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.