' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Split (1968)

Friday, April 19, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Split (1968)

1968’s “The Split” is a heist movie in which the heist comes to feel perfunctory. It might be elaborate, pulling down a half-mil from the LA Coliseum while an LA Rams game is in progress, but it goes off without a hitch, and is conveyed in such a way by director Gordon Flemyng to accentuate that cool-eyed execution as opposed to ratcheting up suspense. No, the heist is more about happens after, when the money goes missing and the participants suspect the ringleader McClain (Jim Brown) is seeking to keep it all for himself, though even these games of cat and mouse, as well as the climactic shootout, don’t really rise to much. Neither do the interpersonal relationships, as the intriguing nature of McClain’s relationship with his older white partner (Julie Harris) goes unexplored, and his desire to start over with his ex-wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll) comes across like screenwriter motivation than anything real. And yet “The Split” still leaves mark, and not just because Donald Sutherland in an early role leaves one. The “Parker” novel on which it was based, “The Seventh,” was by all accounts, dark and tough, and though the overall tone of the movie never mirrors it, there are these incredible jolts, not exactly of grim reality but reflections of it, rendering a movie that is not quite more than the sum of its parts, per se, but rememberable for the parts that stand out, nevertheless.

Though the specific narrative ingredients of “The Split” do not necessarily concern race, released in the racially tumultuous year of 1968, it is notable just how much Flemying still finds ways to effectively inject race into the proceedings. Indeed, “In the Heat of the Night” had made waves a year earlier for Sidney Poitier’s black detective slapping Rod Steiger’s white southern sheriff and in “The Split,” McClain slaps one of his white colleagues, too, though it is at once much less sobering and much more intense even if it is conveyed in a manner approaching slapstick: in other words, anyone can come get it now. It is surpassed by an earlier moment when McClain seeks to test potential members of his crew by secretly turning the screws on them, like he does by showing up at Bert’s (Ernest Borgnine) place of work and punching him without a word, just to see how he will react. Never mind that Ernest Borgnine could never credibly contend in a fight with Jim Brown and just revel at the raw impact of this moment, Jim Brown, costumed not unlike a Black Panther, socking a white dude straight in the face with nary a warning.

And even if “The Split” fails to render Ellie as true character, setting her up just to sacrifice her life, the manner in which her life is sacrificed still manages to make her matter. Confronted by her jittery white, underline, landlord (James Whitmore), who recognizes McClain as being wanted for the LA Coliseum heist, he first demands money to keep quiet, and then he demands something more. Eventually he stumbles upon a hidden cache of automatic weapons, taking a machine gun and pointing it right at Ellie, the scene ending the way you might assume, a metaphor for racial and sexual violence so wrenching, it virtually stops “The Split” right in its tracks.

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