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Sometimes it's easy to spot a 50s film from RKO, when elements appear that would appeal to the eccentric Howard Hughes. Both The Las Vegas Story and Where Danger Lives involve various back-and-forth car trips in the deserts of Arizona and Nevada, prime stomping grounds for Mr. Hughes. Vegas Story has a show-off scene featuring a helicopter. 1953's Split Second begins with a government helicopter turning back some hunters on a lonely desert highway, because they're wandering into an atom testing site only hours before a scheduled blast.
The cleverly concocted Split Second combines topical interest in the atom bomb with a gangster siege tale similar to the old classic The Petrified Forest. Escaped convict Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally of Criss Cross) murders a gas station attendant while fleeing with his wounded pal, Bart Moore (Paul Kelly of Crossfire). Picking up various hostages along the way, Hurley flees to a ghost town to hide out. It's not any ordinary ghost town, but a ruin less than a mile from ground zero for a major nuclear test, scheduled to go off the next morning. Yes, it's the ultimate suspense situation: will they or won't they get out in time?
The unlucky hostages are dancer Dottie Vale (Jan Sterling of Ace in the Hole), reporter Larry Fleming (Keith Andes of Clash by Night), prospector Asa Tremaine (Arthur Hunnicutt of The Big Sky), philandering doctor's wife Kay Garven (Alexis Smith of Gentleman Jim) and her lover Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige). Sam wastes no time calling Kay's husband in Los Angeles (Richard Egan of Highway 301) and telling him to rush out to Nevada to patch up the hole in Bart's stomach. The bandit's plan is to use the test zone as a safe haven until an hour before the blast, at which time he'll skedaddle in a fast car. This state of affairs naturally makes the hostages more than a little anxious -- Hurley almost certainly intends to leave his guests to die.
The story by Chester Erskine and screenplay by Irving Wallace and William Bowers have budgetary advantages that doubtless appealed to Howard Hughes: the majority of the movie takes place in a single ghost town shack and is dramatized like a one-act play. Sam Hurley puts the moves on both women, promising Dottie a free ride out of Nuke City and allowing Kay to throw herself at him, just for the amusement factor. With his armed henchman "Dummy" (Frank De Kova) standing by nobody has a chance to escape, not even the old-timer Asa, who has a gun hidden in his prospector's bag. One hostage is killed and Larry gets the worst of a fistfight with the domineering Sam, whose only loyalty is for his wounded pal.
The script might have been customized for Howard Hughes' preferences. It's all about tough men in the desert: honest guys deliver on their promises and weaklings get shot. The women boil down to one perfidious leech and a tough gal who knows how to take care of herself. Hughes must have loved Arthur Hunnicutt's folksy appeal because the actor has been shoehorned into the story just to deliver his specialized rambling speeches.
The film is noted as the first directorial effort for ex- crooner and tough guy actor Dick Powell, who does a masterful job giving Split Second's collection of characters a dramatic shape. After twenty years watching other directors at work Powell surely had his own ideas on running a set and getting an acting ensemble on its feet. Powell's blocking is good and his fast pacing minimizes the less logical story aspects. The film's suspense hook is unbreakable, as everyone in 1953 had atom bombs on the brain and could easily imagine the morbid fantasy of being stuck in a blast zone. The sound performances, Powell's avoidance of clichés and the script's disinterest in a "meaningful" moral save the day.
RKO's top cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca lights the ghost town dramatically without going all haunted-house on us. We see quite a few of Hughes' beloved desert roads as Sam crisscrosses the Nevada highways with his unhappy captives. Larry Fleming offers the key line, saying that he likes the desert because it's quiet and clean.
RKO's special effects department offers up plenty of nice illusions, blending high-desert vistas with matte paintings and closer shots filmed at, where else, Bronson Caverns. Patient viewers waiting for the nuclear payoff get their money's worth when those cavalier jokers back at the testing bunker decide to depart from the schedule: they detonate the A-Bomb at 5 a.m. instead of 6. Moving up the big event by an hour is really inconvenient for Sam Hurley's getaway plans. Everyone goes a little crazy when the radio reports that they have only fifteen minutes before the big one goes off. Sam's attempt to get the hell out of Dodge almost turns comical when his car gets stuck in soft sand, etc.. The excitement of finding out exactly who survives and who gets tumble-dried in an atomic furnace is too much fun to spoil here.
Split Second joins The Atomic City as a Hollywood attempt to cash in on the nuclear craze. The controversial tests are accepted as a natural part of the contemporary desert landscape, without comment yea or nay. An academic type might float a critical thesis that the Atomic Age is a "moral pressure cooker" that burns away hypocrisy and complacency, revealing our true character. I'll spare you that interpretation!
The charmingly direct Jan Sterling has the movie's best line. Hitching a ride with reporter Keith Andes, Sterling amuses herself by insinuating that Keith is on the make. Shapely Alexis Smith appears up ahead on the road, also trying to flag down a car. Sterling gives Andes a sly smile: "Boy, this is your lucky day, isn't it?"
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Split Second hasn't been restored but the transfer and encoding are very good. The stable image is sharp enough to allow examination of the film's special effects in detail. The film's trailer isn't very compelling. Effective stand-out trailers were crucial to film promotion back in the early 1950s, and a more exciting coming attraction might have turned this show into a big hit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Split Second rates:
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