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Noirvember 2019: Split Second (1953) Dick Powell

Split Second (1953)

Directed by Dick Powell

Produced by Edmund Grainger

Screenplay by Irving Wallace

Story by Irving Wallace, Chester Erskine

Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca

Edited by Robert Ford

RKO Pictures

(1:25) Warner DVD

I’m not sure whether you’d call Split Second (1953) a film noir or a disaster thriller. Either way, this movie is loaded with surprises, starting with its director, Dick Powell, behind the camera for the first time. We also have director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, who gets equal time shooting outdoors in the desert and indoors inside a run-down building in the middle of nowhere. Plus I'll watch any movie whose poster features Stephen McNally kissing Alexis Smith as an atomic bomb goes off. Hey, when you're hot, you're hot.


The set-up begins right from the start: We’re dropped into an atomic testing site in the middle of an abandoned Nevada ghost town where a test bomb is going off the next day at 6am. Everyone’s been warned and anyone within the blast zone has already been evacuated. Nothing to see here, folks, unless you want your body to be part of an atomic fireworks show.

Ah, but the three guys who’ve recently busted out of prison probably didn’t have radios in the joint and don’t know about tomorrow’s test bomb. “The Nation’s #1 Killer” Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) and his buddies Bart Moore (Paul Kelly) and the mute they call “Dummy” (Frank de Kova), provide their own explosion and escape to… the Nevada desert, of course, where they stop a car containing a normal, everyday couple, Kay (Alexis Smith) and Arthur (Robert Paige). Well, actually they have a little secret: they’re not married. Well, Kay is, but she’s stepping out on her husband. Hurley doesn’t care. He just wants the wheels. Now he has two hostages.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the local authorities warning everyone about the upcoming atomic blast just one more time, eager beaver reporter Larry Fleming (Keith Andes) is determined to cover the story of the prison escapees. After stopping at a gas station, Larry gives a ride to Dottie Vail (Jan Sterling), a nightclub dancer. When Larry and Dottie stop to help Kay and Arthur, whose car has run out of gas, they’re “encouraged” to join the escapee party.

C'mon, you've gotta admit there’s something hilarious about these seven people crammed into a car. (I almost wish somebody had farted or hurled or something.) The picture above almost seems to be saying, “Tell us a story, Uncle Hurley.” He does tell them a story, one that’s familiar to film noir fans: Hurley is a veteran “ruined by the war.”

Hurley checks everyone into an abandoned building in a ghost town, planning on hiding out there until Bart (who was shot in the prison escape) can see a doctor. It’s Hurley and Bart’s lucky day: Kay’s husband (whom she’s cheating on with Arthur) Neal (Richard Egan) is a doctor and would be delighted to help them out. Sure… Hurley contacts Neal, telling him to get over here. “I’ve got your wife! Play it safe, you’ve got yourself a wife. Get cute, you’ve got yourself a corpse.” It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but Hurley gets his point across.

But what about the atomic blast? the hostages say. No problem, Hurley says. We get Bart fixed up and we’re outta here. But while we’re waiting around, I think I’ll get friendly with Miss Dottie, here… Well, now…

But soon Kay, fearing that she might otherwise die out in the desert, friendlies up to Hurley for a little security. Well, now!

Things get more interesting with the appearance of one of my favorite character actors Arthur Hunnicutt as the ghost town’s sole resident Asa Tremaine. Hunnicutt does his usual schtick and it works well, providing some comic relief, and just maybe some hope for the hostages.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is Hurley’s apparent conflicting desires to take care of his friend Bart and to bed Dottie (and maybe even Kay). His concern for Bart is so intense that you wonder if they were more than friends in the big house. (Double well now!)

There’s a bit of a twist near the end that’s pretty nifty and the overall suspense is quite impressive. So is it film noir, thriller, or something else? I’ll let you be the judge. It’s not a bad way to spend part of your Noirvember viewing, so I hope you’ll check it out.

Photos: IMDb, Wolfmans Cult Cinema, The Movie Scene

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