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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25 Great Warner Bros. films on DVD/Blu-ray, 1926-1967

Cover of "The Adventures of Robin Hood [B...

Here are my picks for 25 must-own Warner Bros. films on DVD and Blu-ray, in chronological order. Films were eligible from 1923 to 1969, when Jack L. Warner stepped down from the studio to become an independent producer. Let the debate begin.

I’ve denoted cases in which I’ve reviewed the films mentioned here in earlier entries. Sometimes a film is listed without further comment; this is not meant to diminish them in any way. I will probably deal with them in more detail in future posts, or update this one.

All films are available separately or in boxed sets  from Warner Bros. Home Video or its Warner Archive unit unless otherwise noted.

1. “Don Juan” (1926)
Available at Warner Archive
John Barrymore stars as the titular lothario in this silent film, the first to have a synchronized music score and sound effects on disc, using Warner’s Vitaphone system. Possibly an ideal entry point for someone new to silent drama, with memorable characterizations by Barrymore, Estelle Taylor as Lucrezia Borgia, and a very young Mary Astor as Adriana della Varnese, the woman who finally captures Don Juan’s heart. Great sword fight at the end.

2. “Little Caesar” (1930)

3. “The Public Enemy” (1931)
See Part I and Part II of Reveal Shot‘s Warner Bros. Gangster series for analysis of these two films. They are available separately or as part of the Ultimate Gangster Collection: Classics on Blu-ray, along with “White Heat” (see below).

4. “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” (1932)
See Part III of the WB Gangster series.

5. “The Mystery Of The Wax Museum” (1933)
The 3-D remake of this film, ‘House Of Wax” (1953) would certainly be a big draw at the TCM festival after the popular screenings of 3-D classics “Hondo” and “Dial M For Murder” this year, but I prefer the original. Lionel Atwill stars as the wax museum sculptor disfigured in a fire who goes insane and begins to tomb living women in wax. Glenda Farrell is the archetypal wisecracking female reporter who uncovers the horrific facts.

6. “G-Men” (1935)
Warner Bros. does an effective reversal of its gangland dramas, showing one of the roughest of them from the side of law enforcement. Cagney plays a hood who goes straight, first as a lawyer, and then, when a friend is murdered, as an FBI agent. Features strong supporting work from Barton MacLane as the main bad guy, and Ann Dvorak as Cagney’s one-time girlfriend who can’t escape the criminal milieu. One of the most brutal movies of this period.

7. “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” (1936)
In Errol Flynn Signature Collection, Vol. 2. Also available separately.
I’m mysteriously drawn to tales of British colonial rule of India and other areas in that part of the world. No serious attempt was made to explain the rationale for the infamous charge at Balaclava; it’s set up here as the by-product of sibling rivalry, unrequited love and revenge. Max Steiner’s score plays an unusually big part in the film’s success, and the titular charge is very well done by director Michael Curtiz, despite the deaths of several horses and a stunt man.

8. “The Adventures Of Robin Hood” (1938)
2-Disc Special Edition
The definitive swashbuckler, just ahead of some of Twentieth Century-Fox’s Tyrone Power classics. Flynn vs. Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne can hardly be topped as a screen duel. An eye-opener to anyone you encounter who is skeptical about the glories of three-strip Technicolor  (though I guess that would have to be someone who hasn’t seen “The Wizard Of Oz” in a while).

9. “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938)
See Part IV of the Warner Gangster series.

10. “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” (1938)
A stellar adaptation of a clever play, featuring Edward G. Robinson as a doctor who is fascinated by crime, and decides to join a group of thieves on a series of jewel robberies to test his theories. When there is mutual attraction between he and the female member of the gang (Claire Trevor), her erstwhile boyfriend (Humphrey Bogart) starts trouble. See this review at Pretty Clever Films.

11. “The Roaring Twenties” (1939)
See Part V of the Warner Gangster posts.

12. “The Sea Hawk” (1940)
The best of Flynn’s pirate movies. Here he’s Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe, leader of “The Sea Hawks,” a group of English pirates who seize Spanish ships during a time when Queen Elizabeth is ostensibly trying to avoid war with Spain. Thorpe ends up having to fight the Spaniards and a traitor on the Queen’s court. If Rathbone had played the traitor, rather than Henry Daniell, the film would have been even better. As it is, only Fox’s “The Black Swan” ranks as a better pirate saga.

13. “The Letter” (1940)
You can’t have a list of great Warner classics without including Bette Davis. In “The Letter,” set on a British rubber plantation, Davis plays Leslie Crosbie, a married woman who shoots her lover to death. She claims self-defense, but that testimony is jeopardized by an incriminating letter she wrote to the dead man that same day, inviting him to her home. When that letter falls into the hands of the victim’s wife, Leslie must somehow get it back. The melodrama sometimes seems to be veering out of control, but director William Wyler manages to rein it in, abetted by James Stephenson as Leslie’s suspicious lawyer and Herbert Marshall as the cuckolded husband. Davis is fascinating, as usual.

14. “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)
See my entry on this hard-boiled detective story.

15. “Casablanca” (1942)
I can’t imagine the trouble I’d be in if I left out this one.  Rather than try to summarize its importance here, I defer to this essay from Bright Lights Film Journal.

16. “Mildred Pierce” (1945)
Ann Blyth, who appears here as the title character’s evil daughter Veda, was interviewed by Robert Osborne during the TCM Film Festival this year. Raquel Stecher at the Out Of The Past blog covered the event here.

17. “Key Largo” (1948)
18. “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre” (1948)
19. “White Heat” (1949)
20. “Strangers On A Train” (1951)

21. “Giant” (1956)
I wrote up my review of this one after a screening at the TCM Film Festival, and spoke to Warner Home Video’s George Feltenstein about the film’s restoration.

22. “Rio Bravo” (1959)

23. “The Great Race” (1965)
One of my suggestions for next year’s TCM Film Fest.

24. “Up The Down Staircase” (1967)

Along with “The Blackboard Jungle,” one of the best movies about teaching. This adaptation of Bel Kaufman’s 1965 best-seller about the experiences of young Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis), whose first teaching assignment out of grad school lands her at a tough New York City high school. There are lots of intriguing story threads: A fellow English teacher (Patrick Bedford) is brilliant but unable to connect emotionally with a shy girl who has a crush on him; Sylvia gets anonymous notes from an admirer in the class suggestion box; a black kid wants to drop out because he feels overwhelmed by racist attitudes; a gang member interprets Sylvia’s kindness to be some kind of sexual proposition. The location photography by the unheralded Joseph Coffey is very good, truly creating the sense of time and place that makes older films so fascinating for audiences decades later. Fred Karlin’s music score is contemporary and yet, in pointing to Sylvia’s idealism, takes on a baroque sensibility at times.

25. “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)

— David B. Wilkerson


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The stuff noir was made of: revisiting ‘The Maltese Falcon’

As the first classic period of the gangster film wound down, Warner Bros. and other studios sought more variations on that dynamic genre. There had been prison films, and movies that told gangster stories from the side of law enforcement. When Hollywood found ways to bring the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain to the screen, the industry had found its solution.

Here once again was the urban man of action, blasting his foes, romancing dames and wise cracking with the cops, in a package that had unique appeal. There may not be a straight line from the gangster film to film noir, but surely the detective film and its variations represented one of the main links between the two genres.

Humphrey Bogart played a vital role in this connection, beginning with his portrayal of Sam Spade in the most famous adaptation of Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). The film’s mordant attitudes helped establish the touchstones of films noir.

Most readers of this blog will be more than familiar with this one, but for those who are not: A treacherous woman involves two San Francisco private eyes in a deadly quest for a highly valuable falcon statuette, which is also sought by a corpulent sophisticate, his murderous henchman, and another oddball. When one of the detectives is killed, his partner tries to figure out which of the fortune hunters is responsible.

After revisiting “Falcon” last week for the first time in a few years, several things occurred to me.

I had forgotten, somehow, how little regard Spade has for his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). Of course he’s having an affair with the man’s wife (Gladys George), but I didn’t remember that he shows nothing like grief at the news of his murder. He doesn’t want to get a close view of the body when the police find it; when Det. Polhaus (Ward Bond) says Archer “must have had his good points,” Spade’s answer is, “I guess so.” He moves very quickly to take Archer’s name off the windows and door of the office they shared. Director John Huston doesn’t overemphasize any of this, but it is clear enough to bring some perspective to what happens at the end.

From the time Spade and Archer happily accept Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s money, Bogart lets us see why this guy likes being a private detective. It’s clear from his laughter the second time Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) gets the drop on him; when he begins a sexual relationship with Brigid; when he plays games with Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). These people may be greedy and homicidal, but they’re fascinating. They’re strange. And their worldview isn’t that far removed from his own. Read More