Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Split (1968)

Career criminal McClain (Jim Brown) comes to Los Angeles looking for the opportunity for a big heist. His old acquaintance and money woman Gladys (Julie Harris) soon points him in the right direction. There's a lot of money flowing in a big football game, so if one could somehow skim off all of it, one could make half a million dollars with comparatively little effort.

Of course, this sort of job needs more than one participant, so McClain goes on the lookout for partners. Because he's apparently not a people person, he secretly tests his prospective partners' abilities before he makes them any offers, which doesn't exactly endear him to anyone. Still, once McClain has disclosed his plan and the potential loot to strongman Clinger (Ernest Borgnine), driver Kifka (Jack Klugman), racist electronics expert Gough (Warren Oates), and professional gunman Negli (Donald Sutherland), they're in. Once the heist is done, the money will be deposited with McClain's ex-wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll) to be split up a few days later. Ellie of course still loves McClain so much he has no problem taking advantage of her in this way.

Yet even with the best of plans, a heist of this dimension isn't easy, and even if the team should get away with the money, they'll still have to cope with their mutual dislike, and a lot of trouble caused by Ellie's crazy neighbour (James Whitmore) and a corrupt cop (Gene Hackman).

Sometimes, all you really need to do is to point at a cast, the year a film was made in, and the writer of the book it is based on, to tell a film is worthy of a viewer's time. Of course, it's also a mixture that can promise more than it delivers, but that's not a problem I see with The Split.

The film was directed by Gordon Flemyng, whom I know best as the director of the two Doctor Who movies with Peter Cushing whose mere mention results in classic Who fans foaming at the mouth; which is a peculiar reaction to two perfectly entertaining films, but hey, what do I know. Much of Flemyng's work was for TV, and as is typical for TV directors of that era, there's really not much you can say about him based on his work there. Going by The Split, Flemyng as a director is more slick than stylish and more straightforward than flashy. This sort of direction seems ideal for a fast-paced and lean heist flick like this, particular one based on one of Donald E. Westlake's/Richard Stark's Parker novels. As always, The Split renames the character and makes him less sociopathic.

It is, in any case, very nice to see Parker portrayed by Jim Brown here, without any great gesture of "turning the character black". A ruthless bastard is after all a ruthless bastard quite independent of his skin colour. Brown's performance as Parker/McClain is quite fine, too, giving the deeply amoral character not-Parker is here a certain degree of allure without making him too sympathetic. The rest of the cast does the classic character actor job of turning their mostly rather one-dimensional characters into believable ciphers. Not that I have a problem with the characters being ciphers - this is a movie that thrives on leanness, and everything here standing in the way of its flow is radically pared down.

That technique works well for most of the time. Despite the leanness, most characters do not feel like the mere plot devices they are and rather like organic parts of the film's world. The big exception is Carroll's Ellie, whose only reason for existence is - in what alas isn't exactly a first for a supposed female lead - to look soulful into the camera and die to get the film's final acts running. A few more, or just some more convincing scenes, to build up her and McClain's relationship would have done wonders for an actual emotional effect, I think.

Still, if you ignore this flaw, The Split is an excellent example of the type of heist film that is just as interested in what comes after the heist than the heist itself.

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