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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Split Second

Doom by atomic bomb lent itself to genre beyond science fiction. Split Second (SS) is a good example of atomic angst set into film noir. It might not be classic noir, but this is tough to define anyhow. As with much film noir, there is a strong crime theme, humanity in its less-than-noble, and a cheapness to life. Three criminals take some random strangers hostage and hide out in a nuclear test blast zone. Brutality meets brinksmanship.

Quick Plot Synopsis
An atomic blast is set up in the Nevada desert, to be detonated at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. Meanwhile, two inmates have escaped from the Carson City prison. Aided by a third man, they flee in "Dummy's" (he's mute) beat up '41 Ford. Radio reports describe the car, so the leader, Sam plots to get some new wheels and some hostages. He kills a desert gas station attendant, then hijacks the next customer. This happens to be Kay Garven and her romantic friend Arthur. Sam has Kay drive on, but they run out of gas. Larry, a reporter who had been covering the blast test, drives up. He has Dotty with him, a down-on-her-luck night club dancer bound for Reno. All seven pile into Larry's tired '41 Ford Woody. Sam's friend Bart was shot in the side during their escape. Sam calls Kay's husband, Dr. Neal Garven to come and help Bart...or else. Sam drives them to a ghost town named Lost Hope City. Sam knows about the bomb test. He figured it would be the last place the cops would look. His second escape vehicle was to pick them up at 5:30 and get away as all eyes were on the mushroom cloud. While waiting in the abandoned saloon, back stories are filled out. Tensions flare. Arthur lips off too much, so Sam shoots him dead. Kay is divorcing Neal because being a doctor's wife is no fun. Dotty has had a rough past. Sam likes Dotty, but she only plays along a bit. Kay shamelessly sucks up to Sam as escape from death. An old prospector named Asa joins them, occasionally going on and on with old stories. Neal arrives, to Kay's surprise. Neal operates on Bart. Larry gets Asa's hidden gun but is discovered. Sam beats the tar out of Larry until Neal threatens to stop operating on Bart. Tense truce. Operation done and dawn breaks. The Woody's engine is shot, so only Neal's 3-seater is available for escape. The siren sounds the 5 minute warning and hour early. Larry overpowers Dummy. Sam helps Bart out to Neal's car. Shameless Kay gets in to be the third seat. They drive off. Asa tells the rest (Neal, Larry and Dotty) of an abandoned mine on the edge of town. They run for it. Sam drove the wrong way, right towards the bomb tower. He turns around and races back. The flare is shot for the one minute warning. The four run into the classic mine opening. Sam drives back through the ghost town just as the bomb goes off. The town is flattened. The car rolled over and over. The blast causes a land slide over the mine opening. The town is just a pile of burning lumber scraps with a car in it. Larry digs out the rubble. He watches the mushroom cloud rise. it's now safe to come out. The End.

Armageddon Escaped (and Not)
SS gives us both. The four who made it to the mine, survive the massive destruction. The three criminals and faithless Kay all die in the blast. Many sci-fi films will explore the Few Survivors angle. Some will dabble in the Everybody Dies angle. The thread of hope was strong and more popular in plots. But, the prospect of total doom, such as that shown in On The Beach ('59) was the omnipresent elephant in the room.

Cold War Spotlight
On the surface, SS is an apt enough noir tale, but beneath that, it also functions as an allegory about people, power and atomic destruction used as a tool. Sam is the unscrupulous world power, the dark criminal despot who kills without remorse. He uses the bomb as the threat over the others, who stand in for the other nations. While it's not the perfect fit, it does show how the Cold War issues could be played out in different metaphors than giant dinosaurs or radioactive ants.

It's A Blast -- Early Civil Defense films and literature stressed the blast from an atomic bomb as being the worst part. The whole premise behind Duck and Cover was to survive the initial blast. The radiation threat was downplayed. This was still fairly early in the nuclear fear era. The threat of radiation would grow. Sci-fi films such as Day the World Ended ('55) and many others, would stress longer-term damage from radiation. Yet, when SS was written ('53), it was only the blast that need be feared. This explains why Larry would peek out of the mine, seeing the mushroom cloud ascending, and pronounce that it was safe to go out.

Tear Up the Town -- Of some note, too, is the special effects showing the blast destruction of the town. Some elaborate model work went into the scene.

For Car Nuts -- Kay drives a big black '53 Chrysler Imperial. Those big boats would only get bigger as the decade wore on. There is a brief glimpse of a '52 Nash Ambassador police car. That upside-down bathtub look was unique. Larry's tired old '41 Ford Woody would go on to become the cheap used-car favorite of the surfer set in the late 50s and early 60s. Dr. Neal Garven's car, in which Sam, Bart and Kay try to escape, was of some interest. A 1952 Plymouth Three Passenger Coupe, sometimes dubbed a "Business Coupe" was a fairly rare body type. It was a fairly humble ride, aimed at the utility market of traveling salesmen or others who regularly drove alone. It's an interesting choice for Neal's car, him being the doctor, as opposed to his wife's lavish Imperial.

Bottom line? Split Second is a well done thriller with a good pace, and good character development. From a sci-fi fan's point of view, it is a good example of sci-fi's nuclear themes cast into a dramatic setting. Watch for the abandoned mine as recurring haven.

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