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Dick Powell's Split Second (1953) is a hostage thriller. As a member of that august sub-genre it is a child of Archie Mayo's The Petrified Forest (1936), often cited as the inspiration for all hostage thrillers that came after it. Certainly no reviewer missed the opportunity to compare Split Second to The Petrified Forest, but it's not as if Mayo's admittedly seminal drama cornered the market on finding the instant drama inherent in this handy recipe: take a ragtag collage of misfit strangers, throw them together under stressful circumstances, and serve hot. It's a formula that has supported not only hostage thrillers but disaster movies, post-apocalyptic zombie flicks, and the TV sitcom Gilligan's Island.
What sets Split Second apart is the nature of the "stressful circumstances." Not only does a cold-blooded killer kidnap a bunch of folks and hold their lives in escrow for his own safety--but he does this at ground zero of an impending atomic test.
I'm trying to avoid spoilers for you here, but certain assumptions are inevitable. Chekov's famous dictum applies to nukes as well as to pistols hanging on walls--if you start your movie with a countdown to an A-bomb blast, expect an explosive finale.
The notion of taking the venerable Petrified Forest formula and applying it to atomic-age paranoia was a slam-dunk idea.
Prior to the 1963 test-ban treaty, above-ground nuclear tests were a common feature of post-war America--and our fear of such things commingled with a naïve fascination. At one point in Split Second a radio announcer promises to give listeners enough of an early warning that they can get to their own roofs and watch the explosion! The risk of exposure to atomic fallout was misunderstood and greatly underestimated--in part because the effect was so remote from the cause.
Consider the infamous Duck and Cover cartoon (1951), cautioning school kids how to survive a nuclear attack. The advice given is today's black-comedy punchline: when you see the blast, get down and put your hands over your head. Go ahead and giggle--but guess what? It works. Most of the damage caused by a nuclear bomb comes from the shockwave--which travels at a lower speed from the light of the blast. So, if you happen to see the blinding flash of an atomic blast and aren't immediately incinerated, then drop to the floor and cover your head to avoid the shockwave. After the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Japanese authorities realized this and taught the "duck and cover" method to its policemen. A few days later, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki--whose police force now knew what to do. The death toll among Nagasaki police was vastly lower than in unprepared Hiroshima, and the improved survival rate of first-responders meant that city was able to survive and recover from the attack far better.
Except, of course, for the long-term consequences of fallout exposure--being long-term these were hard to measure until a certain amount of time had passed.
Which brings us back to Split Second. Killer Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) figures the best place to hide from the police dragnet is the abandoned ghost town of "Lost Hope City," destined to be obliterated the next morning. The tension of the film is all about how close to the last possible second--or split second--Hurley is going to cut his final escape. But outrunning the immediate effect of the shockwave is not the same as escaping the blast, a distinction the film chooses not to make.
The cruel irony of that conclusion is what it implied for the production team: not long after making this film, director Dick Powell headed up the John Wayne vehicle The Conqueror (1956), shot in St. George, Utah, downwind from an above-ground atomic test like the one depicted in Split Second. Twenty five years later, 91 members of Powell's 220-member cast and crew from that film had died of cancer--a rate three times higher than the national average. The cancer deaths included Wayne himself--and Powell, who died of lymphoma just seven years after the shoot.
As the film's survivors crawl their way out into a post-atomic landscape, they wonder aloud, "Is this the future?" Poignant and poetic, it's an ironic view of progress that director Powell may not have shared. For the restless and ambitious Mr. Powell, the future was always bright and strange.
He first emerged in Hollywood as a baby-faced crooner in Warner Brothers musicals. After about a decade's worth of singing, Powell suddenly reinvented himself as a tough guy in 1940s crime thrillers. Imagine if Glee's Chris Colfer took over as the new lead on some Law and Order franchise, with no joke meant or taken. This was the extremity of Powell's about-face. But then he went and did it again--leaving the silvery side of the screen for a new role behind the camera as a director. This he managed by impressing RKO honcho Howard Hughes--a man who knew from iconoclasm. Hughes took a shine to Powell and gave him a green light to direct his first feature--Split Second. Powell's success as a director was modest but consistent enough to allow him to found his own TV production firm, Four Star Television. Many of his peers from the era of 1930s Hollywood looked with disdain and terror at television, and its rapid encroachment of their professional sphere. Powell, forever young, adapted to the new medium and conquered it.
Is this the future? Why yes, yes it is.
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Director: Dick Powell
Screenplay: Irving Wallace (story and screenplay); William Bowers (screenplay); Chester Erskine (story)
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Music: Roy Webb
Film Editing: Robert Ford
Cast: Stephen McNally (Sam Hurley), Alexis Smith (Kay Garven), Jan Sterling (Dorothy 'Dottie' Vale), Keith Andes (Larry Fleming), Arthur Hunnicutt (Asa Tremaine), Paul Kelly (Bart Moore), Robert Paige (Arthur Ashton), Richard Egan (Doctor Neal Garven), Frank de Kova (Dummy).
by David Kalat
"Atomic Death at Dawn," Life, June 8, 1953.
Douglas Brode, Lost Films of the Fifties.
David Halberstamn, The Fifties.
Barry Monush, The Encyclopedia of Film Actors.
Kim Newman, Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema.
Tony Thomas, The Dick Powell Story