Tuesday, April 10, 2012

THE SPLIT

I'm a big fan of the hardboiled crime novels of Richard Stark (a pen name used by the late mystery writer Donald E. Westlake). Most of these books star a cold, professional thief named Parker and chronicle the various heists he pulls off with assorted accomplices. A number of the Parker novels have been made into films, even though the name of the character has always been changed. The Mel Gibson flick, PAYBACK, is one such adaptation, as is the John Boorman classic, POINT BLANK, with Lee Marvin.

In 1968, MGM produced a film adaptation of the Richard Stark novel, The Seventh, and cast former football star Jim Brown in the lead role. This time, they called the character "McClain," and they called the movie THE SPLIT.

McClain (Brown, TAKE A HARD RIDE, THE SLAMS) is out of prison and looking for a big score. His old friend Gladys (Julie Harris, THE HAUNTING) points him toward a local football stadium box office, and after casing the place, McClain is convinced he can pull it off - if he can put together the right crew. So he sets out to recruit a strongman (Ernest Borgnine, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), a driver (Jack Klugman, QUINCY M.E.), a lockman (Warren Oates, RACE WITH THE DEVIL), and a professional gunman (Donald Sutherland, DON'T LOOK NOW). With his crew in place, the half-million dollar heist goes off without a hitch... but now comes the dangerous part: splitting up the loot. It becomes even harder when a couple of unexpected new players enter the game...

I've wanted to see THE SPLIT for years, and now, thanks to Warner Archive, I finally have. As it turns out, it's a pretty damned solid adaptation of the source material, with a fantastic, A-list cast (which also includes Gene Hackman, Diahann Carroll and James Whitmore), a funky score by Quincy Jones and songs by Billy Preston, and straight-forward, professional direction by Gordon Flemyng (DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS).  Jim Brown's "McClain" isn't quite as cold and hard as the novels' "Parker," but he's definitely cool and professional. Everyone else in the cast is right on the money, too - especially Sutherland's "iceman" killer and Whitmore as a creepy, twisted landlord. 

Never before released on home video in any format, and virtually unseen on television for decades, THE SPLIT was recently released as a Manufactured-On-Demand DVD from Warner Archive. In short, the disc is gorgeous. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, newly-remastered transfer is almost blemish-free, with only the occasional, brief speck to mar the otherwise pristine image. Colors are bright and bold (which suits the late-Sixties fashions), and detail is extraordinary for a standard-definition transfer. Audio is an acceptable, if somewhat flat, 2.0 Dolby Digital Mono. The theatrical trailer (in 1.33:1) is also included.

THE SPLIT is not the best Richard Stark film adaptation (that's probably POINT BLANK), but it's a good one, with an incredible cast at the height of their talents and a lean, smart script. The pacing is a bit leisurely by today's standards, but it never drags. I'd go so far as to call it an underrated crime film gem, and would recommend it to any and all fans of the genre. Check it out.

BUY: The Split