Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Split Second (1953) at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival

At the recent Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs I saw 10 films, four of which I watched for the first time. SPLIT SECOND (1953) was the "new to me" film I enjoyed the most.

It's a "nuclear noir" which was the first director credit for the multitalented actor-singer Dick Powell...although according to actress Joyce Holden, Powell had actually already served as the uncredited director of YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951).

SPLIT SECOND was written by William Bowers and Irving Wallace, from a story by Wallace and Chester Erskine.

The plot concerns a pair of convicts, Sam (Stephen McNally) and Bart (Paul Kelly), who escape from prison, but Bart has been shot. They're picked up by loyal getaway driver Dummy (Frank De Kova) and quickly hit a gas station, where the hot-tempered Sam kills the attendant (John Cliff) and robs the register. The men then hijack a car driven by Kay (Alexis Smith) and her boyfriend (Robert Paige).

As the story unfolds, the group of hostages grows to include Dottie (Jan Sterling), Larry (Keith Andes), and Asa (Arthur Hunnicutt). They're all held in a desert ghost town, with Kay's estranged doctor husband (Richard Egan) lured to the town to assist the wounded Bart.

Meanwhile, there's a much bigger problem hovering over everyone -- a nuclear test is going to obliterate the area the very next morning. And matters go from bad to worse when the test time is unexpectedly moved up an hour.

The movie married a unique and interesting premise, an atomic bomb about to go off, with the familiar "group of strangers stuck together in the middle of nowhere" storyline. Add a dash of previous desert "crooks on the run" films like HEAT LIGHTNING (1934) or THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936), and you've got yourself a most entertaining 85 minutes.

Alexis Smith was particularly interesting; one assumes she'll be the heroine, but instead Smith is absolutely fearless about being very unlikeable in her character's drive to survive. Her Kay provides quite a contrast with the humanity of the other hostages, especially her husband, who risks his life for her sake simply because he sees it as the right thing to do, despite the fact that their marriage is over.

McNally was always good, whether as villain (WINCHESTER '73) or hero (APACHE DRUMS, THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK). He's scary here as a very mean hombre who kills people in cold blood; I also found it startling when he dismissively tosses a Bible to the ground.

Kelly is also always compelling, and he has some good moments here as a man who towards the end finally has second thoughts about what they're doing.

In his introduction Foster Hirsch commented that most '50s films addressing nuclear fears were sci-fi and monster films. Indeed, I had seen some of those films in 2015 at the Palm Springs Classic Science Fiction Film Festival! Here, he pointed out, the characters fit the conventions of film noir, but the villains are perhaps akin to the monsters of sci-fi.

Hirsch made the interesting comment that leading lady Alexis Smith is the meanest character in the film, while villains McNally and Kelly had the most caring relationship. I think I'd have to give McNally "meanest" honors, but Hirsch had a thought-provoking point. Smith's character definitely has some surprising moments.

Hirsch called the film's photography by the great Nicholas Musuraca "a magnificent symphony of light and dark," with the bright desert photography turning into a different visual experience once night falls.

As for Powell's direction, Hirsch suggested his work on this picture was an extension of Powell's "contained" new tough guy persona since reinventing his career in MURDER, MY SWEET (1944).

Finally, Hirsch asked the audience to ponder what the film said about the atom bomb and nuclear energy. In discussion afterwards he suggested that the film's message was positive -- which is sadly ironic given that Powell and the cast and crew of THE CONQUEROR (1956) would all die of cancer after filming at the site of a nuclear test.

In closing, some trivia for those who are interested in California movie locations. As I alluded to previously, we were curious about the location of the gas station seen early in the film, as the area looked familiar. At first we thought it was the location of Gus's Fresh Jerky on Highway 395 in Olancha, but when we took another look at the film we realized the gas station was on the opposite side of the road.

The gas station has a sign which reads "CINCO," and some internet queries led my husband to the information that there's an unincorporated area called Cinco on Highway 14 between Mojave and Red Rock Canyon. (Mojave is listed as a location by IMDb.) Cinco got its name as it was the No. 5 work camp for the Los Angeles Aqueduct -- "cinco" being the number five in Spanish -- an interesting little slice of California history. Looking at internet images it appears the gas station building is no longer there. We'll be passing that way next month and keep our eyes open.

SPLIT SECOND is available on DVD from the Warner Archive. It's also shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.


Blogger barrylane said...

Re Dick Powell. For whatever it may be worth, Rhonda Fleming has said that Mr. Powell directed Cry, Danger. I believe Richard Erdman and Jean Porter are still available for comment on that score, but if Rhonda Fleming said it, must be true.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

It's a good film ,isn't it. Very good cast, all so contrasting. Keith Andes and Jan Sterling made a good team. I always like Richard Egan too.
As you say,quite a switch for Alexis Smith. McNally always compelling. Dick Powell proved he was a good director.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Frank Gibbons said...

A gripping film with possibly McNally's best performance. I've seen many characters in the movies that were more wicked or monstrous than Alexis Smith's Kay Garven but I can't think of anyone who was more cowardly or unprincipled than this pathetic woman. It took courage for Smith to accept this role and to follow Powell's direction on how to play it. The rest of the cast was fine as well. Keith Andes looks very much like Shepard Smith and Robert Paige reminded me of a young Ed McMahon. Tell my wife that Jan Sterling is in a movie and she's hooked.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to you all so much for your comments! Wonderful cast and direction, everyone on top of their game.

Best wishes,

10:14 PM  

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