REVIEW: ‘The Split’
Parker is a guy you wouldn’t ever want to meet, but if you’re a fan of crime fiction, he’s certainly someone you should know. Donald Westlake, under the nom de plume Richard Stark, created Parker, a tough-as-nails, brutal, and singularly driven career criminal, who debuted in the 1962 novel, The Hunter. Before his death in 2008, Stark featured Parker as the protagonist in twenty-three subsequent novels. I use the term “protagonist” quite intentionally, as there’s very little of the hero in Parker. He’s a violent, cold and cruel crook. Parker is a self-made man who’s completely self-absorbed in the pursuit of his own agenda, regardless of the consequences to others or himself. Nonetheless, you somehow you find yourself admiring Parker’s resourcefulness, determination, and his code (as much as he has one) that he just wants what’s coming to him – nothing more and nothing less.
There’s very little to like about Parker, but in Parker, Richard Stark created a compelling, durable character that has earned a legion of fans and inspired other creators to adapt or pay homage to Parker in their own works, including Jean Luc Goddard, who adapted the Parker novel, The Jugger, into the 1966 film, Made In The U.S.A. and Mel Gibson, who starred in Payback, a 1999 adaptation of The Hunter. However, the most famous translation of a Parker novel into film was the 1967 John Boorman classic, Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin as “Walker.” Point Blank was notable for Boorman’s lean, experimental storytelling and Marvin’s career-best performance.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the film Point Blank, in it’s location, mood and style, was also an inspiration for me when I was deciding on a name for Pastor’s hometown. I’m a fairly recent convert to the work of Donald Westlake, so I eagerly sought out most of the works I referenced above. However, there was one additional adaptation that I knew I had to find. In 1968, MGM released The Split, an adaptation of Richard Stark’s novel, The Seventh. The film starred a remarkable cast of past and future Oscar winners and nominees, including Diahann Carroll, Julie Harris, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland, James Whitmore, and Gene Hackman. However, heading up this all-star ensemble in the ”Parker” role was a relatively new actor named Jim Brown.
The Split is about a felon named McClain, played by Jim Brown, who returns to his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles to make one more big score. Jim Brown still busts heads and kicks down doors like he did in his later films like Slaughter and Black Gunn, but the tough guy persona he adopts in The Split is somewhat more understated than what we would see from him in those films. Brown’s approach toward McClain, the Parker character he portrays in the film, is appropriate for the time (which I will discuss shortly) and the character. As a thief, it behooves McClain to be as unobtrusive as possible, and as much as a muscular, 6′4″ inch Black man can, Brown does a surprisingly good job of fading into his surroundings to not draw attention to himself or his activities.
When we first see McClain, his car’s just broken down in the desert. Over the strains of a Quincy Jones score, we see McClain bumming rides and finally arrives by bus outside a cut-rate hotel owned by an old friend/accomplice named Gladys (Julie Harris). Together, the two brainstorm ideas about McClain’s next score and ultimately decide to hit the box office of the upcoming playoff game between the New York Jets and the Los Angeles Rams. With no advance ticket sales, and cash only at the gate, they expect to haul away nearly half a million dollars. McClain buys a ticket to an earlier game and scopes out the security. After McClain realizes that the plan is doable, it is agreed that Gladys will fund the operation, handle logistics and help assemble the crew. There is a strong implication that the two might have been lovers in the past, especially when Glady’s demeanor abruptly changes after McClain inquires about the whereabouts of his ex-wife, Ellie, played by Diahann Carroll. I think that the chemistry Brown had with his two female co-stars was better than in any of his other films. What I enjoyed about his early scenes with Harris was the easy familiarity and tenderness between Harris and Brown, as they drive around, eat Chinese food together and make their plans. Given the time in which this film was shot, it was especially brave of Harris. Diahann Carroll was every bit the female version of Poitier. Her diction and bearing exuded confidence and class, but you could easily see how her character could be attracted to a hulking, brooding mysterious guy like McClain.
After McClain and Ellie reunite, we are treated to scenes of McClain testing out the crew he needs for the job. I don’t know if this modus operandi fits the literary Parker, but it’s fun to see Brown use his strength, cunning, skill, and intelligence to put the prospective criminals through their paces, particularly in a honey trap that he sets for James Whitmore’s Herb, an expert in security systems, which involves alcohol, a curvy prostitute, and a bank vault with a motion-sensitive electronic eye. The other recruits are Ernest Borgnine as the muscle, Jack Klugman as the driver, and Donald Sutherland as a sniper, doing that cerebral, creepy thing that he excelled at in his youth. Most of what follows in the film is the set-up for the heist, and its execution, which does not go off flawlessly, but it is successful. The plan actually has some nice twists and surprises, especially with how McClain deploys Sutherland’s gun-for-hire to clear the way/clog the path for their getaway.
Unfortunately, the wheels come off after McClain stores the loot at Ellie’s apartment until the gang can meet later to split the proceeds. While McClain is away, Ellie has a shocking run-in with her landlord that pits McClain’s crew of criminals against him to recover the stolen loot. Eventually, McClain has to find unlikely assistance from the very law enforcement community that is searching for him, in the form of Lt. Det. Walter Brill, played by Gene Hackman. McClain’s first meeting with Brill in the detective’s own bedroom is a clever bit of directing. With a nervous, sweating Hackman backed into his closet, yelling out at the mysterious figure of Jim Brown, who is completely swathed in impenetrable shadows, I was reminded of the opening of The Professional, when Jean Reno’s Leon emerges from the darkness to slip a knife at the throat of the drug dealer. McClain is able to leverage his suspicions about Brill to enlist him as an ally during the a climactic shootout with his former partners in crime. In the end, in typical Parker fashion, McClain manages to get what’s coming to him -nothing more and nothing less.
The Split is rather hard to find on DVD. The copy that I managed to find was released by Blax Films, and is about as barebones as you can get. There are no extras -it doesn’t even feature a scene selection option- and the picture quality isn’t that great. Nonetheless, if you have the opportunity to snag a copy, I would recommend that you do so. It is a solid crime caper with a nice revenge story thrown into the mix. It is also interesting from an art historical point of view. In some ways, The Split is a proto-Blaxploitation flick that stands somewhere between the stoically proud Sidney Poitier vehicles of the 1960s like In The Heat Of The Night and the brash and boldly defiant Black cinema of the early 1970s.