Friday, January 12, 2018

Split Second (1953)

Dick Powell had a pretty interesting career. He started as a juvenile lead in musicals for Warner Brothers in the 1930s. In the 1940s he re-invented himself as a tough guy actor in a series of excellent film noir roles in movies like Cornered, Cry Danger, Pitfall and Murder, My Sweet. Then in the 50s he re-invented himself once again as a producer and director. His first movie as director was Split Second. His directing career (which included the classic war movie The Enemy Below) was cut short by his untimely death in 1963.

Split Second is an odd and interesting kind of hybrid thriller. The main plot is standard hardboiled crime movie fare. Convicted killer Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) has broken out of prison along with Bart Moore (Paul Kelly). Moore has a bullet in him, courtesy of a prison guard, and he needs a doctor real bad. After meeting up with another hoodlum pal they hijack a car and they decide to take the two occupants of the car, Kay Garven (Alexis Smith) and Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige) with them as hostages.

So it’s all very standard stuff, except that this is all happening right in the middle of an atomic bomb testing site. And since the movie opens by making a big deal of the evacuation of everybody from the test area we can be fairly confident that this is going to become a key plot point. The hoodlums have been so focused on their prison break and trying to keep a step ahead of the law that they haven’t been keeping up with current events in general, such as the latest nuclear tests.

There’s another interesting twist. Kay Garven is a married woman, but she isn’t married to Arthur Ashton. She might not be married to him but she sure does seem to be mighty friendly with him. She’s actually married to a doctor. This gives Sam Hurley a bright idea. He rings up Dr Garven (Richard Egan) and tells him to meet them at a spot he has chosen out in the desert where the doctor can patch up Bart Moore’s bullet wound. If he doesn’t turn up to the rendezvous Hurley will kill his wife. This will lead to another interesting plot twist.

Along the way they pick up (against their will) reporter Larry Fleming (Keith Andes) and dancer Dottie Vail (Jan Sterling) and they all end up in the secret hideout Hurley has cunningly arranged, in a ghost town known as Last Hope City. A ghost town that just happens to be more or less Ground Zero for the atom bomb test. They are going to have to be out of Last Hope City before 6 am or they’re going to be reduced to radioactive ash.

One more character is added to the mix when grizzled old prospector Asa Tremaine (Athur Hunnicut) shows up.

It’s naturally a more than slightly tense atmosphere at the hideout and to make things more complicated Kay Garven suddenly decides that she thinks bad boys like Sam Hurley are incredibly sexy.

The atmosphere just keeps on getting more tense. Time is running out, the clock is ticking on that big ole atom bomb, but Hurley can’t go anywhere without his buddy Bart (the only true friend he’s ever had) and Bart isn’t going anywhere unless he gets medical attention real soon and Dr Garven still hasn’t shown up.

Everyone is getting jumpy and the hostages are wondering whether Sam Hurley has any intention of allowing them to leave the place alive. So they start thinking about their options. Those options are very very limited but if they don’t do something their prospects are even grimmer. It now becomes a psychological thriller as we find out just how these people will behave under extreme stress. Some will behave bravely. Some will behave foolishly. Some will behave cynically. Some will behave very badly indeed.

While there’s plenty of suspense as the clock keeps ticking this is mostly a character-driven piece. Fortunately it has a good cast and they all do well. There’s some overacting but this is a very melodramatic so that works out just fine and when they overact they do it well. Alexis Smith in particular does some powerhouse scenery-chewing.

Given the setup, with an atomic bomb about to explode, the challenge was to make the ending exciting enough to justify the buildup. That challenge is met very effectively and very neatly.

Odeon Entertainment’s all-region DVD is barebones (apart from a trailer) but it’s cheap and it provides a very good transfer. The film has also been released in the Warner Archive made-on-demand series.

Split Second is a bit of an oddity and its claims to being film noir are a little shaky but it’s a nifty little movie and it’s highly recommended.

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