This Saturday is the birthday of great cinematographer Nick Musuraca, who worked at RKO in the forties and fifties, and shot a magnificent roster of films noirs including Stranger on the Third Floor (1940 – one of the very first), Out of the Past, Born To Be Bad, Where Danger Lives and The Hitchhiker, as well as a whole bunch for Val Lewton’s horror unit including the great Cat People. His career started in the silent era, and when the Howard Hughes-controlled RKO went kaput in the mid-fifties, Musuraca along with so many others, found his career tailing off into undistinguished television work.

One of the last features he shot was the directorial debut of song-and-dance man Dick Powell. Powell had been toughening himself up in a few thrillers (he played Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet) and his first picture behind the camera has not a drop of sentiment in it. A killer on the run picks up an assorted group of hostages and hides out in an old ghost town. The only other problem is that it’s in a nuclear testing area. Tension is high from the start, and gets ratcheted further as the 6am bomb hour approaches. Appropriately the ghost town is called Lost Hope City.

As much of the film plays out while the characters wait and worry and bicker, it’s a good thing they’re so good; none (save random old-timer Arthur Hunnicutt) is a very familiar face, but RKO turned out so many tough little programmers that the B actors got plenty of opportunity to hone their to-the-point skills. The two hardboiled dames are the best (Jan Sterling, from Ace In The Hole; and Alexis Smith, next to appear in Jo Losey’s fantastic Sleeping Tiger), one picked up earlier by the nominal hero, a bland reporter; the other on the way to Reno for a divorce, in the company of her middle-aged insurance agent lover. Stephen McNally is particularly mean as the killer, playing God with his captives and keeping them (and us) unsure of what he will do next, and whether he’ll let them leave in time (car-space is also an issue). Most of the assorted company are out for themselves, at their most unadorned and self-revealing as the situation becomes more desperate.

The dialogue is taut and the pacing is just right, but the most striking thing about the film is the morbid, fearful atmosphere: it’s an atomic age movie through and through, and puts the action right at the heart of contemporaneous fears, which of course revolve around death; in such an abstracted setting here, they are highlighted so starkly as to become universal. Another fearful, atomic age B picture, The Incredible Shrinking Man starts with a mysterious (undoubtedly atomic!) cloud and ends with the shrunken man finding the will to live through faith in God. There is no such salvation here, however: the voice of God in the wilderness is an army loudspeaker in the desert, and the inevitable blast is horrible. A remarkable and cold-hearted little picture, in which human life looks like no more than the scurrying of termites.

(having finished this, I discover that Split Second is not available on DVD, nor is it easy to come by on VHS. Never mind – you can always try somewhere like Cinefile (Sawtelle and Santa Monica), Vidiots (Pico and 4th St), Rocket Video (La Brea and Melrose), orEddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood. Or, remarkably, I also found it for sale, on an extensive new website for rare and out of print US titles here.)

image: yammering magpie