Parker on the screen #2: The Split (1968)

Several years ago on this site I referred to the 1968 film The Split as a Blaxsploitation style riff on Donald Westlake’s character, Parker. I have seen other reviewers make the same mistake, I suspect mainly on the basis that it was an action film starring a black man, ex-pro-footballer turned actor, Jim Brown, in the role of McClain (as the character of Parker is called). Not only did The Split appear several years before that cycle of films kicked off (1971 with the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft), but it displays none of the extravagant sexual and violent action stylings of that canon.

The second film in my series of Parker on the screen, The Split is a workmanlike neo noir based on Donald Westlake’s Parker novel, The Seventh. It is no Point Blank. I don’t even think it is as good as the 1967 French film, Mise a Sac, based on Westlake’s The Score, my first entry in the Parker on the screen series. But neither is it as bad as lot of people think.

The heist in The Seventh – stealing the ticket takings from a stadium football game – is over in the first dozen or pages of the book. The story then moves on to what happens when Parker and his gang are robbed of the proceeds by another thief, who also murders the woman that Parker is enjoying his usual after the job sexual fling with.

The Split, which liberally ransacks various characters and events from The Seventh, opens with McClain turning up at a Los Angeles hotel run by a shady female criminal, Gladys (British actor, Julie Harris). McClain has two things on his mind. The first is reconciling with his former wife, Ellie. She is played by Diahann Carroll, an actress I mainly remember from the television show, Julia, which showed in Australia in the early 1970s, about widowed nurse left alone to bring up her small child, a program that apparently broke TV’s ethnic barrier when it first aired in 1968. The second is making some money.

Gladys, who is based on a Westlake character, Madge, and runs her hotel as a halfway house and connection point for LA’s criminal milieu, has just the job for McClain, robbing the box office taking of an upcoming major college football game to the tune of half a million dollars. After casing the location, McClain decides he is in and with the help of Gladys starts to put together a gang to help him pull off the job: gym owner, Clinger (Ernest Borgnine), the additional muscle; Kifka (Jack Klugman) a limousine driver with a gambling habit, the wheelman; a hitman called Negli (Donald Sutherland, who was still a few years off the role that would make him famous in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H); and Gough (Warren Oates), the alarm expert.

After testing each of the prospective gang members out, he and Gladys bring them together for the obligatory first meeting. The usual tensions that occur as the strangers sound each other out are ratcheted up a notch by the fact that Klugman is a overt racist who makes it clear he is working with McClain under duress. With the gang put together, McClain recruits Ellie, who has no criminal record, to hold onto the proceeds once the robbery has occurred.

The gang set up the heist (including a great scene in which McClain buys machine guns from a woman who operates a toy shop as a front for an operation selling illegal firearms). The plan is break into the money counting room before the game, take the staff hostage, and wait as the ticket proceeds are literally brought to them, then escape in a stolen ambulance. Scottish born director Gordon Flemyng takes his time with these scenes, which also give us an insight into some of the dangerous proclivities of the gang members, Clinger is a sadist and Negli has a weird sexual kink. The job goes off without a hitch, McClain stashes the money and machine guns at Ellie’s place and all the gang have to do is wait for the police attention to die down and make off with their respective splits of the cash.

There is just one problem McClain did not foresee, Ellie’s nosey landlord (veteran character actor James Whitmore), whose curiosity has been peaked by McClain’s coming and going and who also lusts after his tenant. He enters her apartment with the idea of sexually blackmailing her, and finds the guns and the loot. But the sight of her semi-undressed body is too much for him and machine guns her to death and takes the money.

Meanwhile, the cop investigating Ellie’s murder Brill (Gene Hackman) has put two and two together and realises that her death is linked to the stadium heist. When he solves her murder without the money turning up, the gang conclude that McClain has stolen the proceeds for himself. They try and beat the whereabouts of the heist proceeds out of McClain in the sauna of Clinger’s gym, an act that ends up with Gladys and Negli dead, and McClain on the run from the survivors. This sets up for a final confrontation between the gang members and McClain, who has teamed up with Brill, in exchange for his share of the funds.

There are quite a few things to like about this film, including the fact that virtually all the characters, including the police, are corrupt. The exception is Ellie, but even she can be brought off with the prospect that the heist money might set her up in a secure future with McClain. There is a good Quincy Jones soundtrack (how many amazing soundtracks did that guy do?). And most of all, there is a killer cast: Brown, Borgnine, Harris, Hackman, Klugman, Oates, Sutherland, Whitmore and Carroll. Even though several of them where a few years away from become major stars, it is a pretty amazing line up when you ponder it.

Steve McQueen was reportedly originally slated to play McClain, but he passed on the film to star in Peter Yates’s Bullitt. Brown, who was on multi-film contract with MGM at the time, got the role instead, one of three films he did in 1968, the others being the little-known Kenner, which was shot in India, Ice Station Zebra and Jack Cardiff helmed mercenary thriller, The Dark of the Sun.

Brown carries the part well enough and his presence not only breaks with the all white character line up of the Parker series, but ratchets up the suspense by infusing the proceedings with overt racial tension. Lewis, probably most famous for her turn as the shy young woman in Robert Wise’s psychological horror, The Haunting (1963), is a bit of revelation as Gladys, the most ruthless member of the gang and the only one for whom that the job is strictly business. It is clear the others all have their doubts about working with McClain because he is black, Gough the most overtly so. I am not aware of this dynamic appearing in a heist film up until that time, with the exception of Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), the politics of which are far more overt.

But none of this can take away from the fact that for the most part, The Split feels flat. That The Split exudes a certain made for television feel is probably not surprising given that Flemyng mainly worked in television (two exceptions are the two Dr Who films he did for Amicus, Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion of Earth 2150 A.D. (1966). The script, which also feels flat, was penned by Robert Sabaroff, his only feature film in a career spent writing for television.

Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff who had done Point Blank for MGM a year earlier, where hoping The Split would be a hit, while MGM hoped that with Brown in the lead and Carroll in a major role, that the film would do well with black audiences. They were disappointed on both counts.

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3 Responses

  1. You’re a lot higher on this movie than I was, but I have to say Brown could have made a capable Parker, better than Jason Statham, anyway. Beyond that, Chad Lee Carter’s assessment seems fair to me.

    As much as I Iove the Parker novels, I wish the script had not teased me with the obvious nod to that memorable supporting character Madge, then made the character just one more member of the gang. Same with the gun-buying scene (taken not from Stark’s novel THE SPLIT, but rather from THE SCORE). Nothing wrong with it, and the notion of a hobby shop as a front for a gun dealer might make an otherwise routine scene into a mildly memorable surprise. The corresponding scene as Stark wrote it, on the other hand, contains some of his rawest writing. So I’d recommend the movie only for people who don’t know the Parker novels.

    It remains a mystery that, barring a surprise from MADE IN THE U.S.A., no one had made a faithful and fully satisfactory screen adaptation of Parker. POINT BLANK is pretty good on its own terms, but it’s not Parker. To my mind, the one Westlake adaptation that both works well on its own terms and remains reasonably faithful to its source is a Dortmunder: THE HOT ROCK.

    • Thanks for the comments. I was clear when I started this series that I was not going to pay too much attention to the matter of whether or not the screen adaptations of Parker were true to the source novels or not. That said, it is obviously an interesting question. I have a few movies left to see but, the more I think about it, the more I would put a firm pitch in for my first entry, the 1967 French film, Mise a Sac, as a surprisingly good Westlake adaptation and Michel Constantin makes a very good Parker. he even looks a bit like I would imagine Parker to be.

  2. Peter Rozovsky

    1967 and ’68 must have been years of liberation and experimentation for sound engineering and editing in Hollywood. It was the time of BULLITT, and THE SPLIT, from 1968) goes nuts with noise: the hotel(?) room shouting scene, the scene where Klugman shops for a car and actors’ mouths move silently under the roar of multiple engines, and another scene that slips my mind for moment. BULLITT’s sounds work is thrilling to behold. SPLIT’s, when it makes itself obviously, is arty and self-conscious or else headache-inducing.

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