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The Split
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The Split

The Split

Based on the book The Seventh by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake and one in a series of crime novels about a professional thief named Parker, The Split (1968) has often been lumped in with other blaxploitation films of the late sixties and dismissed as such even though it is not representative of the former, briefly popular genre. Instead, it is a contemporary film noir and a star vehicle for ex-football star, Jim Brown, the former fullback for the Cleveland Browns, who turned to film acting in 1964 with a supporting role in the western Rio Conchos. It was also the first theatrical release under the new ratings system to receive an R rating and showcased a supporting cast of both Hollywood veterans (Julie Harris, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Klugman, James Whitmore) and up-and-coming actors such as Donald Sutherland, Diahann Carroll, Gene Hackman and Warren Oates.

The storyline of The Split pays homage to the classic heist thrillers of Hollywood's past such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Killing (1956) where a gang of thieves fall out over stolen loot through bad luck and unforeseen circumstances. In this case, a recent ex-con named McClain (Jim Brown) hooks up with Gladys (Julie Harris), a former partner in crime, for one big score so he can get out of the game. With Gladys' help, McClain recruits a team of highly skilled criminals for a robbery of the Los Angeles Coliseum during one of the Ram's playoff games. The gang includes Bert Clinger (Ernest Borgnine), a strong-armed thug, Harry Kifka (Jack Klugman), a getaway driver, Dave Negli (Donald Sutherland), a sharpshooter, and Marty Gough (Warren Oates), an escape artist. [SPOILER ALERT] The perfectly planned heist goes off without a hitch until the $500,000 take, which had been stashed in the apartment of McClain's estranged wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll), is stolen and Ellie brutally murdered by machine gun. The entire gang, suspecting McClain, resort to violence to uncover the truth, culminating in a shootout in a steam room after which McClain escapes. When Lt. Walter Brill (Gene Hackman), a crooked cop, is discovered to be behind the theft, McClain makes a deal with him that eliminates the surviving gang members while allowing him to escape with a portion of the money to Mexico. Or does he?

Despite the familiar heist set-up of The Split, which is directed by Gordon Flemyng, the film is occasionally unpredictable and quirky in its execution, often withholding crucial information from the viewer (some of which occurs off-camera) or providing character details that might effect the outcome of the centerpiece robbery but never play out such as Marty's tendency to have asthma attacks. The initial introduction of each gang member is particularly unconventional with McClain testing their abilities without their knowledge of who he is and, at the same time, the viewer having no clue who these characters are either; the result is an intriguing and playful approach for a genre film, even if some of it – the office brawl between Brown and Borgnine – is clumsily staged. The ending is also typical of its era, ending on an ambiguous note of a freeze frame of McClain responding to an unseen woman calling his name. Still, you can't discount the novelty appeal of seeing Julie Harris playing a tough-as-nails criminal mastermind or Donald Sutherland as a stylish dandy of a hit man or James Whitmore as a sex crazed landlord even if The Split is primarily a showcase for Jim Brown.

In his autobiography, Jim Brown: Out of Bounds, the actor said, "Today people don't know that I was the top star in films with some famous people. Though Gene Hackman and Donald Sutherland and Ernie Borgnine and Jack Klugman were all in The Split, I played their boss...I recruited my men, I strategized – I was the leader. And although my role had nothing to do with being black – although most of my roles were not defined by race – today people think I made black exploitation films. Not only did I not make black exploitation films, I was playing roles that normally went only to white guys. But that's how people are. They talk but they don't do their homework."

At the time of The Split, Warren Oates had recently completed In the Heat of the Night (1967) for director Norman Jewison who thought his wonderful performance might receive an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor (it didn't). While his amiable, semi-comic turn in The Split is a bright spot, Oates would really come into his own the following year as a member of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). Gene Hackman, on the other hand, had recently completed Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for that film was announced during the making of The Split. Unfortunately, Hackman doesn't appear until the final third of the latter feature and his role is poorly written and little more than a cipher. (He would follow this with another Jim Brown film, Riot, 1969). Diahann Carroll, as Jim Brown's love interest in The Split, doesn't fare much better than Hackman in a minor if pivotal role but 1968 would prove to be a good year for her – like it was for Hackman – with the premiere of her new television series, Julia; the show was on NBC for four years and was instrumental in her being cast opposite James Earl Jones in the romantic comedy Claudine (1974), a role that earned her a Best Actress Oscar® nomination. Donald Sutherland, also at the beginning of a promising acting career, has probably the most colorful role of the gang members in The Split and gets some of the best lines such as "Listen Marty, the last man I killed I did it for $5,000. For $85,000, I'd kill you 17 times." The same year he made The Split, Sutherland also appeared in the mod British film Joanna, in which his performance was singled out by many critics and eventually led to his casting in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), the smash hit that made him and co-star Elliott Gould stars overnight.

For most of the above actors, The Split was strictly work and little more though for Ernest Borgnine, who had previously appeared with Jim Brown in Ice Station Zebra (1968), the film was a bit of an ordeal. In his autobiography Ernie, he recalled, "I have two vivid memories of the movie. One is a scene where Jim Brown and I slugged it out. I actually got my head bashed in because he took things a little too seriously. Well, okay. Even Spence knocked out Clark Gable's teeth. The other memory is when I hurt my foot." According to his account, Borgnine had to repeatedly do a chase sequence over and over because Brown wasn't satisfied with his own acting in the scene. "Finally I did step on this cable the wrong way," Borgnine said, "and broke a bone in my left foot. I had to go to the hospital and Mr. Flemyng had to settle for a take that was already in the can. I had to do the rest of the picture in a cast, which the director artfully shot around so people wouldn't see it. Echoing my own sentiments, Mr. Flemyng – who was a wonderful, decent, human being – went up to Jim on the last day of shooting. "If you were the last actor on Earth," he said, "I would never work with you again."

The Split opened to mixed reviews but performed well at the box office, leading MGM to cast Jim Brown in other genre films such as Kenner (1969) and tick...tick...tick (1970). Renata Adler of The New York Times found The Split uneven, noting that the "first hour, although it is not too well or tightly written, is extremely well directed....with fine chases on the order of Bullitt [1968] and meaningful uses of the split screen when the credits are on....But in its last hour the picture...makes a sudden and extremely ambitious leap outside its genre...It is hard to adjust one's mood from pleasant, color-transposed genre thriller to something racially serious, yet the movie is tactful about it...and the film is almost completely successful in its two unmatched parts." Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times was more affirmative, writing, "The Split is the first Hollywood film to deliberately, overtly exploit black-white tensions in American society. On another level, it's a first-rate piece of entertainment. So it's interesting in more ways than an action movie about a robbery ordinarily would be."

While Ebert's comments might overstate the film's importance, The Split is a frequently entertaining time capsule with its iconic Los Angeles settings, sixties fashions and noir-like ingredients. The cinematography by Burnett Guffey, who won Oscars® for shooting From Here to Eternity (1953) and Bonnie and Clyde, is striking and so is the funky score by Quincy Jones which includes "It's Just a Game, Love," performed by Arthur Prysock, "A Good Woman's Love," by Sheb Wooley and the title theme song, sung by Billy Preston.

Some final points of interest: The crime novels of Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) have often been the inspiration for film noirs. The Hunter became Point Blank (1967) – it was produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff who also produced The Split - and its 1999 remake, Payback. Stark's novel The Jugger was very loosely adapted to the screen by Jean-Luc Godard as Made in U.S.A. (1966) and The Outfit became a movie of the same name in 1973 starring Robert Duvall, Karen Black and Robert Ryan. And then there are the many crime thrillers and noirs that have appeared under the author's real name such as The Hot Rock (1972), The Stepfather (1987) and The Grifters (1990).

Producers: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Director: Gordon Flemyng
Screenplay: Robert Sabaroff; Richard Stark (novel "The Seventh")
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Urie McCleary
Music: Quincy Jones
Film Editing: Rita Roland
Cast: Jim Brown (McClain), Diahann Carroll (Ellie Kennedy), Ernest Borgnine (Bert Clinger), Julie Harris (Gladys), Gene Hackman (Detective Lt. Walter Brill), Jack Klugman (Harry Kifka), Warren Oates (Marty Gough), James Whitmore (Herb Sutro), Donald Sutherland (Dave Negli), Joyce Jameson (Jenifer), Harry Hickox (Detective), Jackie Joseph (Jackie), Warren Vanders (Mason).
C-89m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Gene Hackman by Allan Hunter
Ernie: The Autobiography by Ernest Borgnine
Jim Brown: Out of Bounds by Jim Brown
www.afi.com
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