as a cat, fumbles with yet another cigarette, and masks degredation with another application lipstick, “Why don’t you just ask me what you want to know?”
“Do I have to?” Jan fires back, with a sarcastic smile. No, she doesn’t, and neither do we.
Alexis, meanwhile, is baffled at Egan’s heroism.
Mr. Egan is the stalwart, dependable man, a disappointed husband who’s been hurt enough and is more than willing to cut Alexis loose, (similar to his role in “A Summer Place” - 1959) but he’s genetically programmed to do the right thing and sticks his neck out for her, the room full of strangers, and his patient.
When the operation begins, Paul Kelly gets religion and wants a verse read from the Bible. The prospector has one in his gunny sack, right next to his gun.
His gun? Why he did not reveal to his fellow captives when he first arrived that he had a gun is a mystery and can only be chalked up to his maddeningly independent personality. He gets around to things when he gets around to them.
Now the morning dawns, and McNally gets ready to make tracks. Alexis hangs on to him, begging him to take her with him, but he responds, “You’re a real bad dame…nobody can count on you for ten seconds.” He is sickened by her. She has fallen so low that a murderer won’t dirty his hands with her.
We get taken from the ghost town for a moment to some government file footage on preparation for the test in the command bunker. A voice announces, “At 30 seconds the master robot will take over.”
I think that’s the scariest line in the movie. We are no longer able to make choices for ourselves, not once we’ve gone past a certain point. Then we are all slaves of the Master Robot.
Spoilers coming up, so head to the fallout shelter if you don’t want to know.
She needs to be with them because otherwise we wouldn’t care if they drove off into the bomb blast. As flawed a person as she is, she is still the most interesting character there (except for McNally, but we already have him figured out) -- I think mainly because of the complex and layered way she plays it rather than the way it’s written. We really don’t know which way she’s going to go, because neither does she.
In one of his last-minute confounding ruminations, the prospector announces there is an abandoned mine nearby where they can shield themselves from the atomic blast.
Now, why in the name of Aunt Mary’s knickers did he not say that before? That would have given everybody another interesting choice to mull over. Do they tell the bad guys? Or, do they play God and keep the cave for themselves? They already played God with poor DeKova, who gets knocked out and left to die. They could have dragged him to the mine with them. They just leave him there with the corpse of the insurance man.
What if Alexis, fairly crazed by the end of the movie, was given the chance to hide in the mine? What if McNally had gone through with plugging Paul Kelly with a bullet when Kelly betrayed him at the last minute?
The blast, with its white light and nuclear wind demolishing the ghost town is similar to declassified test bomb blast footage you may have seen.
No monsters. Nothing is ever scarier than a bad reality. Especially when we've caused it ourselves.