Thursday, October 27, 2011

Split Second - 1953

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.

This movie marks the directorial debut of actor Dick Powell. His work here is strong, fast-paced, and solid. Note the alarm clock on the table in many scenes, reminding us that time is precious and slipping away from us. The script by William Bowers and Irving Wallace keeps the story moving briskly, with unexpected touches of macabre humor. This  keeps us and the characters on an even keel and brings us down to earth when our skin begins to crawl.

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.

Mr. Andes stops at a lonely desert diner and meets up with Jan Sterling, a night club dancer down on her luck, on her way to Reno. He comes up with the 50 cents for her pie and coffee. Yeah, we’ve seen this before. This part of the film, with the lone car driving on the dusty highway, the run-down diner, the gas pumps, looks like we’re about to enter a 1940s film noir nightmare. All the usual suspects start to show up.

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.

Paul Kelly is his older sidekick, and he’s been shot in the stomach. McNally won’t ditch his friend. They meet up with a pal called Dummy played by Frank DeKova. Frank doesn’t say much, but he reads comic books constantly, and the subject matter -- atomic super heroes, is our first clue that we’re about to enter a weird new world.

Alexis Smith and Robert Paige drive up to the gas pump. She’s in the driver’s seat. For now. It will be the last time she has control in this movie. Her fur stole is over the back of the seat between them. He’s not her husband.

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 joined suddenly by Arthur Hunnicutt, who plays a folksy lone prospector on his way out of town. Mr. Hunnicutt, full of long-winded tall tales, brings humor to the script in his ability to annoy the others, but he’s also a safety value in his own homespun way. He’s a hoot.

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.”

She tries to hedge her bets by urging her Insurance Man lover to do something.  Still, she is a little fascinated by the brute with the gun. Her Insurance Man looks less dashing in this dim light.  He is careful, perhaps regretting taking this trip, but when a leering McNally orders Alexis to go with him to the kitchen, Mr. Paige challenges McNally to a fight.

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.

Here’s where the subtlety of many classic films in addressing scenes of extreme violence or sexual situations is intriguing. We are taken back to the main room where the others sit and wait or sleep, or talk in whispered conversations. We get a tale from Jan Sterling about her miserable childhood and rotten parents. Time passes, but we don’t know how much time. Our attention is diverted to what is happening in the main room.

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 is eventually released from the kitchen like a skittish heifer after being branded -- self-conscious, shaky, nervously swiping her hair from her eyes. Jan Sterling sidles up to her, not to comfort, but to ask for a drink from Alexis’ hip flask and get the dirt.

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.

Richard Egan finally shows up to dig the bullet out of Paul Kelly. McNally needles Mr. Egan about his wife. “She decided not to depend on you entirely.” Alexis slinks away. The evening for her is a string of bad choices, panic, and humiliation. For everyone, a night of confidences, threats, secrets, and compromises.

McNally has had Alexis, so now he pursues Jan, who is smarter and better at pretending. She can handle McNally. She’s known men like him before.

Alexis, meanwhile, is baffled at Egan’s heroism.

“Are you still in love with me?” It's a fine moment; she's genuinely struggling to understand, perhaps even hoping that he does still love her.  She does not know, and even before this night is over, will never learn unselfishness and compassion. Her life has been ruled by her immediate desires, and she assumes that is everyone’s motive.

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.

Nice, ironic scene where McNally reads to his pal in a flat voice, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” as the Sodium Pentothal is being injected.

But the gun comes out during the operation when Mr. Andes makes a play for it. McNally beats him to a pulp, and even slaps around Jan Sterling for trying to interfere. This cements the bond between Andes and Miss Sterling, and in a cozy moment when they become resigned to the fact that they are probably going to die, he jokes, “Sooner or later one of us has got to learn to fight.”

“We’ll take up judo in the next world,” she replies. If there was more time there would be a romance, but touching their sore heads together is the best they can do now.

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 thirty 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.

Last minute fisticuffs, last minute choices, and only two of the cons get away, with Alexis, who practically dives into the passenger’s seat. They drive in the wrong direction.

“The bomb!”

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 master robot is now taking over” is the next announcement as McNally’s car spins its tires in the desert sand, and the other captives rush for the abandoned mine. All our choices are gone.

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.

“Let’s take a look at the world of tomorrow,” Richard Egan grimly says as the survivors crawl from the mine. In ten years they will probably all get cancer, but that’s another story. For today, it’s a flatter, whiter desert, and a giant mushroom cloud in the distance with the words “The End” written in script over it.

No monsters. Nothing is ever scarier than a bad reality.  Especially when we've caused it ourselves.


Laura said...

What a fantastic description, Jacqueline -- this movie sounds fascinating. (And kind of ironic given that Powell and so many others most likely got cancer after filming a movie near a former nuclear test site...) You make a great point about how effective difficult scenes are when they take place offscreen.

I recorded it a few months ago -- so many movies, not enough time! LOL. I think I enjoyed your desription as much as I will the movie. :)

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. I'd love to know what you think about the movie.

You raise a good point about Dick Powell and the cancer epidemic suffered by, it seems, almost half of the some 200 people who worked on "The Conqueror" (1956) which was Powell's next film as a director. John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armendariz, Susan Hayward, and Powell were the best known of the bunch to have succumbed to cancer, but reportedly lots of techies died, and even some visitors to the set were treated for, though did not die of, cancer. They were downwind of a nuclear test site in Utah, were told by the government they were safe, and compounded matters by hauling back several tons of dirt to use on the set back in Hollywood.

A macabre and unfortunate episode in filmmaking.

Yvette said...

I'd heard about THE CONQUEROR cancer curse, but didn't know many details. Thanks for fleshing out the story a bit, Jacqueline.

Thanks from me too, for such a wonderful and comprehensive review. I love how you tie in the social ramifications.

Wait. I have a question: Namby pamby Robert Paige over hunky Richard Egan???? I think not. The roles should have probably been reversed.

Just sayin'.

Paul Kelly is another of those character actors who seemed to live forever. He was always sinister.

I liked Stephen McNally. But boy was he hard-edged.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Yvette. I think Alexis' objection to Mr. Egan had more to do with being a suburban doctor's wife who comes second to her husband's work. She's in a cage and wants out. Insurance Man is probably just the excitement of the moment. She got more excitement than she bargained for.

Paul Kelly was great, playing low-key yet dangerous men.

Grand Old Movies said...

Terrific post about what sounds like a real downer of a film - do you know if it's on DVD or netflix? Interesting that Egan gets to play the decent guy here (he's the nasty husband of Joan Crawford in The Damned Don't Cry and the nasty gladiator in Demetrius and the Gladiators - he seems to have specialized in Nasty for a while).

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks very much. I think it's on DVD, but I don't know about Netflix. I guess I taped if off TCM. I think I've had it for a while, always meant to blog about it and saved it for Halloween.

I think Egan had a strong screen presence, so much that it didn't take much effort for us to accept him as whatever we were told he was - the hero or the nasty guy. He had authority, I guess you could say.

Laura said...

Thanks for the additional details on THE CONQUEROR, Jacqueline. I hadn't heard about them hauling sand back to the lot! Or about so many techs also contracting cancer.

In reply to Grand Old Movies, SPLIT SECOND is on Warner Archive DVD -- which means it can be rented from ClassicFlix but not Netflix, I believe.

I love Paul Kelly too! My friend Kristina has written a great Kelly profile:

As a side note about Richard Egan, his widow, Patricia Hardy Egan, passed away this summer. At the time of her passing I read some very nice things about his marriage and commitment to family -- always nice to hear about a Hollywood celebrity. The obituary notice published by the family in the Los Angeles Times is here:

Best wishes,

Kevin Deany said...

Pardon my language, but damn, this sounds good. I'll definitely be on the lookout for this one.

I can't comment on this one, since I've never seen it, but I can pass along a true story, somewhat relevant.

We were meeting a new client and during the introductory meeting talking about our interests. I mentioned my love of old movies (which nine times out of ten generates a blank stare, even from people older than me.)

But this one guy, an accountant, told me one of his favorite actors was Richard Egan. I almost fell off the chair. Hardly a name I was expecting. He asked if I knew who he was and I said I most certainly did.

He said he was an Elvis fan and saw "Love Me Tender" one night and was so struck by Egan in that film he became a fan of his ever since.

Anyway, thanks for a most marvelous write-up. I can't wait to see it.

Caftan Woman said...

Sounds like a dandy (I skipped the spoilers). McNally never fails to impress me.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Laura, thanks so much for the links to more on Paul Kelly and Richard Egan. It is pleasant when we hear of stars whose private lives were happy.

Kevin, thank you. I hope you can see the movie soon. Thanks for the story about Egan's fan. That's cute. You never know what's going to connect with people.

I know what you mean about blank stares from non-old-movie-buffs. Maybe we should have a secret handshake or something.

CW, most of my spoiler alerts are so late in coming, though my intentions are good. I really just can't talk about a movie without discussing all of it. I don't really mean to review films as much as I mean to analyze them. I know it's not fair to people who like to be surprised.

I'm thinking of legally changing my middle name to Spoilers.

DorianTB said...

Holy cats, Jacqueline! I'll admit I'd never even heard of SPLIT-SECOND before I read your pulse-pounding blog post, but I've got to see this at my next opportunity! (I feel like I always say that. So many movies, so little free time! :-)) With that terrific cast, the chilling subject matter, and direction by one of my fave actor/directors, Dick Powell, I've got to give SPLIT-SECOND a look! “We’ll try to give you ample warning so that you can get to your roofs and watch the flash from the explosion.” Oh, those poor naive fools! Well, you can't fault people for NOT being ahead of their time, right?
This film sounds seriously intense and well worth seeing; thanks for the tip and the great review, my friend!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Dorian. You make a good point here: "Well, you can't fault people for NOT being ahead of their time, right?" No, and we forget that sometimes. I hope you can see the movie soon.

Laura said...

I loved this! I laughed out loud several times! Now I have to watch this movie. You are THE BOMB Ms. Lynch. (That's a compliment btw)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. Not a nuclear bomb, I hope. Good luck finding the movie soon. I love to know what you think about it.

Anonymous said...

I've just watched this film for a second time. I had forgotten how good it was. Your review is excellent.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Vienna. I agree, it's a really good film. Such intensity.

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