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).

Selling Tough Guys – The Pressbook for “Dark of the Sun”

Mercenaries rampaging through strife-ridden Africa, chainsaw the weapon of choice, marketing to The Dirty Dozen crowd a formality, but how do you interest the rest of the paying public?

“Bright ideas to boost your box office” as computed by the MGM marketeers in the Pressbook fell into four categories: fashion, jungle, diamonds, and military. Oddly enough, the pick of the bunch was fashion. And not what the chic mercenary was wearing. Instead, the focus was on Yvette Mimieux who “took time off” filming to “model sensational creations by Dorothy McNab of Jamaica Fashions.” This picture is set in the Congo and Jamaica is about 3,000 miles away across an entire ocean so where did Jamaica come into it? Well, it was shot in Jamaica and that appeared excuse enough, and it was hoped that cinemas would link up with department stores showing the seven outfits modelled ranging from casual to elegant evening wear.

Creative license was used here for Mimieux never fought side by side with Taylor and Brown on the top of the train.

The jungle seemed a safer bet so managers were encouraged to kit out doormen and usherettes in jungle outfits while tropical plants and foliage and possibly tropical birds could turn the lobby into a jungle paradise. Local military Army reserve or National Guard units could be persuaded to lend military equipment to add to the display and, as a longer shot, recruitment agencies might choose to get involved. Since the main thrust of the picture involves diamonds the marketeers suggested linking up with large jewelry store chains to give away cheap industrial diamonds prior to launch or as a competition.

Since Toyota land cruisers play a significant part in the movie, MGM had set up a promotional tie-in with 1500 dealers coast to coast with the potential for one of the vehicles mounted on a ramp in front of the theater drawing attention both to the picture showing inside and the car itself. In addition, discounted tickets to members of four-wheel drive clubs might bring in customers. More standard material included an original soundtrack album and a paperback book.

Much of a Pressbook’s job was to provide snippets of information that could be fed to local journalists. Former boxer Rod Taylor did some of his own stunts, 6-foot 3-inch 240lb former gridiron star Jim Brown needed his own bed flown in to location, the temperature was so high the actual film had to be cooled down in giant vats of ice, and certain sequences used live bullets. The giant steam locomotive was a “55” built in 1902 and brought out of retirement.

And there was no shortage of usable quotes. “I don’t believe in love at first sight,” commented Mimieux; “I was warned off directing by some of the finest directors in the business,” said director Jack Cardiff.

Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) ****

Rod Taylor made a brisk transition to two-fisted action hero from his previous forte of drama (Hotel, 1967) and comedy foil to Doris Day (The Glass Bottom Boat, 1966) in this violent adventure set in the Congo in the early 1960s. As Captain Curry, assisted by sidekick Sgt Ruffo (Jim Brown) and 40-man local outfit Striker Blue Force, he leads an ostensibly humanitarian mission to rescue settlers cut off by the Simba rebels as a cover for collecting $50 million in diamonds. The loot is essential to save the toppling regime of President Ubi (Calvin Lockhart).  The only feasible transport is train. There is a three-day deadline.

Problems immediately ensue, not least a clash with Capt. Heinlein (Peter Carsten), former Nazi leader of Blue Force, who is even more ruthless than Curry, mowing down two native children who stray too close to the train, and apt to take a chainsaw into a fistfight. The train is attacked by a United Nations plane and on reaching its destination Curry is forced to wait three hours until the time-controlled giant diamond vault can be opened, giving the rebels time to catch up. Then it’s an ongoing battle of one kind or another.

Although the worst of the violence is carried out by the rebels – rape, torture and massacre – a core element of the drama is how a lifetime of killing has affected Curry. Ruffo, a man of principle who grew up in a primitive tribe, acts as his conscience – and that of the audience – spelling out how violence is more than a money-making scheme and essential to upholding order in terrorist times. Curry has some redemptive features, saving widow Claire (Yvette Mimieux) from the rebels and then from Heinlein, sending alcoholic Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More) to help a woman give birth, and eventually acknowledging his strong bond with Ruffo. Although Curry would like to think he is the opposite of Heinlein, they are carved from the same stock and when the savage beast is loose blood lust takes over.  

Mimieux is more or less there as bait, tempting Heinlein and any rebels in the vicinity, but coming into her own in convincing Wreid, paralytic by this stage, to carry out a section on the pregnant woman, and as a reminder of civilization for Curry.

The action scenes are terrific, especially the plane strafing the train, and there is a particularly good ruse, instigated by Ruffo, to outwit the enemy. Hollywood never managed to portray the terror of the native Vietnamese on being overrun by Viet Cong, and this film could easily be that substitute, especially when some of the rescued white settlers realize they will not escape.

This is not one of those films like Born Free (1966) or Out of Africa (1985) which are scenic odes to the continent, in part because the picture was shot in Jamaica, but in the main because director Jack Cardiff (The Long Ships, 1964) chooses to focus on the mechanics of the mission. And in so doing, he writes a love letter to a train. There had been a mini-vogue for war movies set on trains – Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and The Train (1965) come to mind – but none reveal an adoration for the power and perhaps the beauty of the locomotive. Every move it makes (to steal an idea from pop group The Police) is noted on screen and on the soundtrack, the hissing, the belching smoke, the wheels, cabooses, engine, the coupling and uncoupling of links, the screech of brakes, and various tracking and crane shots as the train snakes its way through enemy terrain.

Rod Taylor is excellent in the kind of role he is made for. Jim Brown in a major step up the billing after The Dirty Dozen (1967) is surprisingly good in a part that calls as much for reflection as action. Peter Carsten is the all-time Nazi scum. Yvette Mimieux, who had partnered Taylor in The Time Machine (1960), is also in transition mode, her role a meatier dramatic departure from the likes of the innocuous Monkeys, Go Home! (1967). In what was essentially his last major role – even though it doesn’t amount to much in screen time – Kenneth More wavers considerably from his stiff-upper-lip default.

The score by Jacques Loussier is particularly good, as Quentin Tarantino attested when he incorporated elements of it for Inglorious Bastards, which was a boon for the composer since up till then he was best remembered for the music accompanying the advert for Hamlet cigars. You might get a laugh out of the screenplay credits. Quentin Werty (i.e. Qwerty, the first six letters on a typewriter) the pseudonym of Ranald McDougall, Oscar-nominated for Mildred Pierce (1945), co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Wilbur Smith, with television writer Adrian Spies.

An outstanding example of the all-out action mission picture, its occasional outdated attitudes do not get in the way of the picture and half a century later from what we now know of how wars are fought the levels of violence will appear realistic rather than exploitative.   

Catch-Up: This completes a Rod Taylor mini-season – previously features in the Blog are The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) and Hotel (1967).

Catch it on Amazon Prime.