Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Unexpected: “Split Second” (Ziv TV, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a quite intriguing episode of a short-lived 1950’s TV anthology series called The Unexpected, produced by Henry Ziv’s enterprising little company (his biggest hit was Sea Hunt, the deep-sea diving show starring Lloyd Bridges). The episode was called “Split Second,” and essentially derived from two 1930’s films: Two Seconds, in which Edward G. Robinson played a proletarian lured by a no-good woman into a life of crime — the gimmick was that he was about to be executed when the movie began and the rest of the film was his flashback as his life flashed before him in the last two seconds before he croaked — and Buried Loot, the 1935 debut of the MGM “Crime Does Not Pay” series, in which Robert Taylor plays a criminal who decides to turn himself in after he’s stashed the money from his latest robbery so he can serve a short sentence and recover the money after he’s released and is legally in the clear. This version casts Neville Brand as Herbert Maley, a messenger for a financial company who’s assigned to deliver $43,000 in cash to another business — on the New York subways, which makes one wonder why his boss didn’t assign this task to someone who could drive. Instead he decides to embezzle the money and lavish it on Georgia (Veda Ann Borg in a remarkable performance — as an actress she had a good deal more going for her than just a great name), an entertainer in a small-time nightclub who’s hoping some well-heeled sugar daddy will notice her, marry her and put her on easy street for the rest of her life. He turns himself in for the crime but claims that after he stole the money, someone else on the subway stole it from him — but what he actually did with it was put it in a safe-deposit box and pay the rent on the box for 10 years in advance. The only problem was that instead of signing for the box under his real name, he used the alias “Shackleton” — and when he gets out and he and Georgia go to the bank where the safe-deposit box is and try to retrieve the money, he can’t remember the name. (There’s an ironic touch in the script by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee — no, not that Robert E. Lee, but the highly prestigious playwrighting team whose best-known work is Inherit the Wind — that when he’s trying to remember the name, one of the names he and Georgia come up with is “Admiral Byrd,” who like the real Ernest Shackleton was a South Pole explorer.)

Unable to come up with the right alias, and dumped by Georgia when it’s clear he isn’t going to be able to get the money and he’s come close to strangling her (it might have been even more terrific drama if he had strangled her and found himself being sent back to prison for murder just as he remembers the name), he leaps off the Brooklyn Bridge and commits suicide — the sequence shown at the beginning as an unctuous-voiced narrator (the overall host was Herbert Marshall but it is definitely not his voice) explains what’s going on and ends up as commentator for the whole episode. Based on a story by Maurice Level (which suggests that it might have originally taken place in France and Lawrence and Lee moved it to the U.S.), and effectively directed for suspense by Eddie Davis, “Split Second” is an excellent vest-pocket thriller that proved that the half-hour crime drama was a perfectly legitimate genre of its own and didn’t need the routine padding crime shows get now that an hour-long running time (albeit with more commercials — back then a half-hour show ran 26 minutes and now an hour show runs 42, so the current crime shows aren’t that much longer than this). Charles was startled at how many envelope-pushing anthology series there were in the 1950’s — not only the famous ones like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone but Tales of Tomorrow, One Step Beyond, The Outer Limits and even more obscure ones like this (as well as the ones imported from radio like Lights Out, Inner Sanctum and Suspense) — and how cynical they were about the supposedly sacred 1950’s values like hard work and success (something one also sees in other popular works of the period: novels like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, nonfiction works like The Organization Man and The Lonely Crowd, and movies like Rebel Without a Cause and the still-audacious Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, whose comments on instant celebrity and the emptiness of business “success” still ring true today).