Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Split Second (RKO, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a quite good movie on TCM which they were showing as part of a tribute to Dick Powell … director. Powell was one Hollywood talent from the classic era who wasn’t afraid to re-invent himself; in the 1930’s he was known primarily as Ruby Keeler’s singing co-star in the Busby Berkeley musicals at Warner Bros. In 1944 RKO signed him thinking that there was going to be a major renaissance in musicals (which there was, though Powell didn’t take part in it, largely due to the success of Meet Me in St. Louis at MGM), but Powell first insisted that he do a non-musical acting role to prove he could. The film, Murder, My Sweet, in which Powell became the first (and, I think, still the best) actor to play Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, was such an enormous hit that Powell got offered more morally ambiguous roles in the kinds of crime dramas that would later be labeled film noir. When that cycle started to burn itself out in the early 1950’s Powell went to RKO again, now owned by Howard Hughes; they wanted him to come back as an actor but he insisted that first he wanted to direct a film. The film they gave him was Split Second, an excellent suspense thriller credited to Irving Wallace, Chester Erskine (an old Hollywood hand from the 1930’s whose own directorial efforts had generally been dull but who even as late as 1953 could still find work as a writer) and William Bowers — Wallace got co-credit on the story with Erskine and on the screenplay with Bowers — but so much of the mood of the piece seemed similar to RKO’s The Hitchhiker, made the same year and also directed by an actor (Ida Lupino), I sense the fine (and uncredited, due to the Hollywood blacklist of which both Hughes and Powell were ardent supporters) hand of Daniel Mainwaring in the script.

The plot assembles the usual flotsam and jetsam of humanity in a remote location — a reporter, Larry Fleming (Keith Andes); the woman he’s picked up (platonically) and offered a ride to, Dottie Vale (Jan Sterling, who after her superb performance as the femme fatale in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole actually looked for more sympathetic roles, including Julia in the 1956 version of George Orwell’s 1984); Kay Garven (Alexis Smith), wife of a doctor in Pasadena who’s come to the film’s locale, Nevada, for a divorce; Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige), an insurance agent who appears to be the man Kay is divorcing her husband so she can marry him; escaped convicts Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally), “Dummy” (Frank De Kova) — so nicknamed by Sam because he does virtually nothing but read comic books all the time — and the mortally wounded Bart Moore (Paul Kelly); Dr. Neal Garven (Richard Egan), the husband Kay is divorcing, whom Sam summons to the deserted former boom town where they’re hiding out (in an old saloon ironically named “Bonanza Bar”) to tend to Bart’s injuries; and an ill-advised comic-relief character, Asa Tremaine (Arthur Hunnicutt in what’s basically a Walter Brennan-type role), an old prospector who’s still living in the gold-rush ruins and still hoping to strike it rich. The plot centers around one of Hollywood’s quirkier MacGuffins: an atomic-bomb test which is about to be set off in that vicinity at 6 the next morning. The film opens with Larry protesting that he’s being reassigned by his paper from coverage of the A-bomb test to covering the prison break at Carson City in which Sam, “Dummy” and Bart escaped. He runs into Dottie, a hard-bitten “woman of experience,” who asks him for a ride to Reno. He agrees to take her as far as Carson City, only along the way the convicts — who have already taken Kay and Ashton as hostages, only to be forced to abandon their car when it ran out of gas (they had stopped at a gas station but the guy on duty had tried to be a “hero” and Sam had plugged him) — car-jack Larry’s “woodie” station wagon and drive it to the ghost town, where their plan is to hide out until Dr. Garven arrives from Pasadena and patches up Bart as best he can, then get going before the A-bomb explodes. Though Robert Osborne, in his TCM outro, quoted Powell as saying he didn’t think he was any great shakes as a director — certainly not comparable to Billy Wilder, William Wyler or John Huston — but just “someone who did the best I could with the material I was given to work with,” that assessment is belied by the film itself: it’s a nail-biting suspense tale worthy of comparison with Alfred Hitchcock.

The script is similar to The Hitchhiker in that the central character is a psychopathic killer who couldn’t care less about anyone else (aside from the odd sense of responsibility he feels towards his wounded comrade Bart) and seems too self-absorbed to realize that he’s putting them all at risk in this bizarre game of “chicken” with an atomic bomb. It also evokes comparison with a lot of other movies in which vicious crooks hold innocent people hostage in an out-of-the-way environment, including The Petrified Forest and The Desperate Hours (though The Desperate Hours was about a normal suburban family held hostage by three crooks in what today would be called a home invasion), but it’s effectively written by Wallace and company and brilliantly directed by Powell, who keeps the tension level high and proves a master of suspense. It’s also uniformly well acted, start to finish (a hallmark of actor-directors is getting subtle and restrained performances from their cast members — which, as I’ve noted before in these pages, seems to hold true even for actor-directors like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles who were insufferably hammy in their non-self-directed performances). Stephen McNally as the psycho is, if anything, even more chilling in his performance as a modern villain than he was in the Universal-International period horror-thriller The Black Castle the year before, and it’s a real surprise that Alexis Smith turns out to be more amoral than Jan Sterling — Kay is so scared of death she literally throws herself at Sam and offers to be his girlfriend and live with him on the run, while Dottie, whom Sam is more interested in, is too sensible and too aware of what he’s up against to want him. Smith acts this scene brilliantly and keeps us in suspense as to whether she’s actually that amoral or the experience will bring her to her senses and reunite her with her husband — especially once Sam cold-bloodedly kills her boyfriend Arthur — while Sterling, whose performance in Ace in the Hole would probably have made her a star if the film hadn’t done such a total meltdown at the box office, is equally superb here in a less showy role.

The writers and Powell ramp up the tension big-time towards the end when the authorities in charge of the A-bomb test move it up an hour — they’re not worried about the people near Ground Zero because they have no idea there are still any people near Ground Zero — and eventually [spoiler alert!] Sam, Kay and Bart are zapped by the bomb blast (Powell carefully and effectively combines film of the actual nuclear tests with shots of the actors driving across the desert to depict their annihilation) while the surviving good guys — Larry, Dottie, Dr. Garven and Asa Tremaine — find shelter in a convenient coal-mining tunnel (well, it’s Nevada so there had to be a cave somewhere around there!) and wait out the blast effects, presumably to go on living happily ever after, at least until the effects of radiation and fallout kick in. (The ending is eerily premonitory of Dick Powell’s own fate; his next directorial assignment for Howard Hughes’ RKO was The Conqueror, a 1955 biopic of Genghis Khan, and Hughes chose to shoot the film on the same Nevada test-site locations seen here — with the result that Powell and the film’s stars, John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Pedro Armendariz, all died of cancer from the residual radiation, as did at least two-thirds of the cast and crew members.) Powell’s subsequent directorial career was a bit quirky — among the movies TCM showed last night was The Enemy Below, an intriguing variation on one of my “doubles” movies in which Dick Powell, an actor who had played Philip Marlowe, directed Robert Mitchum, another actor who would play Marlowe in the 1974 remake of Murder, My Sweet, which reverted to Chandler’s original title, Farewell, My Lovely — but Split Second is a directorial effort of which anyone would have been deservedly proud.