Thursday, November 8, 2018

Waterloo Bridge (1940)

In commemoration of Armistice Day, Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the World War I blogathon. My entry is mostly about the 1940s version of Waterloo Bridge though I’d like to draw some comparison to the 1931 version.

“I loved you, I've never loved anyone else. I never shall, that's the truth Roy, I never shall.” Myra Lester
Waterloo Bridge is based on the eponymous 1930 play by Robert E. Sherwood, made into a pre-Code movie the following year by James Whale for Universal. In 1940 MGM gave it the gloss treatment with big stars Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor and direction by Mervyn LeRoy. MGM banked on Leigh’s and Taylor’s star power. They banked right. The chemistry between the star-crossed lovers is wonderful though Leigh originally wanted her husband Olivier to play the role. But it all worked out for the best. Taylor and Leigh got on very well on the set and both later cited Waterloo Bridge as their personal favorite. Though Leigh is fantastic in the role, this is not a one-woman show. Leigh and Taylor are aided and abetted by a great supporting cast.

Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg lovingly recreated a wonderfully dewy, shimmering and ethereal London on the MGM backlot.

Many insults could be hurled at Waterloo Bridge. Yes it's a weepy, yes it’s overly sentimental, yes I promise you will need that entire box of Kleenex, but in the hands of talented actors the film manages not to drown in cloying soap suds. It evades the pitfalls of nauseating Hallmark Channel sappiness (with apologies to Hallmark Channel fans). It is an incredibly affecting and haunting movie that reflects on love, loss, unnecessary suffering and bittersweet memories that shape people forever. I’ll be damned if it isn’t mesmerizing even to viewers who usually don’t care for melodrama. Waterloo Bridge doesn’t apologize for its overt romanticism and it is its genuinely-felt sentiment that makes the movie virtually bullet-proof. It entirely succeeds at what it’s setting out to do. Stun the viewer into wondrous awe. It has lost nothing of its power.

The story is told in flashbacks by a grey-haired distinguished looking Taylor who is reminiscing about love found and lost. It is clear from that moment that we don’t have to get our hopes up for a happy ending. The tragic denouement is telegraphed a mile away. Another war romance condemned to failure, over before it ever really began. The mood is melancholy and somber throughout. The film is steeped in doom. 

The date is September 3, 1939 and Germany has just declared war. On the eve of his deployment to France, Scotsman Colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) - on his way to Waterloo Station to join the troops - stops at Waterloo Bridge where over 20 years earlier a chance meeting changed his life forever. He met the love of his life - ballerina Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh) - during an air raid. A whirlwind romance follows. It quickly becomes clear that both are meant for each other. Roy has his orders to leave the next day to the front and Myra doesn’t for one minute believe that they will see each other again. Against the explicit order of her tyrannical dance instructor Mme. Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya) - who believes that ballet and love do not mix - Myra meets Roy for dinner. They want to get married but there’s a law prohibiting marriages after 3pm and Roy must catch his troop train. Mme. Kirowa has no compunction about summarily firing Myra for insubordination. "War is no excuse for indecorum.” Her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field) lays into Madame and shares Myra’s fate. Quickly they find themselves broke and hungry. Mistakenly the newspapers list Roy as being killed in action, a soul-crushing blow for Myra. She gets sick and has to pay medical bills. She and Kitty see no other way than turn to prostitution. 

Unexpectedly Roy comes back and wants to pick up where they left off. Those terrible years in the trenches were nothing but a bad dream. Now that he’s home he can focus on beauty and happiness. He introduces Myra to his family. For a little while Myra believes that she can wipe the slate clean and that her fairy tale may still come true. Roy’s family welcomes her with open arms but all throughout this dream-come-true Myra feels that she is not good enough and may sully the honor of Roy's family and regiment with their marriage.

Certain implausibilities in the plot don’t bear close inspection. Robert Taylor doesn’t fool anyone as a Scotsman. Thankfully he’s not even trying to put on a dodgy British/Scottish accent. And buying Taylor as an Edwardian aristocrat would require a suspension of disbelief of cosmic proportions. He’s thoroughly all-American middle class.

Continuing down this tiresomely nit-picky path, albeit set during WWI, the costumes and hairstyles of the actresses are clearly contemporary 1940. How can Myra and Roy fall in love to fast? Why the hell does Myra make the stupid decision not to tell her future mother-in-law why she is so upset in the restaurant? One word from her would have changed her fate.
Answer: we wouldn’t have a compelling movie otherwise. Giving a hoot about these little bumps is what we were put in this world to rise above.

Many decisions of the protagonists only make sense in the very special universe melodrama operates in where contrivances and coincidences are not weaknesses but part and parcel of the genre. Complaining about far-fetched circumstances in melodramas is like objecting to the lack of realism in an abstract painting. 

Robert Taylor, impossibly handsome and dashing, turns in a very sensitive performance. For most of his career he was seldom accused of being a great actor. I think he got an unfairly bad rap. He was always a pro and here puts his whole heart into his role and treats it with real respect. What Taylor had in spades was screen presence, that certain magic that tops - to me at least - an Oscar-worthy performance every time. Taylor developed into an if not brilliant, then at least very competent actor whose later roles were a far cry from his early pretty boy ones. For someone who’s by many considered not an actor at all he turned in many good performances.

Roy’s attitude towards life is an almost over-confident and optimistic  one. He embraces life to the fullest, he loves the excitement of being alive. Roy simply knows he’ll make it through the war alive because now that he has found his love there is no way he can die. The gods must, simply must be on his side. They couldn’t be so cruel and take happiness away from him.

This being a romance, the unsavory aspects of war stay in the background. The audience doesn't see the unspeakable carnage of the Great War, no shell-shocked men broken in mind and body coming home to a world forever changed. The film focuses on the gallantry of the young men - Roy thinks there’s a certain amount of excitement in war - and that it is perfectly fine.
Still, that innocence is lost forever is made blatantly clear through Myra’s fate, a stand-in for innocence lost on a much grander scale. War makes its own rules and nothing would ever be the same after 1918.

Waterloo Bridge was Leigh’s follow-up movie to Gone With the Wind. Myra Lester is a far cry from little Miss Rich Bitch Scarlett O’Hara, the role that had catapulted Leigh to superstardom.

Leigh was a marvelous actress and her performance here is flawless. She glows with an inner radiance that is unearthly and elevates the art of suffering to new heights. She effortlessly goes from young innocent who’s even mistaken for a school girl to brassy tramp plying the oldest profession in the world back to a woman who hopes to be reborn through love.

Myra’s attitude towards life is quite different from Roy’s. Much less confident, delicate and fragile, she’s very young and very innocent. She is quite fatalistic and doesn’t believe that people are necessarily in control of their destiny. Not having been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Myra knows that life doesn't always work out the way you plan and to expect too much will only lead to dashed expectations. A rose-colored belief in a happy ending won’t automatically make it so. War means short-lived happiness, parting, hardship, death. Myra’s fatalism has deep roots. There seems to be an underlying maybe not even consciously-realized belief in Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
In fact Roy remarks on the fact that someone so young should be so defeatist. Myra considers Roy an incurable romantic. It is as if Myra thinks too much happiness is tempting fate, the gods may strike her down for it.

Out of sheer desperation Myra and Kitty turn to prostitution. Of course the 40s version had to bow to the dictates of Joe’s Purity Squad. This being post-Code the matter is only obliquely referenced. The word prostitute is never uttered. It doesn’t need to be unless the viewer is purposely obtuse. The ‘40s version may be more sanitized than the earlier one, but as we all know, any screen writer worth his salt was able to circumvent the pesky confines of the Code and make the subject blatantly clear. The Code really doesn’t work against this version. It in no way hampers the impact of the story. The entire subject matter is handled with subtle allusions while at the same time leaving no doubt as to what’s going on. 

The way it is conveyed that Kitty has become a prostitute is well-handled. Coming home in the early hours one morning, Kitty - all tarted up - encounters a beat cop…and hesitates in her tracks. She doesn’t want to be picked up for streetwalking. Then before she enters her own flat she wipes off her too-liberally applied lipstick. With a few quick strokes, the audience understands perfectly.

It is most important to note that nowhere does the movie feel compelled to condemn or look down upon the choices Myra and Kitty have to make. The script takes a remarkably compassionate and lenient view. The audience feels nothing but sympathy. There is a telling bit of dialogue by a defiant Kitty about a world in upheaval and her wish to go on living no matter how. Myra believes Kitty is walking the streets to support her:
“No I didn't! I'd a done it anyhow. C'est La Guerre. No jobs. No boys who want to marry you. Only men who want to kill a few hours, 'cause they know it may be their last…We're young and it's good to live. Even the life I'm leading! Though, God knows - I've heard them call it the easiest way. I wonder where they thought up that little phrase? I know one thing. It couldn't have been a woman.”
Not only does she justify prostitution as a means of support, she also emphatically denies that this is an easy way to make a living.

Special mention has to go to Virginia Field as Kitty - the BFF we all want to have. She should have at least got an Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actress for it. Kitty’s character is a bit anachronistic, she seems to be in the wrong movie. She’s not so much a girl from the 1910s, instead she oozes 40s street-wise dame attitude. Before being a ballerina she used to be a chorus girl - at that time considered barely a step up from a prostitute - and has more grit and worldliness than Myra. Loyal and without self-pity in the beginning she takes it upon herself to take care of her more innocent friend and earn money for both of them. Being a prostitute hasn’t cost her her humanity.

It is rigid Madame Kirowa - a portrait of rectitude etched in acid - with her hard-and-fast rules towards romance who comes off as thoroughly unappealing and judgmental. She calls Myra a “camp follower” who should be in another profession than dancing for nothing more scandalous than one evening out to dinner with an officer.

I’ve seen many reviews who blame “society” (eternally ill-defined terminology of course) and the English class system for Myra’s suicide. One review even called the movie a tragic story of class struggle. I’ll spare you that interpretation. This is not a film about class warfare. This is what happens when people let preconceived notions and ideology write their reviews. Apart from Mme. Kirowa LeRoy portrays every character with sympathy and understanding. Everybody proves to be far more tolerant and open-minded than we might expect, almost too much so. Our expectations about the behavior of the supposedly of so stuffy and class-conscious British society are completely disappointed. If we expect stereotypes, we don’t get them.

Running true to aristocratic form, both Roy’s mother and his uncle the Duke should at least look down on Myra, for being a dancer and for being of a much lower social class. The Duke however doesn’t believe in "correct marriages”, for him marrying outside his class might bring fresh blood into the family. He also dismisses many of his peers as people with "limited social ideas.”

Roy’s mother (Lucile Watson) is willing to receive Myra with open arms, even after their initial failed meeting. When Myra finally gathers enough courage to tell her what she had to do to survive the war Lady Margaret professes sympathy with her. She doesn’t want Myra to rush off and leave Roy without even giving him a chance to understand.

Roy doesn't judge either, his love is blind. He only wants Myra to reverse her decision. He can acknowledge that civilians had to do things to survive that they would never have thought about in peacetime. War damaged those left behind too.

Myra simply can’t tell Roy what she has become. She cannot come to terms with her situation and feels beyond redemption. So she sees only one way out. She steps in front of an oncoming army truck. Myra is no Scarlett who’d simply tough it out. She’d rather perish.

It is Myra’s own defeatist attitude - her belief in her own inadequacy - that is her downfall in the end. Not society, not class conceit and not her fiancé’s family. The great tragedy is that Myra had been forgiven, her sacrifice was unnecessary. In a way Myra’s fate is a self-fulfilling prophecy because somehow deep down she never really believed in that happy ending.

Waterloo Bridge is a film full of memorable scenes. Kitty and Roy searching for Myra in every dirty dive in London. Myra crossing Waterloo Bridge contemplating how to earn money and knowing full well she cannot rely on the kindness of strangers. Suddenly she hears the voice of a man behind her propositioning her - unseen to the audience. She accepts.

Myra going to Waterloo Station one evening on the prowl for nightly customers, in a cheap satin dress, with a stone-hard face and a coquettish smile for the men descending from the troop train…when unexpectedly Roy comes back from the dead. Every emotion is in Leigh’s face. Shock, happiness, disbelief, desperation, shame. LeRoy was a veteran of Silent films and this is how he has Leigh play it. Back to the basics. Norma Desmond was right. They didn’t need dialogue. They had faces.

Of course one of the best scenes ever to make it on film - any film - is the dinner at the Candlelight Club. The orchestra plays Auld Lang Syne, the Farewell Waltz, in memory of absent friends and lovers. The melody weaves itself through the entire film. It is to this song that Myra and Roy share their first dance and kiss while each musician in the orchestra plays his piece and then extinguishes the candles beside him in a poignant symbol of farewell until there is nothing but darkness left. 'Til they meet again.

Much is made of the comparison with the 1931 version. For many the ’31 version is superior, for me the later version wins hands down though I’m a pre-Code fan. The MGM version has all the gloss, lavish production values, polish, perfect set designs and incredible cinematography we’ve come to expect from the studio. And for once polish beats gritty realism.

The ’31 film isn’t helped by a fairly unsophisticated performance by Kent Douglas as Roy who was not the most charismatic actor on the Universal roster though he is serviceable. Mae Clarke is very good as Myra but not in the same league as Leigh either looks or acting-wise. Occasionally both actors slide into the overly declamatory acting style of the early talkie era.

From the opening radio announcement to a stunned and silent crowd that war has been declared, to an aged Robert Taylor standing on Waterloo Bridge fingering the good-luck charm Myra once gave him, the 1940 version has an emotional wallop that can’t be beat. The bookending of the story with yet another war to end all wars can’t have failed to strike a chord with contemporary audiences.

Where the pre-Code version should score is with a hard edge. After all I’d heard about it I expected the early version to be unapologetically frank. For a pre-Code film I found it unusually subdued and restrained. Here too the world prostitute is never uttered. Salaciousness is suspiciously absent except for one scene in the beginning showing the scantily-clad dancers's dressing room antics. There are no happy sinners in this pre-Code, just a bitter former chorus girl trying to get by.

Astonishingly the pre-Code version puts a lot more emphasis on class-consciousness than the 40s version. Roy’s mother can see what her son evidently cannot, that there is a huge chasm between Myra and the Cronins. She makes it absolutely clear that there can and should be no future for Myra and her son. Mother can acknowledge Myra’s intrinsic goodness but that doesn’t mean she could ever overlook the stigma of Myra’s profession. Glenn Ericsson wrote a review for the TCM site where he strangely states about Myra’s predicament:
“Sherwood's play and the 1931 version examine this injustice [Myra being considered a fallen woman] and make a plea for understanding; MGM's version simply accepts it as The Way Things Must Be. Roy's Mother (Lucile Watson) clearly has great affection for her future daughter-in-law yet offers no encouraging words when Myra reveals the truth -- a piece of clever screenwriting, considering that nobody ever states anything directly. Myra is damaged goods, so "case closed” …MGM’s Waterloo Bridge reinforces a harsh status quo: "He must never know!”
In fact it is the other way around. In the pre-Code Mrs. Cronin - gentle, smiling but nevertheless cruel - leaves no doubt that Myra can under no circumstances marry her son.

It’s hard to decide which ending is the more pitiful. In the pre-Code Myra’s situation with Roy has been happily dissolved when a bomb goes off next to her and kills her. The ending is almost Noirish. Just when we think all’s well that ends well, fate steps in. The utter randomness and arbitrariness of death.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but the 1940s version is fantastic. It is one of Hollywood’s greatest tragic love stories, full of self-inflicted suffering and what ifs that will forever remain unanswered. Maybe to be of lasting endurance a love story has to be tragic, at least on film. A “what could have been” is often more powerful than the realization of it.

Waterloo Bridge is a film for the history books, well, at least my history book.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Roadblock (1951)

“You’re a nice guy, Honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” Diane
Roadblock is a fair to middling offering in the Noir canon, made on a dime by Harold Daniels for RKO. Daniels's career was a largely undistinguished one and healthy helpings of schlock and camp were his meal ticket. Roadblock is a no-frills B movie without many subtleties, paint-by-numbers but moderately entertaining nevertheless. As we’ve seen with The Narrow Margin a shoestring budget does not have to equate unspectacular filmmaking but unfortunately Roadblock is hampered with a script that doesn’t add up and Daniels was not the man to rise above mediocre material. The dialogue is quite good but not even Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is up to par.

Roadblock’s plot line follows the well-known Noir trajectory. A straight-arrow insurance investigator crosses over to the dark side because of his love for a rotten dame. If you think you’ve seen it all before you’d be right. You have. Many times. And better. This film has all the classic Noir ingredients and obviously pilfers bits and pieces from more well-known films, such as Double Indemnity. It also borrows - very unconvincingly - stock footage of a car accident from High Sierra.
The best thing about the picture are the opening and closing sequences, the middle not so much.

The movie starts off with a bang. A man witnesses a deadly shooting and is taken hostage by the killer. The witness admits he’s on the run from the law and is willing to offer the loot from his bank robbery in exchange for his life. At the hiding place all of a sudden the “murder victim” shows up, alive and kicking. It was all a setup. Insurance investigators “Honest” Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) faked the deadly shooting to scare the bank robber into showing them where the stolen money was hidden. 
Interestingly our first impression of Honest Joe is that he’s a violent thug. In the end he will be just that and the “murder” foreshadows Joe’s descent into crime. 

Unfortunately soon the movie takes a nosedive. On his way back to LA Joe meets Diane (Joan Dixon) at the airport. Passing herself of as his Mrs. Diane cons the airline attendant into selling her a plane ticket for half price. And then seats herself right next to Joe on the plane, acting as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Joe is angry and calls her a chiseler who takes him for a soft touch. But Diane knows a sucker when she sees one. She knows his anger is just a front and she has him hooked already.

Joe is drawn to the dame like a homing pigeon the minute he claps eyes on her, but she makes it abundantly clear that she’s an expensive plaything. She has ambitions way above his pay grade. That thing between them would never work out because mink and ermine don’t come cheap and you can’t buy those goodies on a measly $350 a month insurance investigator salary. Apart from that she’s the personal property of mobster Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore) who slithers around with reptilian grace and who can and gladly does supply her with the finer things in life.
Happiness can't buy you money shrugs the dame and Joe takes this to heart. To offer gold-digger Diane the lifestyle she is accustomed to, he comes up with a plan to rob the mail train for a million dollar cash shipment. His partner in crime: Diane’s cast-off sugar daddy Webb. Bit awkward but not a bad idea really. Then all of a sudden the movie goes sideways. Diane changes her mind. She doesn’t want money anymore, she just wants Joe. How touching. So the two get married.
Diane wants him to call off the mail robbery but it’s too late for Joe. The mob won’t cancel the job. After the deed Joe and his partner Harry are assigned to investigate the crime. Very soon Harry puts two and two together and sees that Joe was the inside man on the robbery. Joe’s not the only one who’s good at his job. The noose quickly tightens around his neck.

McGraw plays it differently here and maybe that’s what doesn’t sit well with me. McGraw could play both sides of the law, tough cop or tough gangster. Either way, it was deeply unwise to mess with him. But the emphasis was always on tough. What he couldn’t really play was suckers pining for a no-good dame. It’s out of character. He of the granite jaw and gravelly voice starts out as the guy we all know and love, a gruff and uncompromising insurance investigator who doesn’t stop at much to get his man. Then almost out of the blue he abandons his principles.

Mobster Webb says to him: 
“It took reform school and several jails to built my character, but you’ve been square all your life. Now suddenly you decide to steal.”
Perceptive. Joe going bad after so many years of rectitude just doesn't add up. His descent into crime is too abrupt and so is Diane’s change of heart. This being a B movie with a runtime of 73 minutes this picture - like so many of its kind - had to have an uncomplicated shorthand, it had to kick its story straight into high gear. B movies rarely had the luxury to dwell on their protagonists’s inner lives and struggles. But Joe’s epiphany comes too sudden. This is the first serious hiccup in the film.

Of course in Noir the hero goes bad for a dame. In many of the genre's films it is suggested that beneath a character’s virtuous façade obsessiveness, irrationality and violence were lying in wait the whole time. In Noir crime is not an aberration but a temptation lurking in every heart. Anyone, in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything. Suddenly formerly upright Noir characters cross the line and see what they’re really capable of. Once the floodgates open, there’s no turning back.

But for this setup to work there must be an antihero who suffers the torment of the damned while deciding to go bad for a dame. We don’t get that here. The transition from incorruptible investigator to criminal is too abrupt.
Another aspect of Joe’s character is unfortunately not explored. How much pushing did it really take? Joe seems to take to crime like a duck to water. He may have been calculating the odds his entire life, we never find out.

Joan Dixon - one of Howard Hughes’s protégés whose career never amounted to much -  is very alluring and beautiful as Diane though without a doubt an actress of limited range. But she handles her role of icy temptress very well. 
Diane is thoroughly efficient. She’s not so much gold-digging as strip-mining and very good at separating men from their hard-earned money. She knows the effect she has on men.
Diane: “One day you'll want something really expensive which you won't be able to afford on a detective's salary.”
Joe: "Like what?"
Diane: "Like me"
Here we run into hiccup No. 2, the character of Diane. Eddie Muller called her “an intriguing spin on the standard issue femme fatale” in his Noir Alley introduction. For once I can’t agree with him. Diane and Phyllis D aren’t exactly sisters under the mink and that’s the problem. Her transformation from gold-digger to loving wife who renounces her gold-digging ways again comes too fast and is not quite believable. Right when Joe decides to risk it all in a harebrained get-rich-quick theme and win the love of Diane, she blows her femme fatale credentials to bits and pieces and decides she loves Joe for his beautiful, upstanding and unblemished soul despite his sadly anemic bank account. This twist feels false as it doesn't operate as a natural part of the overall narrative. The movie wants to have us believe that Joe breaks bad and Diane breaks good, all out of gooey love. It’s regrettably treacly. It stretches credibility to the max. Their change is never really explained. Character development is sorely lacking.

DVD Savant Glenn Erickson is right when he says Diane’s character is almost unplayable. There seem to be several Dianes. Diane No.1 makes it clear she’s an expensive plaything and belittles, lures and rebuffs Joe because she considers him a square; Diane No.2 does a 180 after getting sloshed and crying into her martini at a bar for five minutes because it’s Christmas (!), renouncing a life of luxury to turn into a happy newlywed overnight. Did she get a lobotomy?

From then on too much time is spent on the happiness of the young couple and as such the pacing was off. This is a crime movie, I wanted to shout at the screen. It’s supposed to be mean and nasty. Some people liked the twist on the femme fatale trope, I like my Noirs dark.

In a way Noir’s irony comes into play. Joe really didn’t need to commit the crime to win Diane. However one interesting question remains. How creditable is Diane’s change? Webb is a bit more clear-sighted than Joe and warns him. Once the bloom of first love wears off, she’ll go right back to her old ways. “Once a girl gets the feeling of mink around her shoulders, she doesn’t forget it.” And my guess is deep down Joe is well aware of the fact. After all there’s the letter from another cast-off rich lover in Texas that she’s kept and who she occasionally mentions to Joe.

In the end the movie is not entirely successful. Still, it has its moments. The last scene with a high-speed chase through the dry LA riverbeds - one of the first to be filmed there - is very good. We’re almost waiting for the giant ants to pop up. They don’t, they hadn’t hatched yet. 

This is where the roadblock comes in, the dead-end marker indicating the end of the line. A none too subtle metaphor for Joe’s failed life that has reached the point of no return. 

The last scene is pure Noir and almost redeems the movie. The cops kill Joe in a shootout. After crying a few crocodile tears over his dead body, Diane simply and almost dismissively walks away from the scene where her husband has just been gunned down without looking back, presumably right back to that guy in Texas who still wants to marry her. I guess I’m just a cynic.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Split Second (1953)

The Petrified Forest meets Atomic Noir.

This Atomic Age movie is one the 50s best thrillers you've probably never heard of. A few years ago I saw it the first time and I’ve been singing its praises ever since. Split Second was the directorial debut of Dick Powell and it’s a very solid first outing. Unfortunately he followed this movie up with the camp fest The Conqueror which would later cost him and about 90 other crew members their lives through cancer. Clocking in at 85 minutes Split Second is a fast-paced little gem. It doesn’t boast any A list stars, but it doesn’t need to. The ensemble cast plays very well together. Keith Andes, an actor who didn’t leave a big impression on me in other productions, is in top form here. In fact everybody is in top form, the performances are good across the board. Especially Stephen McNally, an always solid actor who occasionally turned in inspired performances. The whole movie is incredibly watchable despite occasional shortcomings.

Split Second belongs to the Cold War era of Film Noir where a newly awakened fear of the nuclear bomb was seeping into the national conscience. The genre shifted away from cynicism, anti heroes and deadly dames to display Cold War anxieties. The bomb was a dark threat looming menacingly in the background, a threat that shaped American culture in the postwar years. A possible apocalypse was hanging over everybody’s lives.

For a short while after WWII nuclear power was promoted as the epitome of technical progress. There existed the overly optimistic belief that it would only be used in positive and peaceful ways, such as for scientific progress in medicine. Oh ye of misguided faith. The "atomic dream" fell quickly short of what was promised because the technology entailed a range of obvious snags, among them the slight dangers of a nuclear meltdown.

Until 1949 the US had been in sole possession of the atomic bomb. When the Soviets exploded one of their own the same year, the arms race between the two superpowers was on. Once the Soviets had their A-bomb, President Truman announced an accelerated program to build a hydrogen bomb. The first one was tested in 1952. Not to be outdone a few months later, in 1953, the Soviets successfully tested their first H-bomb. Dangers were becoming very clear very fast.

One of Newsweek’s bright lads saw the writing on the wall quite plainly when he wrote what many people were already fearing: 
“All the reports and all the statistics added up to one grim conclusion: In an atomic attack, the front would be everywhere. Every home, every factory, every school might be the target. Nobody would be secure in the H-bomb age”.
Limited warfare had become a thing of the past. Nuclear power had the capability to obliterate everything with the push of a button.
The 50s are so often called a time of paranoia, but it is not fair. Paranoia is an irrational fear based on no concrete evidence that the fears are true, but the threat of nuclear destruction was not only ever-present, complete annihilation was a very real possibility.

The age of atomic power also saw the rise of civil defense, the training of civilians to be prepared in the event of an attack. The public was urged to build fallout shelters and children practiced “duck and cover” exercises regularly in school. These exercises now seem quite laughable but it should not be forgotten - based on scientific data available at the time - that the blast from an atomic bomb was considered the worst part. The radiation threat, the after-effect, was downplayed because it wasn’t fully understood yet. We know now that this is not true and that there are no antidotes against radioactive poisoning. 

It would take a few more years for people to note that the government policy of civil defense and preparedness was useless and ridiculous. The Twilight Zone episode The Shelter (1961) offered criticism of the fallout shelter obsession, and then along came Dr. Strangelove. But that is a whole nother story as they say. By the time the latter production rolled around most people were well aware that there wouldn't be another day to follow if the bomb went off. 

From 1951-1962 the Nevada desert became the stomping ground for nuclear Government boffins who ran above-ground tests of atomic weapons which by the way is simply taken as a given in the movie without any moral judgment. In the uninhabited desert area everybody could do their dirty work unmolested.

Atomic blast as entertainment
The Atomic Age was marked by the strange duality of fear and fascination, by the belief in the good of nuclear science and the real dangers it included.
On the one hand people were living on the razor’s edge, afraid that everything could be over any second. On the other hand the Atomic Age proved to be a fertile inspiration for art, culture, design and entertainment. 
The atomic craze eventually expanded to include tourism. The Nevada test site was roughly 65 miles from Las Vegas which was already an attractive tourist destination. “Dawn parties” were held at casinos where visitors would stay up to see the above-ground tests in the morning. 

It’s interesting to note that a radio announcer addresses his listeners at some time in the movie: 
“We’ll try to give you ample warning so that you can get to your roofs and watch the flash from the explosion.”
Weapons of mass destruction as exiting entertainment. In hindsight we can snicker but this would be revisionist and unfair. As already mentioned, the effects of a radioactive fallout and the resulting contamination were simply not wholly understood at the time.

It would take the sci-fi genre to fully exploit the fears and ramifications of nuclear bombs. Political commentary was often left to sci-fi/horror movies that would feature mightily pissed off mutant creatures created by nuclear testing, for example Them!, Attack of the Crab Monsters and It Came from Beneath the Sea. These little movies served in their own humble way as a warning voice not to mess about with nature.

Two of the first cautionary sci-fi movies were The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World, which had contrasting views of first contact. While the former had a peaceful and benign race of aliens urging humans to control their use of nuclear power, the latter's angry title creature killed scientists in the Arctic. The film ended with the now-immortal words "Watch the skies!”, suggesting an interplanetary Cold War.

The dark world of noir had always been an ideal atmosphere to showcase fears and obsessions. As opposed to 50s sci-fi, early 50s atomic Noir dealt with the dangers of nuclear power and radiation on a personal scale. It was the 60s end-of-the-world scenarios that took the sledgehammer approach with their message-pushing that nuclear power could only lead to complete destruction. In Split Second the A-bomb is only used as a background threat for a handful of people, not as a device to wipe out all of mankind.

Split Second is a thriller that doesn’t need any giant mutant creatures and no commies either to frighten, only a bomb about to go off at 0600 in the morning.
Larry Fleming (Keith Andes), a reporter assigned to cover the latest atom bomb test blast in the Nevada desert, is yanked off the case when a bigger one comes along. He takes it philosophically: “Well, if you’ve seen one atom bomb, you’ve seen them all.” Murderer Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) and his partner Bart Moore (Paul Kelly) - with a bullet in his gut courtesy of a prison guard -  have busted out of prison and are on the loose. Their mute partner Dummy (!) (Frank De Kova) is waiting for them with a getaway car. Dummy has one passion in life, atomic superhero comics.

The fugitives decide to take the road less traveled, to a ghost town situated in the middle of a testing site where they want to hole up. As insurance, Hurley picks up a varied lot of hostages on the way. Apart from Larry there is tough-talking but soft-hearted Dottie Vail (Jan Sterling), a showgirl out of a job and out of money; Kay Garven (Alexis Smith), rich, spoiled, unfaithful and good-for-nothing doctor's wife on a cozy little weekend trip with a guy who’s not her husband, Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige). Then there is old prospector Asa (Arthur Hunnicutt) who’s been hiding out in the ghost town since WWI and simply stumbles onto the scene. Comic relief was an inescapable and often annoying fact of 40s and 50s movies but Asa thankfully stays just this side of outright irritating. 

Hurley thinks they’re safe in the ghost town as the area has already been cleared of people for the bomb test. This is when things get rather sticky. He didn’t know about the pesky bomb, but Hurley is convinced that he and Bart can make their getaway before the explosion at dawn though their hostages know they’re likely to be left behind in the blast zone. It’s the age-old suspense situation: will they or won't they get out in time? One of Noir’s favorite fetish items - the ticking clock - plays a big role, reminding us that time is precious and slipping away.

Bart needs medical attention, pronto. Asa doesn’t see the need for a doctor for Bart. Where he comes from - the past - they used to dig out bullets with broken beer bottles, no anesthesia required. 
Hurley though insists on calling Kay’s estranged doctor husband Neal (Richard Egan). Either he comes to the rescue of Bart or else his wife will require a lot of medical attention too. Everybody’s nerves are a little shaky and they’re getting shakier by the minute.

The premise of the (desert) hostage drama is nothing new but it always works. Parallels to The Petrified Forest and Key Largo are of course purely incidental. We know the setup but there’s no reason why Powell couldn’t put his own spin on a well-worn storyline.

Of course the forced confinement and hours of waiting give the characters ample time to talk, argue, navel gaze and ponder their fates. Confined spaces always create a microcosmos, containing the action to a single stage and a restricted environment. Here it is an old saloon where the feeling of claustrophobia is strong and the closed-in space offers no escape from danger. Fear strips away all pretensions and people start to show their real selves. They either grow above themselves or break under the pressure.

Split Second has one or two little - OK, OK big - potholes and implausibilities that don’t bear close inspection, the most glaring one being the ending. How does Hurley think to get away in the end with all the roadblocks? How does Dr. Garven get through them in the first place? Security seems to be a bit lax. Oh, and who the hell leaves hunky Richard Egan for Robert Paige?
I’ll let all that slide. That’s what selective vision is for. Works like magic every time too, trust me.

Just as Ace in the Hole, Split Second is another Noir beyond the City. The city in general provides a psychological and aesthetic framework for Noir but Noir is not inseparable from this environment. Dangerous ground can lie beneath your feet anywhere. Here we get a hot and dusty desert ghost town. The desert is a place defined by absence. The absence of water, vegetation, nourishment, infrastructure and life. It represents desolation, barrenness and death. Civilization doesn’t count for much in this setting. The illusory protection of society is stripped away and people are left to their own devices, left to fight for themselves. In a place like this it is the law of the strongest that counts.

Western ghost towns were former boomtowns that marked failed communities. When business - AKA the lure of quick money - dried up, the towns died. After WWII a different kind of ghost towns - now called dummy villages - were built for one special purpose only. As atomic test sites.
What we have here is a nice clash between the old and the new. The ghost town - aptly named Lost Hope City - doesn’t only symbolize a failed community but also foreshadows a city destroyed by an atom blast.
A terrifying new future has suddenly become present. It is as if our protagonists have walked right into one of Dummy’s atomic superhero comic books.

Keith Andes is good as Fleming. With an easy charm and a clear head, he knows they can only bide their time.

McNally turns in a great performance as sexy, dangerous and wound a bit too tight Sam Hurley, a ticking time bomb himself. Blasting away a gas station attendant, he makes a bad impression from the first and doesn’t improves on acquaintance. Murder and mayhem, it’s what he does the best. Interestingly he is a war veteran but one with a cold contempt for heroes and probably everyone else. He may have lost his humanity but not his wit and sarcasm. Larry asks him: “How many men have you killed?”, which Hurley smugly answers with: “Legally or illegally?”. Apparently he’s racked up quite a body count. Against the weapons of mass destructions sanctioned by the government though Sam Hurley seems just a measly small-timer. 

Unfortunately the aspect the psychologically damaged war veteran is not further explored and we never find out how Hurley became the man he is. He has a knack for getting under everybody’s skin. He riles up Arthur because he knows exactly Arthur doesn’t stand a chance against him. He knows that Kay is easy prey and takes full advantage of it and when her husband comes to her help Hurley tells him with a smirk: “She decided not to depend on you entirely.”
Only with Bart a real bond of friendship connects him. He has at least one meaningful relationship in his life.

From the first Kay is fascinated by the killer and makes it abundantly clear, even in front of her new boyfriend. “I’ve never met anyone like him”, she coos. Arthur is somehow lacking in the excitement department compared to the bad boy. Kay is a girl who covers all the bases, with commendable thoroughness. She’s running hot and cold like a cheap faucet with every guy who she thinks can offer her the most. Kay wants Arthur to play the hero and challenge Hurley. A surefire way to get yourself killed. Arthur doesn’t even live to regret his poor decision of taking up with Kay. He gets a blast from Hurley’s .38 for his troubles. Arthur loses his life for a dame who’s worth exactly nothing. 

Then Kay throws herself at Hurley with literally all she’s got, partly out of sexual attraction, partly out of fear of dying. She’s only too happy to go to the kitchen with Hurley, to make some coffee of course. With typical 50s subtlety when it comes to sexual content - a subtlety that is more like a sledgehammer to the jaw - the producers let us know what happened. We don’t know how long they’re in the kitchen, we don’t see what’s happening but when Kay emerges she looks a bit worse for wear. Hair out of place and make-up smudged.
In the end Hurley doesn’t want to take her along. He is no fool and knows a rotten thing when he sees it: “You’re a real bad dame…nobody could depend on you for ten minutes.” Smart guy. We almost cheer for him then. She’s such a piece of work not even a psychopath wants her. It’s the night of bad choices for Kay.
After that snub she tries it on with her husband again who’s come to her rescue, not because he’s still in love with her but because he’s that kind of guy. But she’ll trample on anyone to get out alive.
So often relegated to glamour roles, Alexis Smith brings a lot to the table. She is able to display panic and hysteria mixed with a strong attraction to Hurley very convincingly.

Dottie is the product of the slums of Pittsburgh, with a father who pickled himself in cheap hooch every night and a not so happy hooker for a mother. In the beginning she can’t come up with the money to pay for her food at the diner. But she doesn’t tell the diner owner that before a guy walks into the diner who will be sure to pay the 50 cents she owes. If we think she’s going to be the bad girl now, we’d be mistaken. She’s a down-on-her-luck good time girl, no-nonsense but kindhearted and gets some of the best dialogue in the film. Sterling plays street-wise but vulnerable very well. Under her tough exterior she hides a certain sadness.
She’s learned how to handle herself. Of course Hurley tries it on with Dottie too but she’s not so easy. 
"Now look, mister. You can use that tone on the Pasadena divorce case in there. I've cut my teeth on tougher guys than you.”
But she’s also not stupid enough to antagonize Hurley completely. She knows how that would end.

The World of Tomorrow
The ending is to me as as good as Kiss Me Deadly. The film ends literally with a bang. The bomb goes off, preceded by a screaming siren…one hour before the scheduled time because the jokers at the military incident room thought it was a good idea. In a last-ditch effort to save herself Kay jumps into the car with Sam and Bart. They’re trying to drive out of the danger zone while leaving the others behind. Regrettably they drive off in the wrong direction towards the bomb. Their car gets vaporized. 

And now we get another chunk of implausibility. Asa knows an old mine shaft just outside the town where the others find shelter to hide out. Talk about deus ex machina. Why didn’t he say this before? Never mind. When the survivors emerge after the blast, Neal Garven says grimly in a chilling assessment of the situation: "Well, let's take a look at the world of tomorrow." All they see is a charred wasteland with the smoking ruins of the town and a mushroom cloud rising in the background. It hits home.

The ending is supposed to be a happy one for our troupe though clearly knowing what we do now it wouldn’t be. Radiation is going to get them 10 years down the road. You can run but you can’t hide.

Still, even without full knowledge, this must have been a very eerie scene for contemporary viewers and one which must have struck a chord. The doom loomed large on the horizon.

Split Second doesn’t need mutant creatures to be a horror movie. Reality does just fine.