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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‘The Great Escape’ still impresses – the TCM Film Festival in review

(Reveal Shot‘s review of the TCM Film Festival continues with more from Day 2.)

After seeing “Ben-Hur” Friday morning at Grauman’s Chinese, I holed up in the newsroom that had been set up at the Roosevelt Hotel for the next few hours, doing an interview and writing my first blog post from the festival.

Just before 5 p.m., I realized I had better cross the street and get over to Grauman’s for “The Great Escape,” which was starting at 5:30. By the time I made my way through the line, the only seat I could find was about six rows from the screen.

At least that vantage point afforded a good view of producer Walter Mirisch, who was interviewed on the stage by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Mirisch, 91, was sharp and funny, recalling how he and director John Sturges initially discussed having Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster take the lead roles in “Escape,” having worked with them in “Gunfight At The O.K. Corral” (1957).

Asked what scuttled that idea, Mirisch was frank: “We thought about how much it was going to cost us to use Kirk and Burt.”

Mirisch then proposed using popular television actors Steve McQueen and James Garner. “Now, you do realize,” Mankiewicz exclaimed, “when you say that, that it makes you a genius?”

The audience was enthusiastic throughout the film, reminding me how much it relies on humor to sustain interest in the cat-and-mouse game between the POWs and their German captors for nearly three hours.

One of the biggest laughs came when Charles Bronson, as Danny “The Tunnel King” is taking a shower to camouflage one of the tunnels. When a German guard asks him what he’s doing, Bronson merely points to the shower head with his thumb and says, “Shower. I need a VASH.” Then the guard looks at Sedgwick (James Coburn), and makes the same inquiry. “I’m watching him,” he replies, bringing more guffaws from the Grauman’s crowd.



Sturges and screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, who adapted Paul Brickhill’s book, do a masterful job of keeping the tension high.

I hadn’t seen “Escape” about 20 years, so I had forgotten that early in the film the Gestapo, have targeted Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), the leader of escape operations, threatening to shoot him on sight if he is caught trying to escape once again. It was a moment that made me wish I was seeing the movie for the first time, without the knowledge of what happens to Bartlett and 49 others who are captured in the final reel.

Garner, as the American “scrounger” Hendley, takes the acting honors amid a stellar cast, in my view, partly because the character is so suited to the Garner persona so familiar from “Maverick.” Hendley is vital to the escape effort from the beginning, finding tools, materials and other things the men will need. He has memorable scenes with both Blythe “the Forger” (Donald Pleasance) and the beleaguered German guard Werner (Robert Graf) that hit just the right note.

Attenborough is also very good, along with Gordon Jackson as MacDonald, the chief of intelligence.

Of course, McQueen stands out, doing a lot with a character that stands outside of the central plan until the movie is half over. His Hilts establishes a rapport with the nearly stir-crazy Ives “the Mole” (Angus Lennie) that pays off in Ives’ death scene. The demise of his best friend in the camp finally persuades Hilts to go along with Bartlett’s scheme.

I’m glad I saw “The Great Escape” on the big screen, despite my seat. As much as I always liked it, it really comes alive with an audience.

— David B. Wilkerson

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Hard choices, great times — getting ready for the TCM Film Festival (Part II)

TCM13-logoReveal Shot will have full coverage of the 2013 TCM Film Festival. On Sunday I looked at the first two days of the event; here is a preview of the next two days.

For a definitive look at the entire festival schedule, see writer Will McKinley’s “Obsessive-Compulsive Guide To The TCM Film Festival.”

Saturday, April 27

At 9 a.m., the original “Cape Fear” (1962), with Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Polly Bergen, is playing at the fabled Egyptian Theatre opposite (at the Grauman’s Chinese Multiplex) the seafaring tale “Captains Courageous” (1937) and the biggest event of the morning, I assume, for most attendees who are up that early — animation historians Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck hosting a collection of shorts commemorating Bugs Bunny‘s 75th anniversary.

I’m finally reading Michael Barrier’s “Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation In Its Golden Age” right now, so there may be particular reason for me to see the Bugs Bunny program. But I have most of the Looney Tunes collections on DVD, with Jerry Beck’s commentary (and Barrier’s) on many of the cartoons. And I have been to cartoon festivals that probably included a number of the ones that will be included here.

Again, I have to look at which film makes the most sense to see on the big screen, especially if I haven’t seen it theatrically. By that standard, I have to go with “Cape Fear.” Polly Bergen was originally scheduled to participate in a discussion after the screening, but had to cancel. Barrie Chase, best known as Fred Astaire’s dance partner in the late ’50s and early ’60s, will be there (and at Sunday’s showing of “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World“).

“Captains Courageous” might have been a good option in another time slot; I loved the book, and liked the movie when I saw it in about 1986. I have it on DVD but haven’t watched it yet. “The Ladykillers” (1955), a comedy starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers as criminals who meet their match in an elderly woman they try to get rid of, is also being shown that morning.

The next big draw comes at the 11:45 a.m. screening of “Deliverance” (1972), with Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and director Jon Boorman in attendance for a pre-film discussion. If I put on my reporter’s fedora with a press card in it, this is the obvious way to go. Maybe Reynolds will have a flashback and think he’s on “The Tonight Show” in 1973, and say something really outrageous about Ned Beatty.

Meanwhile, however, one of Sidney Poitier‘s three 41967 hits, “To Sir With Love,” plays at the Chinese Multiplex 6.

Lulu, who is in the film and sings the title song, will be part of a discussion. Naturally it would have been ideal to see Poitier,5 but if I see anything around noon, it’ll be this one.

“The Lady Vanishes” (1938) also appears during this time period, and might have been my choice under other circumstances. Norman Lloyd will be present.

What worries me about seeing “To Sir With Love” is that by the time it ends, it will be nearly 2:00, when “Giant” will be shown in a world-premiere restoration at Grauman’s Chinese. Though I have a press pass, I don’t believe it guarantees me a seat for a movie that will be very well attended. Then again, a lot of people are going to be trying to rush from “Deliverance” at that point to see George Stevens’ epic, starring James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.

I’ve been toying with a list of the top 25 Warner Bros. films between 1930 and 1970, and I think I want to include “Giant.” For that reason alone I should see it at the festival.

TCM, though, sets up the biggest conflict of the festival Saturday afternoon. It’s also featuring a world-premiere restoration of the great World War I silent “The Big Parade” (1925), which I’ve only seen parts of and really looked forward to seeing here. I get the need (I guess) to generate excitement with these sorts of moves, but one of these movies could have easily been slotted for presentation that evening. I think primarily it does a disservice to “The Big Parade,” given that silent film buffs, even at a festival like this, are a minority, and the fascination with Dean alone is an assurance of a big crowd for “Giant.”

Jane Withers will be part of a discussion after the 3 hours and 21 minutes of “Giant”; at that point it will be a good time to grab an early dinner, and possibly meet up with some friends.

At 9:15 there’s a choice between “Le Mans,” the 1971 Steve McQueen auto-racing thriller, and Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce” (1945). Ann Blyth, who played Mildred’s evil daughter, will be there. I’ll have to go with the “Man Points” call here. I’ve seen bits and pieces of “Le Mans” on TV, but it’s obviously something that should only be experienced in a theater. I’ve seen “Mildred Pierce” several times, and don’t need to revisit it this weekend.

I would like to see the horror classic “Island of Lost Souls” (1933), which Charles Laughton, at midnight. I’ve rarely been to midnight screenings, and somehow I didn’t get around to the Criterion Home Video release of “Souls,” so this is a must.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Sunday, April 28

By this point I’ll have a sense for screenings I’ll have to attend early. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963), probably my favorite movie, and the main reason I first wanted to attend the festival this year, screens at the Cinerama Dome at 12:15, in 70mm. I’ll be there as early as I must to make sure I get a prime seat, even if that means skipping the restoration of “Badlands” (1973) at Grauman’s Chinese at 9;30. Maybe I’ll see “Cinerama Holiday” at the Dome that morning. But I’m not going to be far from that building after 9:45 or so.

I notice that the TCM schedule matter-of-factly lists “Mad Mad World” at 192 minutes. Many of you will know the convoluted story of this movie and its various running times.

Producer-director Stanley Kramer premiered the film at 210 minutes, and then had to keep cutting until it had shrunk to the 154-minute version that became familiar over the decades to TV viewers. A 3-hour, 12-minute print in 70mm would be a very big deal indeed, one that I would think TCM would have touted from the moment a 50th-anniversary screening was announced. So I’m afraid to let myself we’re in for that kind of miracle, and will assume this is the familiar 154-minute version. I would love to be surprised, however, and will enjoy it in any case.

Surviving players Mickey Rooney, Carl Reiner, Barrie Chase and Marvin Kaplan will participate in a pre-film discussion. Jonathan Winters was scheduled, but just died earlier this month. It’ll be fascinating to see them, and I’m glad they’ve agreed to come, but these actors were present at a screening last year, which makes me wonder how much they really feel like seeing it again (or if they will come up with new anecdotes or observations). It’s odd, maybe, but I always hope the elderly stars who attend these events have a good time, given that they’ve probably answered the same questions countless times, or, as is clear from some DVD commentaries, have long forgotten about things that seem so germane to latter-day interviewers and fans.

It might be a tight squeeze to get to the Chinese for the 4:15 screening of the Richard Zanuck documentary “Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking.” It’s being shown opposite “Three Days of The Condor” (1975), which I unfortunately just watched, on DVD, during a lazy Saturday afternoon in December.

I think I’ll probably close out the festival with “Dial M For Murder” (1954) in 3-D at 6:45. Norman Lloyd will be there for the pre-film discussion. It’s seen at the same time as “The African Queen” (1951), which I would probably would have wanted to attend some other time.

There’s a closing night party at Club TCM at 9, and I want to go to that, and maybe catch up with people I’ve met during the festival.

— David B. Wilkerson

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