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Friday, November 19, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #33: Split Second, 1953

"You know, Larry, if you've seen one atom bomb, you've seen them all."

Split Second, 1953

Director: Dick Powell
Writers: William Bowers and Irving Wallace from a story by Chester Erskine
Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca
Producer: Edmund Grainger for RKO Pictures
Starring: Steven McNally, Alexis Smith, Jan Sterling, Richard Egan, Keith Andes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Robert Paige, Paul Kelly.

Why I chose it
My interest in Dick Powell was piqued after his role in last week's film, The Bad and the Beautiful, and when this film that he directed popped up on my list, it was an easy choice. I was also interested in seeing secondary player Jan Sterling again. She was reliable and had a strong screen presence as moderately hard-boiled dames during the mid-century in such films as Appointment with Danger with Alan Ladd and Ace in the Hole with Kirk Douglas.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
In a 1950s version of The Petrified Forest, two escaped convicts, through a couple of well-timed car jackings, take two men and two women hostage and hide out in an abandoned desert town in Nevada that is about to be obliterated by a nuclear bomb test. The lead convict, Sam Hurley (Steven McNally) demands that the physician husband (Richard Egan) of one of his hostages (Alexis Smith) come from the city to operate on his gravely wounded compatriot, who cannot travel any further. While all await the doctor's arrival, alliances form and dissolve, and the hostages' bargaining for their lives grows increasingly desperate as the clock ticks down. 

Production Background
This was the first film ever directed by Dick Powell, the former "song and dance man" and actor/crooner who had made an abrupt change to hard boiled roles in the mid-forties. Directing was another mountain he intended to summit, and he did. In a rather sad but ironic twist, while this film dealt with nuclear explosions, it was a later film that Powell directed, The Conqueror, near a former site of nuclear testing that is considered to have exposed cast and crew to harmful radiation. Many of them, including Powell, succumbed to cancer, although a precise link to that film cannot be proven.

The film was the only one produced at RKO during the brief tenure of entrepreneur Richard Slotkin, who had taken over the studio in a hostile maneuver, but then was ousted after his shady business practices came to light. 

Finally, in the "truth is stranger than fiction" category, actor Paul Kelly, who played the wounded convict, had been imprisoned in San Quentin for manslaughter after having killed his lover's husband in a drunken brawl in 1927. He ultimately married the new widow once they both got out of prison. His acting career resurrected, Kelly was successful on stage and in movies, even playing a warden in San Quentin in Duffy of San Quentin. He died in 1956.   

Dick Powell

Some other notable film-related events in 1953 (from

  • Following the lead of James Stewart a few years earlier, seven-year contracts with actors were replaced by single-picture or multi-picture contracts.
  • Ida Lupino (one of the few female directors of her era) directed the thrilling, noirish B-film drama The Hitch-Hiker (1953) -- the most successful film in her career. It was the story, based on a true-life account, of a cold-blooded, sadistic, psychotic mass murderer and kidnapper (William Talman). Its release during the height of the McCarthy "Red Scare" era reflected US paranoia about strangers.
  • 1953 was the first year that the Academy Awards ceremony (honoring films released in 1952) were televised (on March 19, 1953), on black and white NBC-TV, with Bob Hope as host (in Hollywood at the RKO Pantages Theater) and Conrad Nagel (in New York at the NBC International Theatre). It was the first ceremony to be held simultaneously in two locations. It resulted in the largest single audience to date in TV's five-year commercial history - estimated to be 43 million.
  • The landmark film of 50s rebellion, The Wild One (1953), by director Laslo Benedek and producer Stanley Kramer, was the first feature film to examine outlaw motorcycle gang violence in America. Marlon Brando portrayed a stunning, brooding, nomadic character - a delinquent archetype - in one of his central and early roles, popularizing the sale of black leather jackets and motorcycles after the film's release.
My Random Observations
  • As I mentioned above, I was particularly eager to see another film with Jan Sterling, and she was excellent here. She has a kind of toughness but also tenderness and vulnerability. She seemed to look a little different to me from what I remembered from some of her other roles, and at first I didn't know why. A bit of research revealed that she'd had a nose job before this film, which she was open about at the time. What was a perfectly fine nose became just a bit daintier, but to me she lost some of her unique look.
Jan Sterling, as down on her luck Dottie Vail, who doesn't know yet
how much worse her luck will get.
Here's Jan Sterling in Appointment with Danger, pre-plastic surgery.
  • If you're looking to be entertained for 90 minutes, you really can't go wrong if this one pops up at the top of your queue. It's taut, packed with interesting characters, and the interweaving storylines build suspense to the explosive conclusion. The only disappointment for me was the rather one-dimensional villain, Hurley, as played by McNally. Not much nuance there, but there was enough development in the other characters that rather made up for that. 
Does Mrs. Garvin (Alexis Smith) have a thing for her captor
Sam Hurley (Steven McNally)?

Dr. Garvin (Richard Egan) operates on Bart Moore (Paul Kelly) while 
Dottie plays nurse and Hurley looks on.

Mrs. Garvin is scared in a fast car drive by Hurley (McNally) with wounded
Bart Moore between them.

  • Noted noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca can usually be counted on to deliver atmospheric scenes, and he did here as well. I enjoyed the variety of settings from the ghost town dark interiors to the aerial shots of the desert and nuclear testing ground, to the bright government offices. All in black and white, of course.

    An itinerant miner (Hunnicutt, left) fortuitously shows up to help
    the hostages. Here he confronts Hurley and Dummy (Frank DeKova).

    The business of government and the press collide. Newsman Larry
     (Keith Andes, far left) is told he is to report on a prison break
     instead of the nuclear test.

    Aerial shot of the ghost town - from the RKO lot.

    The only lights in a deserted Nevada desert town glimmer
    through cracks in the walls of an abandoned bar.

  • I liked that the ending wasn't all "bad guys are vanquished and lovers happily reunite" that often accompanies Hollywood films from this era, even noir. While--spoilers here--not everyone survives, the outcome isn't necessarily predictable. I suppose what is predictable, though, is a heavy handed apocalyptic theme.
End credits begin over a mushroom cloud.
Where to Watch
The movie is currently available to stream on here, and it's been released on DVD by the Warner Archive label.

Further Reading
The excellent TCM article is here. The "Czar of Noir", Eddie Muller, always delivers great information when intro'ing and outro'ing movies on Noir Alley on TCM; check out his offerings for this movie here (intro) and here (outro). They are definitely worth your time.


    1. What's more scary than an unrepentant criminal? The bomb! The characters in Split Second are intriguing, as is the fate hanging over them. Unusual and excellent choice.

      1. Thank you. I didn't know what to expect at all with this one, but it was worth the time. I agree the characters were intriguing, and I appreciated how various plot threads came together in at least somewhat unpredictable ways.