As far as escaped convict movies go, 1953's Split Second starts out with a fairly novel concept. Bad, bad killer Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) and his two cronies, one of whom has a bullet in his belly, pick up multiple hostages and choose an abandoned town to hole up in until they can make a rendezvous in the morning. The only hitch in this plan is that the town is at the center of an atomic testing ground in Nevada, and when dawn breaks, the U.S. Army is going to set off a bomb. If Hurley and the boys aren't out of there in time, they'll be obliterated. Likewise, if the hostages manage to keep from getting shot, they'll be left for dead at ground zero.
Split Second is the directorial debut of actor Dick Powell, who was so good as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, he earned himself a permanent place in the film noir pantheon. With Split Second, Powell attempts to take the crime picture into the atomic age. The movie is smack dab in the middle of 1950s optimism, with the idealistic reporter Larry Fleming (Keith Andes) representing the cliché of the era. He is good and does the right thing, fair-haired and untouched, whereas Hurley is the dark, brooding war veteran who has seen his share of kills and is not going to let anyone put him in a cage, be it literal or metaphorical. In all honesty, it's hard to know who to root for.
Not that Split Second goes very deep into this idea. It's a B-movie through and through, with the first half hour putting all its attention on Hurley rounding up his prisoners, and the next hour watching them try to figure out how they're going to get out of it. The film doesn't have much tension, despite the inherent drama of the scenario. The main reason for this is Hurley. He isn't written as being all that menacing. He's more the know-it-all pessimist who sees through everyone else's charade, rather than the scary murderer who plays mind games with his victims. He stirs up the pot some, but the juiciest stuff emerges all on its own. There are two women in the group, the pretty blonde drifter Dottie (Jan Sterling) and Kay, the sophisticated doctor's wife on her way to getting a divorce in Reno (Alexis Smith). Both accuse the other of being the whore, but it's really the well-to-do wife that makes the most desperate play for Hurley. The drifter ends up falling for the good guy.
When Hurley finds out Kay's soon-to-be-ex-husband is a doctor, he blackmails the physician (played by Richard Egan) to come out to their hideout to fix up his wounded buddy (Paul Kelly). The doc comes even though he knows his wife is stepping out on him, and this adds further complications to the emotional turmoil going on under Hurley's gun. It's good stuff, and it's what saves Split Second from sinking too far into its own clichés.
Otherwise, the bulk of Split Second is essentially unremarkable. It's a serviceable lower-tier movie that moves at an efficient pace and provides mild entertainment. To his credit, Powell doesn't play it safe the whole way through. He could have gotten his gang away from the blast site with plenty of time to spare, or even worked it so the experiment was called off. Instead, he keeps them in the thick of it, and though the predictable survival of the good guys is totally ridiculous (where is that Indiana Jones refrigerator when you need it!), the punishment inflicted on the bad guys is harrowing. Powell destroys the ghost town, and the effects are impressively harrowing. I remember kids at my school being all freaked out when The Day After aired on television in the 1980s, and I think what Powell pulled off thirty years earlier would have been just as scary at that time. I can't imagine how it must have scared the bejezus out of moviegoers upon its initial release.
Somewhat ironically, Dick Powell's second effort as a director was The Conqueror, a Howard Hughes-produced movie that starred John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Powell shot the exteriors of that picture near a nuclear testing ground, and he exported dirt from the location so that his set back at the studio would match. It's believed this dirt was contaminated with radioactive materials that made the cast and crew sick. An abnormally high percentage of the team, including Wayne and Powell, eventually died of cancer.
Split Second has been released under the banner of the Warner Bros. Archive Collection, a direct-to-order line set up by the studio to release some of their back catalogue in a no-frills package to collectors. Under the program, film fans pay a premium full-retail price to get a movie they can't otherwise get; the downside is that there is some skimping to keep costs down, which may strike some as backwards since the consumer price is up. This skimping includes recording the movie on a blue-backed DVD and printing the cover on cheap stock and what looks like a standard color printer no different than most of us have at home. There is also an on-demand download option from most of the films, offering them for a slightly less fee. The set-up on all the discs is a functional "play the movie/play the trailer" menu and that's it.
The video transfer here is full frame, black-and-white, and for a film given little to no restoration, it looks pretty darn good. The image has decent resolution, and there is very little print damage or dirt/scratches.
The mono mix is also pretty good. I noticed no hiss, drop-outs, or metallic echoes.
There are no subtitles.
The original theatrical trailer is the only extra. It can be played from the start-up menu.
I'll give Split Second a Rent It, though the smart concept and the gutsy finale make me wish I liked it just a little bit more. For his directorial debut, Dick Powell does a competent job of bringing a fairly standard convicts-and-hostages movie to the screen. Though his villain doesn't pack much of a wallop, Powell finds some good drama amongst the hostages, and he delivers a technically impressive special effects finale. It's definitely worth a look, particularly if you already have a yen for old crime movies and don't mind seeing them go through their familiar paces.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.