The Split (1968) ***

You could not have a more explosive start. In the wake of the seismic slap Sidney Poitier delivered to an arrogant white man in In the Heat of the Night (1967) heist mastermind McClain (Jim Brown) bursts out of the traps by: picking a down-and-dirty knuckle-duster of a fight with hardman Bert (Ernest Borgnine); ramming a limo driven by Harry (Jack Klugman); locking technical wizard Marty (Warren Oates) in an electronic cell; and bracing marksman Dave (Donald Sutherland). It turns out these are all auditions for a $500,000 robbery from the Los Angeles Coliseum during a football match. Nonetheless, the point is made. Despite explanation for the ferocity it scarcely masks the fact that here was a hero unwilling to take any crap from anybody.

The Split follows the classic three acts of such a major crime: recruitment, theft, fall-out. Gladys (Julie Harris) sets up the daring snatch, entrusting a down-on-his-luck McClain –   attempting reconciliation with divorced wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll) – with pulling together a gang with particular sets of skills. The clever heist goes smoothly, the cache smuggled out in a gurney into a stolen ambulance, itself hidden in a truck, and spirited away to Ellie’s apartment until the ruckus dies down.

But someone else has a different plan. The stolen money is stolen again. McClain, responsible for its safekeeping, is blamed for its loss, while he suspects all the others. Adding to the complications is a corrupt cop (Gene Hackman). So it’s cat-and-mouse from here on in, McClain dodging bullets as he attempts to clear up the mess, find the loot and evade the cops.  

British release in a double bill with “Woman without a Face
originally released in the U.S. as “Mister Buddwing.”

The title refers to the way the way the money is intended to be shared out but it could as easily point to a film of two halves – recruitment/robbery and fall-out. The first section has several stand-out moments – a split-screen credit sequence, Marty’s desperate strip inside the cell to prevent the electronic door closing, an asthma attack mid-robbery, the beat-the-clock element of the heist, Dave’s targeting of tires to create the massive gridlock that facilitates escape. Thereafter, the tension grows more taut, as the thieves fall out with murderous intent.

One of the joys of the picture is watching a bunch of actors on the cusp. Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) was in the throes of achieving a stardom that would soon follow for Hackman (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Sutherland (also The Dirty Dozen) and Oates (Return of the Seven, 1966). Brown is tough and cynical in the Bogart mold, a loner with lashings of violence in his locker. Of the supporting cast, Sutherland’s funny maniac, complete with mordant wit, is the pick and he has the movie’s best line (“The last man I killed for $5,000. For $85,000 I’d kill you seventeen times.”) Hackman reveals an intensity that would be better showcased in The French Connection (1971) and Borgnine, Oscar-winner for Marty (1955) reverts to his tough guy persona. Having said that, you only get glimpses of what they are capable of.

Making the biggest step-up is Scottish director Gordon Flemyng whose last two pictures were Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth A.D. 2150 (1966). He helms the picture with polish and confidence, allowing the young bucks their screen moments while wasting little time in getting to the action and pulling off a mean car chase.

Crime writer Richard Stark’s (pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) was careful to sell the rights to his books one-by-one so that no single studio could acquire his iconic thief Parker. That accounted for him being renamed Walker in Point Blank (1967), Edgar in Pillaged (1967) and McClain in The Split, which was based on Stark’s The Seventh (that fraction being the character’s share of the loot).

Downhill Racer (1969) ***

Idealising heroes is endemic. Most films which portray sport stars with feet of clay generally start off with an attractive personality who presses the self-destruct button through alcohol, sex or drugs (or all three) such as Number One (1969) with Charlton Heston. The general consensus is that this approach to the sports movie was not rescinded until the brutal boxer exposed in Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980). But it turns out Scorsese was not the first.

Downhill Racer is a character study of a loner who cares for no-one but himself. Alienated from his father, his girlfriend at home treated as little more than a sex object, a constant source of friction for his national team manager (a pre-chuckle Gene Hackman) and not above the kind of dirty tricks as typified in Slap Shot (1977) he sees nothing wrong with making no bones about the fact that he is in the game for fame. He has no illusions, he’s a farm boy and few steps up from being illiterate.

That Paramount had little faith in the project was shown by the Pressbook. It was a mere eight pages long when 16-plus pages were devoted to other pictures. There was no mention of the startling success of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” released a few months before. Its limited appeal was shown by the fact there were only two adverts, both very artistic, whereas most movies had at least half a dozen different variations to help cinemas market the movie to their specific audiences. And there was but a single tag-line “how far must a man go to get from where he’s at.” Studio marketeers had managed to drum up just two promotions, both fashion-led, a six-page section in “Glamour” magazine and five pages in “Ski” magazine. A better bet was the accompanying two-page advertising supplement showing the movie had scored excellent reviews from “Time”, “Life”, “Newsweek” and the “New York Times.”

His only attractive feature is that he is played by Robert Redford, and the film plays upon the conceit that as handsome a man as this will at some point turn into a good guy.  There’s an interesting debate – and one that would last decades – about whether Redford’s looks got in the way of the characters he portrayed. Imagine Robert Duvall in the part, for instance, and relentless determination would not be called into question. This leaves the film with only pity as a way to give the character any sympathy, which duly occurs when his hopes of genuine romance with a top-notch blonde (Camilla Sparv) are dashed. 

Michael Ritchie, making his directing debut, opts for a documentary-style approach, so minimalist it’s almost perfunctory. This is a decent option given there’s very little going on beyond lonely hotel rooms, and an endless round of competitions and an occasional outburst from Hackman. Less welcome is his decision to fall back on television commentators to fill us in on exactly where we are geographically and specifically regarding individual competitions.

The film’s biggest drawback is that the skiing scenes, sensational at the time, offer little on the small screen. But at least they were competently done. Ritchie drew on a number of experts in that department: German racer Heini Schuler, Swiss team members Peter Rohr and Arnold Alpigger and ski instructors Marco Valli and Rudi Gertsch. Former U.S. Olympic team member Rip McManus turns up as an on-camera commentator. Although it gained good reviews, audiences failed to respond although Redford was on a career high after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). But it was a brave choice for the actor.

And it was the start of his producing career. The film had been a stop-start project at Paramount and when the studio continued to dither Redford set up Wildwood with Richard Gregson, husband of Natalie Wood with whom Redford had appeared in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966).