The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Split

A stylish, dark heist flick from the 1960s with one of the all-time great tough guy casts. It's a winning formula for sure, especially for a sucker like me for heist movies. It took me years to track down 1968's The Split -- which I first reviewed in August 2009 -- and I was less than impressed with the film on my first viewing. When it popped up on Turner Classic Movie's schedule recently, I was going to give it another try. I mean....come on.....look at this cast!

A master thief who's gone off the grid seemingly for several years, a man named McClain (Jim Brown) is reunited with a former partner and an expert planner, Gladys (Julie Harris), when it comes to pulling off impossible jobs. They team up again, Gladys putting forth the plan; rob the L.A. Coliseum during an NFL playoff game that will net $500,000. McClain assembles a team of crooks who haven't worked together in the past, but he convinces them to put their differences aside with the thought of a very lucrative payday. The five-man team goes about planning the job with very little time to do so. The dangerous job is one thing though, but the fallout from the job may be even more dangerous, especially when an investigating detective, Lt. Brill (Gene Hackman), catches wind of them and is right behind them.

For years, this 1968 heist film from director Gordon Flemyng wasn't available in any form; DVD, VHS, nothing. Now, it's available on a burn-for-order DVD so if you've never seen it and are dying to catch up, there it is for you. First or second viewing though, I had the same issues. 'Split' has a lot of potential, much of it tied to the casting, but it never quite goes anywhere. It's got the style from its frame-in-frame credits sequence to its Quincy Jones soundtrack, the on-location shooting at the L.A. Coliseum to the dark nature of the team of crooks working together. All these disparate elements never manage to jell, ending up with a heist film that takes a really bizarre turn in the last third of the movie. A very disappointing end result because it did have so much potential.

How about that casting though? In assembling his team for the robbery, Brown's McClain brings together Bert Clinger (Ernest Borgnine), a gym owner and strong man, Harry Kifka (Jack Klugman), a down on his luck limo driver who will serve as the team's getaway driver, Marty Gough (Warren Oates), a temperamental safe cracker, and Dave Negli (Donald Sutherland), a smooth as ice hit man and hired killer. And NFL great turned action star Jim Brown for good measure?!? How can you lose??? Well, as dark and dirty as things get, something is missing from the group. The movie runs only 91 minutes and after McClain's recruiting, things move right along to the actual heist. The group is full of so many bad guys I never found myself rooting for them to pull the job off successfully. Still, it is an impressive grouping of star power, misutilized though they may be.

I think that's the problem for 'Split' in general. With so much going on, the right tone is never picked out. It bounces back and forth and among all these different things. Brown's McClain meets up with his jilted ex-wife, Ellie (Diahann Carroll), still holding a grudge, but darn it, she still likes him a lot as we see in a montage set to a Jones song as they walk along a beach. The actual recruiting of the team just feels a tad bit off, like certain things aren't fitting together well, but it's entertaining enough. The robbery at the Coliseum lacks a certain energy with no real catch of anything unique helping them pull the job off. But the biggest problem? That would be the final half hour.

One of the keys to a good heist film is oddly enough, not the heist. It's the fallout after the job when the cops close in, the team has to wait for things to cool down to get their money, and seemingly inevitably....turn on each other. That's fine and dandy, just about any good heist movie follows that formula. Ready for the derail? It comes in a really odd one-scene cameo from James Whitmore as Ellie's creepy landlord. Then, Gene Hackman doesn't even make his first appearance until 70 minutes into a 90-minute movie. From there on in, the story and twists and turns feel rushed. It's a pretty dark ending, but even that feels mishandled. The movie just sort of ends, leaving all sorts of questions unanswered. A truly disappointing movie, one that handled differently could have been a near-classic among the heist genre. Oh, and the above poster is bad, giving the impression the team is just a bunch of friends out to pull a job.

The Split (1968): **/****
Rewrite of August 2009 review

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