The Petrified Forest meets Atomic Noir.
This Atomic Age movie is one the 50s best thrillers you've probably never heard of. A few years ago I saw it the first time and I’ve been singing its praises ever since. Split Second was the directorial debut of Dick Powell and it’s a very solid first outing. Unfortunately he followed this movie up with the camp fest The Conqueror which would later cost him and about 90 other crew members their lives through cancer. Clocking in at 85 minutes Split Second is a fast-paced little gem. It doesn’t boast any A list stars, but it doesn’t need to. The ensemble cast plays very well together. Keith Andes, an actor who didn’t leave a big impression on me in other productions, is in top form here. In fact everybody is in top form, the performances are good across the board. Especially Stephen McNally, an always solid actor who occasionally turned in inspired performances. The whole movie is incredibly watchable despite occasional shortcomings.
Split Second belongs to the Cold War era of Film Noir where a newly awakened fear of the nuclear bomb was seeping into the national conscience. The genre shifted away from cynicism, anti heroes and deadly dames to display Cold War anxieties. The bomb was a dark threat looming menacingly in the background, a threat that shaped American culture in the postwar years. A possible apocalypse was hanging over everybody’s lives.
For a short while after WWII nuclear power was promoted as the epitome of technical progress. There existed the overly optimistic belief that it would only be used in positive and peaceful ways, such as for scientific progress in medicine. Oh ye of misguided faith. The "atomic dream" fell quickly short of what was promised because the technology entailed a range of obvious snags, among them the slight dangers of a nuclear meltdown.
Until 1949 the US had been in sole possession of the atomic bomb. When the Soviets exploded one of their own the same year, the arms race between the two superpowers was on. Once the Soviets had their A-bomb, President Truman announced an accelerated program to build a hydrogen bomb. The first one was tested in 1952. Not to be outdone a few months later, in 1953, the Soviets successfully tested their first H-bomb. Dangers were becoming very clear very fast.
“All the reports and all the statistics added up to one grim conclusion: In an atomic attack, the front would be everywhere. Every home, every factory, every school might be the target. Nobody would be secure in the H-bomb age”.
The 50s are so often called a time of paranoia, but it is not fair. Paranoia is an irrational fear based on no concrete evidence that the fears are true, but the threat of nuclear destruction was not only ever-present, complete annihilation was a very real possibility.
The age of atomic power also saw the rise of civil defense, the training of civilians to be prepared in the event of an attack. The public was urged to build fallout shelters and children practiced “duck and cover” exercises regularly in school. These exercises now seem quite laughable but it should not be forgotten - based on scientific data available at the time - that the blast from an atomic bomb was considered the worst part. The radiation threat, the after-effect, was downplayed because it wasn’t fully understood yet. We know now that this is not true and that there are no antidotes against radioactive poisoning.
It would take a few more years for people to note that the government policy of civil defense and preparedness was useless and ridiculous. The Twilight Zone episode The Shelter (1961) offered criticism of the fallout shelter obsession, and then along came Dr. Strangelove. But that is a whole nother story as they say. By the time the latter production rolled around most people were well aware that there wouldn't be another day to follow if the bomb went off.
From 1951-1962 the Nevada desert became the stomping ground for nuclear Government boffins who ran above-ground tests of atomic weapons which by the way is simply taken as a given in the movie without any moral judgment. In the uninhabited desert area everybody could do their dirty work unmolested.
The Atomic Age was marked by the strange duality of fear and fascination, by the belief in the good of nuclear science and the real dangers it included.
On the one hand people were living on the razor’s edge, afraid that everything could be over any second. On the other hand the Atomic Age proved to be a fertile inspiration for art, culture, design and entertainment.
The atomic craze eventually expanded to include tourism. The Nevada test site was roughly 65 miles from Las Vegas which was already an attractive tourist destination. “Dawn parties” were held at casinos where visitors would stay up to see the above-ground tests in the morning.
It’s interesting to note that a radio announcer addresses his listeners at some time in the movie:
|Atomic blast as entertainment|
“We’ll try to give you ample warning so that you can get to your roofs and watch the flash from the explosion.”
Weapons of mass destruction as exiting entertainment. In hindsight we can snicker but this would be revisionist and unfair. As already mentioned, the effects of a radioactive fallout and the resulting contamination were simply not wholly understood at the time.
It would take the sci-fi genre to fully exploit the fears and ramifications of nuclear bombs. Political commentary was often left to sci-fi/horror movies that would feature mightily pissed off mutant creatures created by nuclear testing, for example Them!, Attack of the Crab Monsters and It Came from Beneath the Sea. These little movies served in their own humble way as a warning voice not to mess about with nature.
Two of the first cautionary sci-fi movies were The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World, which had contrasting views of first contact. While the former had a peaceful and benign race of aliens urging humans to control their use of nuclear power, the latter's angry title creature killed scientists in the Arctic. The film ended with the now-immortal words "Watch the skies!”, suggesting an interplanetary Cold War.
The dark world of noir had always been an ideal atmosphere to showcase fears and obsessions. As opposed to 50s sci-fi, early 50s atomic Noir dealt with the dangers of nuclear power and radiation on a personal scale. It was the 60s end-of-the-world scenarios that took the sledgehammer approach with their message-pushing that nuclear power could only lead to complete destruction. In Split Second the A-bomb is only used as a background threat for a handful of people, not as a device to wipe out all of mankind.
Split Second is a thriller that doesn’t need any giant mutant creatures and no commies either to frighten, only a bomb about to go off at 0600 in the morning.
Larry Fleming (Keith Andes), a reporter assigned to cover the latest atom bomb test blast in the Nevada desert, is yanked off the case when a bigger one comes along. He takes it philosophically: “Well, if you’ve seen one atom bomb, you’ve seen them all.” Murderer Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) and his partner Bart Moore (Paul Kelly) - with a bullet in his gut courtesy of a prison guard - have busted out of prison and are on the loose. Their mute partner Dummy (!) (Frank De Kova) is waiting for them with a getaway car. Dummy has one passion in life, atomic superhero comics.
The fugitives decide to take the road less traveled, to a ghost town situated in the middle of a testing site where they want to hole up. As insurance, Hurley picks up a varied lot of hostages on the way. Apart from Larry there is tough-talking but soft-hearted Dottie Vail (Jan Sterling), a showgirl out of a job and out of money; Kay Garven (Alexis Smith), rich, spoiled, unfaithful and good-for-nothing doctor's wife on a cozy little weekend trip with a guy who’s not her husband, Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige). Then there is old prospector Asa (Arthur Hunnicutt) who’s been hiding out in the ghost town since WWI and simply stumbles onto the scene. Comic relief was an inescapable and often annoying fact of 40s and 50s movies but Asa thankfully stays just this side of outright irritating.
Hurley thinks they’re safe in the ghost town as the area has already been cleared of people for the bomb test. This is when things get rather sticky. He didn’t know about the pesky bomb, but Hurley is convinced that he and Bart can make their getaway before the explosion at dawn though their hostages know they’re likely to be left behind in the blast zone. It’s the age-old suspense situation: will they or won't they get out in time? One of Noir’s favorite fetish items - the ticking clock - plays a big role, reminding us that time is precious and slipping away.
Bart needs medical attention, pronto. Asa doesn’t see the need for a doctor for Bart. Where he comes from - the past - they used to dig out bullets with broken beer bottles, no anesthesia required.
Hurley though insists on calling Kay’s estranged doctor husband Neal (Richard Egan). Either he comes to the rescue of Bart or else his wife will require a lot of medical attention too. Everybody’s nerves are a little shaky and they’re getting shakier by the minute.
The premise of the (desert) hostage drama is nothing new but it always works. Parallels to The Petrified Forest and Key Largo are of course purely incidental. We know the setup but there’s no reason why Powell couldn’t put his own spin on a well-worn storyline.
Of course the forced confinement and hours of waiting give the characters lots of time to talk, argue, navel gaze and ponder their fates. Confined spaces always create a microcosmos, containing the action to a single stage and a restricted environment. Here it is an old saloon where the feeling of claustrophobia is strong and the closed-in space offers no escape from danger. Fear strips away all pretensions and people start to show their real selves. They either grow above themselves or break under the pressure.
Split Second has one or two little - OK, OK big - potholes and implausibilities that don’t bear close inspection, the most glaring one being the ending. How does Hurley think to get away in the end with all the roadblocks? How does Dr. Garven get through them in the first place? Security seems to be a bit lax. Oh, and who the hell leaves hunky Richard Egan for Robert Paige?
I’ll let all that slide. That’s what selective vision is for. Works like magic every time too, trust me.
Just as Ace in the Hole, Split Second is another Noir beyond the City. The city in general provides a psychological and aesthetic framework for Noir but Noir is not inseparable from this environment. Dangerous ground can lie beneath your feet anywhere. Here we get a hot and dusty desert ghost town. The desert is a place defined by absence. The absence of water, vegetation, nourishment, infrastructure and life. It represents desolation, barrenness and death. Civilization doesn’t count for much in this setting. The illusory protection of society is stripped away and people are left to their own devices, left to fight for themselves. In a place like this it is the law of the strongest that counts.
Western ghost towns were former boomtowns that marked failed communities. When business - AKA the lure of quick money - dried up, the towns died. After WWII a different kind of ghost towns - now called dummy villages - were built for one special purpose only. As atomic test sites.
What we have here is a nice clash between the old and the new. The ghost town - aptly named Lost Hope City - doesn’t only symbolize a failed community but also foreshadows a city destroyed by an atom blast.
A terrifying new future has suddenly become present. It is as if our protagonists have walked right into one of Dummy’s atomic superhero comic books.
Keith Andes is good as Fleming. With an easy charm and a clear head, he knows they can only bide their time.
McNally turns in a great performance as sexy, dangerous and wound a bit too tight Sam Hurley, a ticking time bomb himself. Blasting away a gas station attendant, he makes a bad impression from the first and doesn’t improves on acquaintance. Murder and mayhem, it’s what he does the best. Interestingly he is a war veteran but one with a cold contempt for heroes and probably everyone else. He may have lost his humanity but not his wit and sarcasm. Larry asks him: “How many men have you killed?”, which Hurley smugly answers with: “Legally or illegally?”. Apparently he’s racked up quite a body count. Against the weapons of mass destructions sanctioned by the government though Sam Hurley seems just a measly small-timer.
Unfortunately the aspect the psychologically damaged war veteran is not further explored and we never find out how Hurley became the man he is. He has a knack for getting under everybody’s skin. He riles up Arthur because he knows exactly Arthur doesn’t stand a chance against him. He knows that Kay is easy prey and takes full advantage of it and when her husband comes to her help Hurley tells him with a smirk: “She decided not to depend on you entirely.”
Only with Bart a real bond of friendship connects him. He has at least one meaningful relationship in his life.
From the first Kay is fascinated by the killer and makes it abundantly clear, even in front of her new boyfriend. “I’ve never met anyone like him”, she coos. Arthur is somehow lacking in the excitement department compared to the bad boy. Kay is a girl who covers all the bases, with commendable thoroughness. She’s running hot and cold like a cheap faucet with every guy who she thinks can offer her the most. Kay wants Arthur to play the hero and challenge Hurley. A surefire way to get yourself killed. Arthur doesn’t even live to regret his poor decision of taking up with Kay. He gets a blast from Hurley’s .38 for his troubles. Arthur loses his life for a dame who’s worth exactly nothing.
Then Kay throws herself at Hurley with literally all she’s got, partly out of sexual attraction, partly out of fear of dying. She’s only too happy to go to the kitchen with Hurley, to make some coffee of course. With typical 50s subtlety when it comes to sexual content - a subtlety that is more like a sledgehammer to the jaw - the producers let us know what happened. We don’t know how long they’re in the kitchen, we don’t see what’s happening but when Kay emerges she looks a bit worse for wear. Hair out of place and make-up smudged.
In the end Hurley doesn’t want to take her along. He is no fool and knows a rotten thing when he sees it: “You’re a real bad dame…nobody could depend on you for ten minutes.” Smart guy. We almost cheer for him then. She’s such a piece of work not even a psychopath wants her. It’s the night of bad choices for Kay.
After that snub she tries it on with her husband again who’s come to her rescue, not because he’s still in love with her but because he’s that kind of guy. But she’ll trample on anyone to get out alive.
So often relegated to glamour roles, Alexis Smith brings a lot to the table. She is able to display panic and hysteria mixed with a strong attraction to Hurley very convincingly.
Dottie is the product of the slums of Pittsburgh, with a father who pickled himself in cheap hooch every night and a not so happy hooker for a mother. In the beginning she can’t come up with the money to pay for her food at the diner. But she doesn’t tell the diner owner that before a guy walks into the diner who will be sure to pay the 50 cents she owes. If we think she’s going to be the bad girl now, we’d be mistaken. She’s a down-on-her-luck good time girl, no-nonsense but kindhearted and gets some of the best dialogue in the film. Sterling plays street-wise but vulnerable very well. Under her tough exterior she hides a certain sadness.
She’s learned how to handle herself. Of course Hurley tries it on with Dottie too but she’s not so easy.
"Now look, mister. You can use that tone on the Pasadena divorce case in there. I've cut my teeth on tougher guys than you.”
But she’s also not stupid enough to antagonize Hurley completely. She knows how that would end.
|The World of Tomorrow|
And now we get another chunk of implausibility. Asa knows an old mine shaft just outside the town where the others find shelter to hide out. Talk about deus ex machina. Why didn’t he say this before? Never mind. When the survivors emerge after the blast, Neal Garven says grimly in a chilling assessment of the situation: "Well, let's take a look at the world of tomorrow." All they see is a charred wasteland with the smoking ruins of the town and a mushroom cloud rising in the background. It hits home.
The ending is supposed to be a happy one for our troupe though clearly knowing what we do now it wouldn’t be. Radiation is going to get them 10 years down the road. You can run but you can’t hide.
Still, even without full knowledge, this must have been a very eerie scene for contemporary viewers and one which must have struck a chord. The doom loomed large on the horizon.
Split Second doesn’t need mutant creatures to be a horror movie. Reality does just fine.
Down These Mean Streets