Heist movies are like spaghetti dinners in that even the worst one is still pretty good. The Split, a 1968 crime caper, is very good indeed. Jim Brown, seen here at the pinnacle of his career, plays McClain, a petty crook who masterminds a high risk plan to rob the boxoffice and concession proceeds from a Los Angeles Rams football game. (Amusingly, the top price for a ticket during those days was $7.50, which could possibly buy you a hot dog at today's prices.). McClain follows the usual cinematic crime caper route by assembling a group of talented low-lifes as his confederates, each with their own specific talent for pulling off the crime. He also involves his estranged, gorgeous wife (Diahann Carroll), who wants nothing to do with the plan. She berates McClain for having abandoned her, but still can't resist being a push-over for him, especially when he takes off his shirt (a main staple of any Jim Brown film of the era). The cleverly-plotted caper is carried off relatively flawlessly in suspenseful scenes made all the more entertaining through the use of actual football game footage, a technique John Frankenheimer would employ a decade later for Black Sunday. Predictably, things fall apart in the aftermath, when the stolen loot is compromised, leading McClain's gang to mistakenly believe he has stolen it. To reveal what actually happens to the money would be to disclose too much, suffice it to say that it pertains to a completely unexpected plot device that effectively comes out of nowhere.
The film is stylishly directed by Gordon Flemyng, who was primarily known as a TV director, though he did helm the Doctor Who feature films as well as the top notch mercenary flick The Last Grenade. Fleming keeps the action moving at a fast pace and benefits from an extraordinary cast that includes such heavyweights as Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Julie Harris, Donald Sutherland, Jack Klugman, Gene Hackman and James Whitmore...that's right, all of these people are in one movie. In the 1960s, films routinely showcased such amazing talents collectively in films that were basically considered to be run-of-the-mill projects. Brown is at his tough guy best and each of these talented actors contributes significantly to the enjoyment of the movie.
The Split has plenty of unforeseen twists and turns, imaginative action sequences and a score by Quincy Jones. Largely unheralded, this is one of those films that probably plays far better today than it did at the time of its initial release. The Warner Archive has released it as a burn to order DVD that includes the original trailer. By all means, give it a try.
Some actresses' performances can be much admired while others you virtually devour. I devour any performance by Bette Davis, who often elevated even middling films to something akin to high art. Such a case is evident in her cult classic Dead Ringer, a 1964 thriller that allowed Davis to give a tour de force performance in a dual role. The film itself has a hokey concept, that of two estranged identical twin sisters who are reunited with deadly consequences. Yet, Davis' former leading man and Now, Voyager co-star Paul Henreid directs this otherwise minor screen effort with great style, affording Davis one of her best late career performances. As Edith, Davis is seen as a down-and-out owner of a skid row bar who is facing financial ruin. She is reunited with her rich sister Margaret at the funeral of Margaret's husband. The two have not been on speaking terms ever since the self-absorbed Margaret stole Edith's rich lover and seduced him into marrying her. Invited to Margaret's mansion, the sister's bitter rivalry gains new momentum. Edith ultimately concocts an audacious scheme whereby she will murder Margaret and then switch identities with her, in the process masking the slaying as a suicide. As absurd as the premise may sound, director Henreid and Davis bring enough gravitas and tension to these scenes that the plot plays out quite credibly. Predictably, Edith - now posing as Margaret- encounters a minefield of challenging situations. Although she looks and sounds exactly like her deceased sister, the two women had vastly different personalities and habits. Part of the fun is watching Edith having to constantly improvise to escape exposure by suspicious housekeepers, servants and old friends of Margaret. The boiling point comes when she is "reunited" with Tony (Peter Lawford), an ambitious social climber who had been Margaret's lover and boy toy. Tony is anxious to resume their love affair. Edith/Margaret is clearly delighted to inherit her sister's handsome lover, but soon realizes that she can only bluff so far before being found out. Adding to her woes is the investigation led by her own former boyfriend, a police detective (Karl Malden) who is the antithesis of Tony: he sincerely loved Edith and wanted to marry her. The irony, of course, is that his investigation of the suicide has him in constant contact with Edith, though he believes he is dealing with Margaret.
Dead Ringer is consistently entertaining throughout and the glorious black and white cinematography and Andre Previn's Bernard Herrmann-like score only add to the pleasure of watching this quaint thriller unfold. The performances are all excellent but no one can hope to match the site of Bette Davis slapping around Bette Davis. The Warner Home Video Blu-ray release of the film features a new featurette about the making of the movie and interview with film historian Boz Hadleigh, who also provides a commentary track along with Charles Busch. Hadleigh provides some great anecdotes about the film and gives the movie and its participants the respect they deserve. There is also a vintage production short about the mansion house where much of the movie was shot. It's quite interesting to see rare behind the scenes footage of Henreid at work with cast and crew.
The movie is a grand showcase for one of Hollywood's most legendary actresses- and the Blu-ray presents Ms. Davis at her very best.