Thursday, May 11, 2006

Movie: Split Second (1953)

Novelist James Ellroy introduced this movie, the first directed by actor Dick Powell, at the Noir City film festival earlier this year. Dig this premise: escaped convict Stephen McNally holds several people hostage in an abandoned Nevada mining town, knowing it will soon be obliterated by an A-bomb test. (Michael Mann’s TV series Crime Story doffed its fedora to that plot in an episode.) With that set-up, how can you miss?

Apparently, ways can be found.

McNally isn’t exactly a criminal mastermind. It seems to me that if you busted out of a state pen in 1950s Nevada and came across a married woman from California traveling with a man who was not her husband but “an old friend of the family,” you might at least consider the possibility that she’s in town to get a quickie divorce. You certainly shouldn’t build your getaway plan around the notion that the woman’s husband will drop everything to come to her aid. Even if that’s what ends up happening.

A movie like this should be tightly plotted, with the characters placed in ever-closer quarters. Instead, more of them show up, including a grizzled old prospector. And the model work leaves something to be desired.

The women in the cast make the strongest showing: Alexis Smith as the would-be divorcee who’s not as demure as she seems and Jan Sterling as the tough cookie with the soft center. At least the movie fulfills Chekhov’s dictum that if an A-bomb is introduced at the beginning, it’s got to go off at the end.

Turns out Ellroy isn’t even a fan of the film. He wanted to show the 1954 feature version of Jack Webb’s Dragnet. I caught that on TV a few years ago. That one’s dark, man. Craaaazy dark.

Update: Shame-Faced

Where various follow-ups and addenda are available for your perusal.

Meaningless Milestone: D Boy

This is my 500th post. Free coffee and donuts at the back of the hall.