seen on TV @ TCM
I've written before about growing up during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war hung over our heads, even if it wasn't something we thought about every day. It wasn't like it was in the 50s; we never had to practice "duck and cover" routines in the classroom or anything like that. For my generation, nuclear war was woven into the culture, but in the background for the most part. Something talked about every now and then, but in the abstract. Something that was the grown-ups' problem.
The first American atomic bomb test was on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico, and though its original intent was to win World War 2 for the Allied powers, it evolved into what was supposed to be the ultimate deterrent against the Soviet Union, who developed their own A-bomb four years later.
Split Second came out in 1953, when bomb testing became a regular thing. By this time, we had moved on to hydrogen bombs (the first test was in 1952 in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands), and both the US and the Soviets were indeed in a race to see who could build the biggest and baddest arsenal. The movie takes place in Nevada. The Nevada Test Site was 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and the mushroom clouds resulting from the tests could be seen for a hundred miles.
Split Second was the directing debut of singer turned actor Dick Powell. I didn't know much about him other than he started out as a romantic lead who switched to noir films, which, I suppose, would be the equivalent today of what Matthew McConaughey has done with his career. I saw him recently in a film called Footlight Parade, with Jimmy Cagney, which was a lot of fun. His singing wasn't bad, but he struck me as being little different from a lot of 30s movie crooners. Nothing like Crosby or Sinatra.
Give him props, though, for reinventing his career not once, but twice, first as a dramatic actor, then as a director. Murder My Sweet has been on my to-watch list for a long time, and the fact that it's as revered as it is must mean that he did a good job with drama. According to the TCM Database, he tried out for what became Fred MacMurray's role in Double Indemnity, which would've been his dramatic debut instead!
Split Second is an actor's ensemble with a clever premise: an escaped convict and his wounded partner kidnap a group of strangers and hide out in a deserted town near where a nuclear bomb test is about to commence. One of the strangers has an ex-husband who's a doctor, and the con negotiates with him for his help in treating his comrade before the bomb goes off.
Powell does a good job with the actors. It's a big cast for a debut film, one which bounces back and forth against each other in different ways throughout the film, and he gets good performances out of them. Most of the action takes place in a single location, which helped, I'll bet. After this, Powell would go on to do the Genghis Khan biopic The Conqueror, with John Wayne of all people, so even if it may not have been the best choice for a follow-up, at least he felt confident enough to tackle something much bigger.
My interest in seeing this film was actress Alexis Smith. Jacqueline wrote a terrific piece about her a few years ago - it was probably one of the first posts I ever read on her blog - and it made me aware of the actress for the first time. Smith was never a superstar, at least not in Hollywood, but she had a late career comeback on Broadway which led to a Tony Award. She has a great role in Split Second, one that requires her to be vain, shallow and self-centered, and she does it very well.