Split Second


1h 25m 1953
Split Second

Brief Synopsis

Escaped convicts hold hostages in a ghost town that's the target of a nuclear bomb test.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Thriller
Film Noir
Release Date
May 2, 1953
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Mojave, California, United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 25m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
7,650ft (9 reels)

Synopsis

At Camp Mercury in the Nevada desert, scientists and soldiers prepare for an atomic bomb test, which is to take place early the following morning. While waiting for the blast, reporter Larry Fleming is reassigned to a breaking story at the Carson City penitentiary, from which convicts Sam Hurley and Bart Moore have just escaped. On the way there, Larry stops at a diner and gives stranded dancer Dorothy "Dottie" Vail a lift. Sam and the wounded Bart, meanwhile, meet fellow gang member Dummy, who is waiting for them in a car on another stretch of the highway. Later, Sam confronts a gas station proprietor at gunpoint, and when the man attempts to disarm him, shoots him. Sam and Bart, who are to rendezvous with another cohort, Johnny, and collect some hidden loot, then change into clothes provided by Dummy and junk their car. Soon after, a car pulls up to the station, and Sam, Bart and Dummy force their way in, to the shock of driver Kay Garven and her lover, Arthur Ashton. Sam, who has promised to find Bart a doctor, orders Kay to drive and, in the backseat, finds a letter addressed to Kay and her husband, Dr. Neal Garven. While stopped at a diner, Sam calls Neal at his Pasadena office and tells him that if he wants to see his wife alive, he should hurry to the desert with his medical gear. Soon after, Kay's car runs out of gas, and Kay flags down the next passing car--Larry's. As before, Sam pulls a gun on Larry, and he, Kay, Arthur, Burt and Dummy pile into Larry's station wagon with Dottie. Upon arriving in Lost Hope City, a ghost mining town within the atomic bomb test range, Sam tells Kay about his phone call to Neal. With a frightened laugh, Kay reveals that she is divorcing Neal and doubts whether he will bother to come. Later, while alone in one of deserted houses, Kay admits to Arthur that she is attracted to Sam. Larry and Sam, meanwhile, talk about Sam's heroics during the war. The embittered Sam feels no remorse for his "illegal" murders and declares himself just another victim of the war. The group then is joined by Asa Tremaine, an old prospector who has just come down from the hills. Disturbed by Asa's appearance, Sam leaves to scout the town and discovers that the gas tank on Larry's car is leaking. Upon returning, Sam demands that Kay go to the kitchen with him, and Arthur, fearing for her safety, angrily protests. Sam guns Arthur down in cold blood, and terrified, Kay begs for her life and offers herself to Sam. Asa, meanwhile, tries to sneak a gun out of his sack, but is interrupted by the wary, rifle-toting Dummy. On Dottie's suggestion, Larry then attempts to convince Bart, who is growing weak from his gunshot wound, to join their side. Despite Larry's insinuations that Sam will betray him for the money, Bart remains loyal to Sam. Soon after, Neal drives up, and Sam demands that he operate on Bart. While Dottie boils water in the kitchen and is propositioned by Sam, Neal and Kay discuss their failed marriage. Neal then prepares to anesthetize Bart with sodium pentothal, and Bart, suddenly nervous, asks for a Bible. Asa offers to get one from his sack and, while doing so, grabs his gun and slips it to Larry. Sam sees the exchange and viciously attacks Larry before he can fire the weapon. Fearing for Larry's life, Dottie, who has fallen in love with the reporter, screams at Sam to stop. Though he spares Larry, Sam slaps Dottie, then warns all the hostages not to try any more "heroics." Bart's surgery is a success, but Neal tells Sam that Bart will not survive if he is moved. Unknown to all of them, the Army has rescheduled the time of the blast, which is now due to occur in one hour. Later, as the unsuspecting fugitives prepare to depart, Kay tries unsuccessfully to reconcile with Neal, then pleads with Sam to take her with him. When Sam insists on tying up the hostages, a guilt-stricken Bart pulls a gun on him and demands their release. Just then, the five-minute warning alarm sounds, stunning everyone. Sam knocks the gun out of Bart's hand and hustles him to Neal's car along with Dummy and a hysterical Kay. Larry, Dottie, Neal and Asa flee on foot and race toward the hills. With only a minute to spare, Sam realizes that he is driving toward the bomb site and desperately turns around. Larry and the others, meanwhile, run into an old mine for protection. When the bomb finally explodes, Sam's car is swept up in the devastating blast. Larry, Dottie, Neal and Asa are untouched by the blast and, after the dust settles, emerge from the mine, finally free.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Thriller
Film Noir
Release Date
May 2, 1953
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Mojave, California, United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 25m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
7,650ft (9 reels)

Articles

Split Second


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).
BW-86m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
"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
Split Second

Split Second

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). BW-86m. by David Kalat Sources: "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

Keith Andes (1920-2005)


Keith Andes, the tall, raw-boned actor who had a notable career in film, television and stage, died on November 11 at his home in Canyon Country, California. He was 85. His death was ruled a suicide by the Los Angeles County coroner's office. He had been suffering for years with bladder cancer.

Born John Charles Andes on July 12, 1920, in Ocean City, New Jersey, Keith been began performing in his teens for school productions and for local radio stations in his hometown. After he graduated with a B.A. in education from Temple University in 1943, he pursued a stage career in earnest, and in 1947 scored a triumph in the Broadway musical The Chocolate Soldier, where he won a Theatre World Award for his performance. That same year, he made his film debut as one of Loretta Young's brothers in The Farmer's Daughter (1947). Although his film career never quite took off, one could certainly envy him for playing opposite two of the hottest blonde bombshells of their generation: first with Marilyn Monroe Clash by Night (1952); and then Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Most Likely (1957).

If Andes lacked the star power to be a consistent Hollywood lead, he certainly had no problems with television. Here, his stalwart presence and commanding baritone made him more than servicable for television through three decades: (Goodyear Theatre, Playhouse 90, The Ford Television Theatre); '60s: (Perry Mason, The Rifleman, Star Trek, The Outer Limits, Glynis); and '70s (Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco).

Andes made his last notable screen appearance in the Al Pacino vehicle And Justice For All (1979), before falling into semi-retirement and doing occassional voice work. He is survived by two sons, Mark, Matt; and three grandchildren.

by Michael T. Toole

Keith Andes (1920-2005)

Keith Andes, the tall, raw-boned actor who had a notable career in film, television and stage, died on November 11 at his home in Canyon Country, California. He was 85. His death was ruled a suicide by the Los Angeles County coroner's office. He had been suffering for years with bladder cancer. Born John Charles Andes on July 12, 1920, in Ocean City, New Jersey, Keith been began performing in his teens for school productions and for local radio stations in his hometown. After he graduated with a B.A. in education from Temple University in 1943, he pursued a stage career in earnest, and in 1947 scored a triumph in the Broadway musical The Chocolate Soldier, where he won a Theatre World Award for his performance. That same year, he made his film debut as one of Loretta Young's brothers in The Farmer's Daughter (1947). Although his film career never quite took off, one could certainly envy him for playing opposite two of the hottest blonde bombshells of their generation: first with Marilyn Monroe Clash by Night (1952); and then Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Most Likely (1957). If Andes lacked the star power to be a consistent Hollywood lead, he certainly had no problems with television. Here, his stalwart presence and commanding baritone made him more than servicable for television through three decades: (Goodyear Theatre, Playhouse 90, The Ford Television Theatre); '60s: (Perry Mason, The Rifleman, Star Trek, The Outer Limits, Glynis); and '70s (Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco). Andes made his last notable screen appearance in the Al Pacino vehicle And Justice For All (1979), before falling into semi-retirement and doing occassional voice work. He is survived by two sons, Mark, Matt; and three grandchildren. by Michael T. Toole

Quotes

Well, Colonel, when you've seen one atom bomb, you've seen them all.
- Larry Fleming
You don't think very much of people, do you?
- Larry Fleming
I don't think very much of anything.
- Sam Hurley
You ever been locked up? Some people can stand it and some people can't. The ones who can't would kill themselves and anybody else just to get out for five minutes.
- Sam Hurley

Trivia

Notes

According to a February 1952 Daily Variety news item, Lewis Rachmil was originally slated to produce this film. Jane Russell, Victor Mature and William Talman were announced as the probable stars in May and June 1952. The production was to start in late May 1952, but was delayed until late October 1952. In early May 1952, William Dorfman and Feild Gray were announced as the film's unit production manager and art director, respectively, but were replaced by Lowell Farrell and Jack Okey. Dick Powell, who previously was known as an actor and singer, made his directorial debut with Split Second. Location shooting took place in and around Mojave, CA, according to a late October 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item. Split Second was the only feature produced at RKO during the brief reign of corporate president Ralph Stolkin.