Monday, August 11, 2014

Split Second (1953)

Returning to TCM's Summer Under the Stars, the star for romottow, August 12, is Alexis Smith, who I suppose was a bigger star back in the 1940s and 1950s than she is today. Still, it's nice to catch up with some not so well-known people, especially when they've got some interesting movies worth watching. In the case of Alexis Smith, that interesting movie is Split Second, which you can see tomorrow morning at 10:15 AM.

We don't see Alexis Smith at first; the first of the main chaaracters to show up is Larry Fleming, played by Keith Andes. He's a newspaper reporter from Las Vegas, in the hinterlands of Nevada to cover tomorrow morning's atomic bomb test that the US government is carrying out, complete with a great deal of preparation to make certain that nobody winds up in the blast zone. While Fleming is covering all that preparation, he gets a call from his boss. There's been a prison break in Carson City, and one of the most notorious criminals, Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) ha busted out of jail! That's a more interseting story than the atomic test, anyhow, although you can probably guess that the script wouldn't have gone into substantial detail about the bob test if it weren't going to be part of the plot later in the movie.

But we'll get to that in a bit. We still haven't even gotten to Alexis Smith. She winds up as a player in our story completely unexpectedly. Playing a woman named Kay Garven, she's in Nevada with her lover, Arthur (Robert Paige), presumably on the way to get a divorce from her husband in Los Angeles, Dr. Neal Garven (Richard Egan). Along the road, they stop at the sort of service station that was common in the days before the interstate highway system. The only thing is, Sam and his partner Bart (Paul Kelly) have just been there, and got in a gunfight with the owner, killing him. In fact, Sam and Bart haven't quite left, so when they find Kay and Arthur, they carjack the couple since the cops won't be looking for that car.

As for Larry, he's going to show up too. Kay's car runs out of gas, and when the crooks flag down another car to carjack, it just happens to be Larry's car. And by this time, he's pickued up a stranded passenger, dancer Dottie (Jan Sterling). So our crooks carjack them and with four hostagens in tow, force Larry to drive to the ghost town of Lost Hope City. The only thing is, that's in the blast zone! Fear not, the criminals say. They've got a plan and it's going to go to clockwork, and as long as the hostages don't do anything to screw up the plan, everybody will get out of town by the time the blast is detonated at 6:00 AM.

But of course there's already a complication, which is that Bart got shot in the escape attempt. He needs a doctor, and he knows that Kay's husband is a doctor, because he saw a letter from the good doctor. Dammit, Rr. Garven, you're going to come out to Nevada and fix up my buddy, or you're never going to see your wife alive again. Not that Sam knows Kay and Neal are on the outs, although he's about to get an inkling along those lines, since Kay tells him this, and then reveals that she's finding herself falling in love with Sam. At this point we'd begin to get a standard-issue hostage movie with the suspense of whether everybody's going to get out in time. Except that the script turns things up another notch by having the government move the bomb test up an hour from 6:00 AM to 5:00 AM. (I can't think this would never happen in real life because of the risk involved. But damn if it isn't a good plot device.)

Split Second is very much a B movie, but one that's very well done thanks to a script that never lets up in its tension. Sure, we've seen all these tropes a dozen times before, but the way they're put together in Split Second is just so darn entertaining. The actors are good enough even if none of them became truly big stars, while then tension is helped out a bit by having much of the second half take place in a fairly confined space. And then there's the ending, which certainly satisfies after the rest of the movie. I've blogged about a lot of movies that would never be considered great, but which succeed spectacularly in their objective of entertaining the viewer. Split Second fits that description in spades.

Split Second has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, but not that there have been several movies with the title Split Second, so make certain you're getting the right one.

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