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The Parker Films: The Split (1968)

September 2nd, 2020
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I’m continuing my look at the films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker character.  Click here for my review of 1967’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, an adaptation of the Parker novel The Hunted.  One year later, Jim Brown starred in The Split, adapted from the seventh Parker novel, called The Seventh.

At its core, the skeleton of The Split isn’t so different from Point Blank.  The Parker character (here called, somewhat inexplicably, McClain) plans and executes a clever score, only to get betrayed and forced to work hard to 1) survive 2) get revenge and 3) get back his cut of the money.  But despite those superficial similarities, I was pleased that The Split is actually quite different from Point Blank in tone and structure.  For example, in place of Point Blank’s flashback chronology, The Split unfolds in a very straightforward manner.  And the betrayal and its fallout don’t go down until the final 25-ish minutes of the film, thus representing a third-act twist rather than the inciting incident of the film.

Like Point Blank, The Split is a tight, taut thriller.  It’s lean and mean.  As I commented in my review of Point Blank, they don’t really make movies like this anymore: mean movies about mean people who are criminal professionals.  Unlike Point Blank, though, which is a revenge story right from the beginning, The Split unfolds more like a cool adventure.  There’s more of a sense of fun to the film.  We go on quite a ride as we follow McClaine & co. on their robbery of a football game, and it’s all enhanced by Quincy Jone’s hip music and Jim Brown’s calm, cool charm.

I love Jim Brown in the title role!  Mr. Brown was a football player who then became an actor.  The film is carefully structured in a way that doesn’t force him to stretch too much.  Casting him in the terse, mostly silent Parker role was a good choice.  But that’s not to take away from his strong performance!  Mr. Brown has a powerful natural charisma that shines through.  I thought he was an effective leading man, and I had no trouble rooting for him as the film unfolded.

They wisely surrounded Mr. Brown with a terrific ensemble.  I love the time the film spends developing the crew that Mclain pulls the heist with.  They’re each interesting, memorable characters.  Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple) plays the driver, Kifka.  ErnestBorgnine (From Here to Eternity, The Wild Bunch, McHale’s Navy) plays the tough-guy fighter, Clinger.  Donald Sutherland (The Dirty Dozen, Animal House, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, A Time to Kill, the Hunger Games films) plays the gun expert Negli.  Warren Oates (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, In the Heat of the Night, Stripes) plays safe-cracker Gough.  All four are excellent in the film!!  I really loved all of these guys!

The two main women are both solid as well. Diagann Carroll (Porgy and Bess, Claudine) plays McClaine’s ex-wife Ellie. (Sadly, like Lynne in Point Blank, Ellie is pretty clearly doomed from the start.). She’s beautiful and I loved her chemistry with Jim Brown’s McClain.  Five-time Tony award winner Julie Harris plays Gladys, the fixer who helps McClain assemble his crew.  I loved this character: a smart lady who doesn’t take any guff from anyone.  I liked the way the film established her friendship and professional camaraderie with McClain.

And I haven’t even mentioned Gene Hackman!!  The great Mr. Hackman doesn’t enter the film until the final half-hour, but he’s terrific as the tough cop Lt. Brill who winds upon on McClain’s trail after the stadium heist.  I only wish he was in more of the film!  He’s a great adversary for Jim Brown’s McClain.  Also: James Whitmore (so memorable as Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption) pops up in a small but important role as Ellie’s land-lord.

My favorite aspect of the film is the attention it gives to the heist that forms the central sequence at the center of the story.  I love all the details of McClain & his crew’s preparations beforehand: seeing the afternoon McClain spends casing the stadium, and the crew buying the guns, and their getting the right vehicle, etc.  The extended sequence of the robbery itself — in the middle of a playoff game!! — is tremendous; tense and exciting.  Here again, I love all the small little details (such as Kifka’s getting distracted following the actual game-play on the radio).

Similar to Point Blank, there are a few moments in the film that haven’t aged well.  McClain treats Ellie better than Walker treated Lynne or Chris, but still, McClain doesn’t think twice about using Ellie so he can have a safe space to store the loot from the heist before the gang can assemble the next day for the split, an act with bad consequences for poor Ellie.  Also, there’s a tense sequence in which Gough calls McClain a smart-ass n-word. In a film that otherwise doesn’t make too much of McClain’s race, it’s a jarring moment. (I respect the film for showing the type of casual racism someone like McClain would likely have faced, but no film today would throw in the n-word like that.)

Other thoughts:

* I really like the opening credits and their playful use of split-screens.

* Ellie’s landlord turns into a psycho pretty quickly.  I wish they’d developed his character a little more, before that turn that has such import to the plot.

* It’s very interesting that Gene Hackman has such an important role but that he doesn’t appear until so late in the film!  It makes sense for the story — there’s no reason for this detective character to enter the story until then — but it’s an unusual structure.

* I feel bad for McClain’s crew!  It’s understandable to me that that they would blame McClain for the loss of the loot, and McClain is pretty merciless towards them in the third act.

* Also, what the hell is up with that final moment???  (LIGHT SPOILERS: we suddenly hear off-screen a voice of someone we thought dead.  The film doesn’t tell us how this person could still be alive or what this would mean for McClain, good or bad.  It’s a very weird choice for a film that, to this pint, has been so straightforward and clear in its storytelling.  It’s the only beat in the film that I really didn’t like.)

So far I have quite enjoyed both of these Parker films!  Two slices of cool, dark 1960s noir.  Up Next: 1973’s The Outfit, starring Robert Duvall!

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