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Noir-vember 2014: Split Second

Posted by martinteller on November 16, 2014

“Don’t show up, and you’re a widower. Show up with anyone else, you’re still a widower. I’ll blast her in two right in front of ya. And don’t try to get smart with me. Play it straight, you got yourself a wife. Get cute, you got yourself a corpse.”

Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) is on the run in Nevada.  He’s an escaped convict, and with him are his buddy Bart (Paul Kelly) and his mute henchman “Dummy” (Frank DeKova).  They’ve got a date with a half million bucks stashed away, but Bart’s got a bullet in his belly.  The criminal trio take over a service station and get themselves a car with a couple of hostages: Kay Garven (Alexis Smith), in Nevada to get a divorce, and her beau Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige).  When the car runs out of gas (“Did you think I stopped at that filling station for perfume?”) they flag down another car and another pair of hostages.  This time it’s Larry Fleming (Keith Andes) and Dottie Vale (Jan Sterling).  Dottie is a penniless drifter on her way to a nightclub job in Reno.  Larry is giving her a ride, he’s a reporter who was on his way to cover Hurley’s escape.  Hurley calls Kay’s husband (Richard Egan) — a doctor — and instructs him to rendezvous with them in a ghost town so he can fix up Bart.  But who knows whether the doc will show up to save the woman who just left him, and there’s a deadline hanging over them: this ghost town is going to be obliterated tomorrow morning by an atomic bomb test.

This is the directorial debut of actor Dick Powell, the song-and-dance man of Busby Berkeley pictures and by this time an established face in crime dramas from movies like Murder, My Sweet and Cornered and Cry Danger.  This film is arguably more a straight thriller than noir, although I think it covers enough of the bases.  You’ve got the desperation of both the criminals and the hostages.  Especially Kay… and after watching The Sleeping Tiger the other day, it’s interesting to see Alexis Smith once again cozying up to the bad guy.    You’ve got some cold war atomic paranoia, and a little bit of the veteran blues in Hurley (when asked how many people he’s killed, he replies: “Legally or illegally?”).  You’ve got excellent photography by ace Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past, need I list more?).  Maybe it doesn’t delve much in the dark side of humanity — Hurley is more simple bully than force of evil — but it’s noir enough for me.

A large part of that is the shimmering dialogue.  There are dozens of quotable lines here, full of bite and wit and clever turns of phrase (“between the devil and the bright red bomb”).  The screenplay by William Bowers, Chester Erksine and Irving Wallace is crackerjack stuff.  And the actors, for the most part, make it sing.  McNally is tough and uncompromising, Sterling is world-weary and on her toes, Andes has a sarcastic charm reminiscent of Dick Powell himself, Smith is all about looking out for herself, the most intriguing character of the bunch (one of the more interesting facets of the film is that Kay and Dottie each imply the other is a whore).  The one sour note in the cast is when Arthur Hunnicutt pops in on the group as a colorful old prospector.  Too damn colorful, if you ask me.  But even he manages a few good moments, once he starts to dial it down.

The movie works with familiar tropes for a hostage drama, but does so with enough style to make it really enjoyable.  The bomb angle lends enough tension to offset the rather predictable plotting… and also provides one hell of an ending.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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