Movies We Like
Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (Rocky, Raging Bull, etc.), The Split is a lost relic. Besides being the first film to ever receive an “R” rating by the ratings board, it’s a nifty heist film with a great cast full of fascinating credentials. Because it stars football star turned actor Jim Brown (and has Diahann Carroll as his ex-wife and a funky-lite Quincy Jones score), it’s often lumped in as an early blaxploitation flick. It’s not. Directed by a Scotsman, Gordon Flemyng, (who did a lot of '60s Dr. Who) and written by the great crime writer Donald Westlake (credited in the script under his equally known alias Richard Stark), this is the guy who wrote the books that became Point Blank (and later Payback), as well as The Hot Rock and The Outfit, and later wrote the script for The Grifters. So The Split could have easily been a vehicle for Lee Marvin, Rock Hudson, James Coburn or any other leading man of the era. It just so happens that Brown took the role. It’s a gritty little crime flick. It barely even qualifies as crooksploitation. Yes, it’s an imperfect film (chunkily directed), but it's still entertaining with some nice ’68 Los Angeles locations and some wild twists.
Fresh out of the slammer McClain (Brown) is recruited by Gladys (Julie Harris) to pull a big heist at the Los Angeles Coliseum (shades of the race track robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing). McClain gathers an all-star cool cast to take part in the caper: tough guy Ernest Borgnine, escape artist/racist Warren Oates (a little less oily than he was a year earlier in In The Heat of the Night), limo driver Jack Klugman and creepy hit-man Donald Sutherland (still two tears before MASH made him a star). In a very complicated robbery and clever escape, the gang gets away with over a half-million bucks. But it’s after the heist when the real drama starts. It’s what happens to the loot before “the split” that cause the usual problems of greed and suspicion. First, the ex-wife has a sadistic, rapey landlord (James Whitmore) who kills her and steals the money, and then a crooked cop, Walter Brill (the great Gene Hackman pre-testing for Popeye Doyle) gets involved. The film becomes a stand-off for the money between McClain, Gladys, the gang and Brill.
Brown became an actor after a superstar football career, appearing in ho-hum Richard Boone Western Rio Conchos in ’64. But then, a few years later, Brown had supporting roles in a classic and a couple of near-classics, The Dirty Dozen (which also featured Borgnine and Sutherland), Dark of the Sun and Ice Station Zebra. The Split was the first time he was called to carry a film on his own hulky shoulders (albeit with a great supporting cast). The next year he would re-team with Hackman in Riot and then have a controversial interracial love scene with it-girl Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles, but otherwise the peak of his leading man years was relegated to grade-Z actioners and blaxploitation, highlighted by the insane flick Three The Hard Way. Brown may not have had the acting chops of say, a Denzel Washington, but he has a certain charisma, a cool charm and a perfect action star build. Though an exciting new generation of actors emerged in the '70s (besides Hackman, you had that "actor’s actors" posse that was led by Hoffman, Nicholson, De Niro and Pacino), unfortunately there weren’t leading black roles in that new Hollywood. (Especially for a guy who was also as politically outspoken as Brown was). Black actors in the '70s were mostly finding work in low-budget exploitation or the independents; rarely were they breaking into the big money world as leading men. (It took till the next decade for a guy like Richard Pryor to start playing the lead in films intended for audiences of all races). Even box-office superstar Sidney Poitier, after his peak year in ’67, was no longer appearing in high-brow studio packages. It would have been nice if Brown had had the same kind of barrel chested, ex-jock success that Burt Reynolds enjoyed in the '70s, had the right kind of material been developed for him. By the '80s Brown started popping up in guest spots on TV (CHIPs, T.J. Hooker) with occasional bits in mainstream big budget flicks (The Running Man, Mars Attacks!, Any Given Sunday). That long list of talented black actors of Brown’s era who had some success but were denied a chance at being a Hackman or a Jane Fonda is long and fascinating, ranging from James Earl Jones to Pam Grier to Billy Dee Williams to Cicely Tyson to Fred Williamson to Louis Gossett, Jr. (it wasn’t till the next decade that he would win an Oscar)--and we could go on and on.
And as a final thought--besides the cast, besides the historical footnotes, besides me being a sucker for heist films--The Split has one other thing going for it: it’s begging to be remade. While films of equal value like The Italian Job, The Thomas Crown Affair and Gone in 60 Seconds have been mined for their resources, there are still a ton of other heist flicks from the surrounding era that could be improved on and sold as fresh. The Split would be one, along with some other little gems from around the globe like Un Flic (France), The Sicilian Clan (France/Italy) or The Silent Partner (Canada). The heist film has always been looking for a new angle; robbing The Los Angeles Coliseum certainly seems fresh. (A few years later it would be attacked on film by a sniper in Two-Minute Warning, while around the same time a blimp with a bomb would penetrate the Orange Bowl in Florida in the flick Black Sunday.) It’s interesting that the NFL would let The Split use game footage and would associate itself with a gritty film like this. (A Rams and Falcons game is in the background of the crime.) We would assume now that they would be much more choosy about how their brand is showcased. But that's more of the beauty of The Split. Anything goes. It was the beginning of the “New Hollywood Era” and it’s a perfect time-capsule.