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And You Don’t Mess Around With Jim: A review of “The Split” (1968)

Reviewed: “The Split” (MGM, 1968)
Warner Archive, $16.95 (as of Dec. 26)

On Christmas night, I decided to watch “The Split” (1968), because nothing says Yuletide like Jim Brown leading a heist of the L.A. Coliseum during a Rams game.

Among other things, “The Split” is famous as the first film to receive an “R” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, which at that time meant that no one under 16 could see the film if not accompanied by a parent or guardian. There is some mild swearing — “son of a bitch” is used a couple of times — and the movie is among the first to use squibs to depict the impact of a bullet on a human body. There is also brief nudity.

My guess is that the macho sexuality of Jim Brown, who clearly appeals to white women as well as black in the film, was another thing that earned “The Split” its rating. He beats up several white men, too, and that didn’t go unnoticed.

Jim Brown’s role as McClain in “The Split” is one that might easily have been tailored for Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin or, given some of the more serious portrayals he was essaying during this period, James Garner. Of all the black actors in Hollywood, Brown is the only bankable player who could have been credible in the part. 1 At a time when Sidney Poitier was justly celebrated as the first truly transcendent African-American screen presence, only Brown was allowed to be a badass because he had so capably performed on the football field — and seemed to maintain such a tough guy reputation off it — that people believed him in such roles.

As the film begins, appropriately enough with split-screen images of Brown on his way to a Southern California motel, composer Quincy Jones makes his mark. After some ominous brass chords from the full orchestra, Billy Preston begins the soulful title song, telling us that McClain is trying to escape “miles and miles of mass confusion..gotta get away, gotta get away..”

After a brief meeting with Gladys (Julie Harris), who suggests the Coliseum as a possible target and agrees to finance the operation, McClain reunites with his estranged wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll). Ellie is the archetypal action hero’s lover, complaining about the fact that he’s never around, but happy to make love to him when he does show up.

Now satisfied sexually, McClain begins to test the group of criminals who will be his partners in the heist, in one of the film’s most entertaining sequences. He needs a muscle man, so he attacks Bert Clinger (Ernest Borgnine) at his gym, setting up a vicious fight scene. He has to have a wheel man, so he tries to run a limousine driver, Harry Kifka (Jack Klugman) off the road. He devises similar methods to reassure himself about hitman Dave Negli (Donald Sutherland) and burglary expert Marty Gough (Warren Oates).

With a potential haul of $500,000 — split six ways at $85,000 for each participant — just about everyone is happy to join the plot, except Gough, a Southerner who doesn’t want to work with a “smart-ass nigger.” Negli persuades him, however. “The last man I killed for $5,000; for $85,000 I’d kill you 17 times.”

From there, the team moves ahead with the heist itself. I won’t spoil the rest; the title of the film gives some indication of where the plot is headed. Suffice to say that it is very well done, offering, for me at least, one genuine surprise and a pretty effective wrap-up.

It seems to me that Jim Brown was at his best before the actual Blaxploitation era got underway. In the context of a mainstream film, he seemed to stand out more. Production values were very high on movies like “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Split,” “Ice Station Zebra” and “100 Rifles,” in a way that could not be described of “Three the Hard Way” or “Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off.” It’s a shame he couldn’t have continued in his pre-1970 vein for another 10 years.

Among the other actors in “The Split,” Borgnine, Klugman and Oates do sterling work, with Carroll and Harris just a notch below them. Sutherland seems an odd choice to play a hitman; this role needed another one of the reliable character actors of this era, like Robert Drivas. Admittedly, I’m biased toward people who did a lot of television at the time, as Drivas did.

Looking at the contemporary reaction from critics, Roger Ebert’s review reads like a film that deserved more than 2.5 stars out of 4, but he’s on target about the racial overtones2. The New York Times’ Renata Adler, who also comments on “The Split’s” racial intentions, reveals a big spoiler and raves about Sutherland’s performance. Otherwise, she’s right about the acting in the film3.

– David B. Wilkerson

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  1. Given a chance, Ivan Dixon, then a regular on CBS’ “Hogan’s Heroes,” could have played McClain. He had the authority and physical presence the role demanded, and certainly he was a better actor than Brown. But he couldn’t have carried the film at the box office.  
  2. Roger Ebert, “The Split” review, Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 17, 1968.  
  3. Renata Adler, “The Screen: The Split — Holdup at a Pro Football Game,” New York Times, Nov. 5, 1968.  

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