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Split Second (1953)

If one were to subtitle this Dick Powell directed feature then how about, The Petrified Forest Meets The Atomic Age.

While we don’t get Bogie, Howard or Davis, we do get a vicious Stephen McNally terrorizing Keith Andes, Jan Sterling, Richard Egan and Alexis Smith in an abandoned roadside diner in an abandoned ghost town in an abandoned part of Nevada. The reason? The military is about to detonate one of it’s nuclear bomb tests and the clock is ticking on our star players that also includes the likable presence of Arthur Hunnicutt and the sure handed Paul Kelly.

All these characters collide when Andes is on site to cover the show as a top flight reporter. When news of escaped convicts, McNally and Kelly hit the airwaves, Andes is reassigned to cover the break and picks up dance hall singer Jan Sterling hitchhiking between gigs. While these two are getting to know each other, McNally’s character is revealed in a cold blooded murder of a gas station attendant. When Robert Paige and Alexis Smith pull up to the filling station, our gangsters have a couple of hostages to a hitch a ride with. If only they had remembered to fill the car with gas.

Not to worry, they force Miss Smith to hail the next car down which brings most of our entire cast together. Andes and Sterling pull over only to be added to the hostage count. Now McNally decides to take refuge in the ghost town diner despite pleas from Andes who knows the area is slated for a major bomb detonation the following morning. McNally doesn’t take kindly to being pushed to far though he does have one weakness. It’s his loyalty to the older con Kelly who has taken a slug during their escape. Thankfully Alexis Smith is married to doctor Richard Egan and a well placed call to the doc warns him that if he doesn’t get here quick to save Kelly’s life, he’ll be short a wife.

Like The Petrified Forest, a good portion of this film takes place in the run down diner where McNally plays nasty with almost every character yet still finds time to see if Miss Sterling or lovely Alexis might like to go along with him and of course locks lips with each one to varying degrees of success. One of these ladies is no good. Care to guess which one?

Tension rises for all concerned and the hostages are pretty sure that McNally is going to drive off with Kelly in the early morning hours leaving them to their fate with the bomb. All witnesses easily nuked. Bringing that laid back style that only a handful of actors brought to the screen is Hunnicutt as an old time prospector who wanders in to the diner and wishing he hadn’t. Might he be the gang’s savior?

When I say a handful of actors where Hunnicutt is concerned, I kind of put him in the same classroom with Slim Pickens, Strother Martin, Walter Brennan and Chill Wills.

While his may be a ‘B” flick from the RKO factory, this features a really solid cast of players from the scene chewing McNally to the opposite approach given by Hunnicutt. Clocking in at a smooth 85 minutes, it’s never dull. This was the first film to directed by actor Powell and it’s rather ironic that it features a nuclear backdrop because his second effort behind the camera is the notorious The Conqueror that is linked to the deaths of many people including John Wayne and Susan Hayward. Sadly, Conqueror was filmed at the sight of a nuclear blast and it’s thought that the contamination or fall out was partly responsible for the eventual deaths of Wayne and company.

When it comes to leading man Keith Andes, I dare you to close your eyes and listen to him. If you don’t picture Peter Graves in your mind’s eye, I don’t believe you. Heck, he even looks a little bit like James Arness’ brother. I even took a look at the IMDB to see if I was unaware there was a third brother just to be sure.

I just love name dropping.

This one is out via the Warner Archive Collection should you be looking to score a copy. Hopefully you enjoy the front seat to Armageddon as much as both McNally and I did.

**** Kind of a spoiler alert here ****

The ending is an enjoyable mixture of justice and special effects so be sure to stay tuned and like me, wonder about the fate of those who survive to see the closing credits after doing their best to avoid the blast. Knowing what we know today, I don’t see much of a future for anyone.

10 Comments »

  1. I was very pleasantly surprised by this one. I had sought it out in my attempt to complete Alexis Smith’s filmography (almost done except for the maddeningly elusive The Decision of Christopher Blake) and hadn’t expected too much since it was so obscure. But it turned out to be a well paced tight little noir with that great cast of second string players. I was especially delighted to discover that Jan Sterling was in the cast, I hadn’t realized going into it that she was. A wonderful underappreciated actress.

    This is certainly a much more accomplished directing job by Powell than the excruciatingly awful The Conqueror! It would have been a terrible tragedy that befell the cast no matter the film or circumstances but to have sacrificed their health and lives for that ghastly pile of crap is even more heartbreaking. Susan Hayward’s centenary was just last week and among all the articles noting her estimable career and films that movie was only written of with scorn, and rightly so.

    • I’ll keep my eye out for that Smith title. Maybe Warner Archive will surprise you. This is indeed a little gem and I was surprised that Sterling didn’t play McNally’s gal come to meet him which was my initial thought so it didn’t fall into that clichéd trap. The less said about Conqueror the better I suppose. It all has to start with “what was Duke thinking?”

  2. Enjoyed your review which sums up a neat little thriller with a good cast. I always like to give a shout-out for Richard Egan who never quite made it to the big time, but I rate him highly.

    • I too like Egan and was surprised he was lower on the credits than a couple others here. But I guess he was just starting out more or less. He had a nice authority like screen presence in most anything. I liked him in a number of fifties titles. As a kid I always remembered him in 300 Spartans and would watch it whenever it was on TV.

      • I too like Egan but he was missing that extra POP that Gable, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, William Holden etc. had that carries a leading man to the lone star spot. He was solid and dependable, handsome and blandly reliable. Perfect for supporting the big female stars like Joan Crawford, Jane Russell or Susan Hayward where he would provide a good looking guy that they could plow right over on their way to the center spotlight.

        The studio certainly tried with him, he had a couple of tries at carrying his own film, The View from Pompey’s Head is the first one that comes to mind in terms of big star buildup, I clearly recall a scene where Egan pulls up beside a house and the colors of his suit, car interior & exterior as well as the house all compliment each other and his complexion and he’s in a ghetto!!, but he just wasn’t commanding enough to carry a film on his own. That said I also enjoyed 300 Spartans when I was a kid.

        • Every generation has those type of actors that offer solid support to the leading ladies without taking over the picture so I can see how Egan fits the bill. Haven’t seen Pompey;s Head. Have to check into it.

  3. This sounds really great Mike right from the get go. Sure to be right up my street. Plus never heard of The Petrified Forest either. Damn man I need to invent a way of feeding films straight into my temporal lobe.

  4. I love that poster…a man and woman in a lip lock while all that mayhem goes on behind them! I may have to watch this just so I can review it and put that one-sheet up on my site! But seriously, it does sound worthy of a watch…reading your review, I was reminded of a little-known noir titled ‘The Devil Thumbs a Ride’, where Lawrence Tierney’s character is similar to the one played by McNally. That’s a fun one to check out, if you ever have the chance.

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