May 19, 2009

PLUNDER ROAD (1957)



I’ve wanted to write about Plunder Road, a film I hold in high esteem, for quite some time, but have shied away time and again because I’m unsure of how best to approach a movie I have great affection for. As someone who criticizes others’ artwork for a living I loathe back-patting sessions, so the idea of writing about a personal favorite film is daunting. I changed my mind when I looked at the Plunder Road’s IMDB page: 56 votes and a rating of only 6.7 out of 10. Four contributor reviews, all brief, all commenting on the low budget. Too often it seems that (re)viewers interpret the lack of a major star to mean “low budget;” and to them “low budget” is code for “low quality.” And although that sentiment is occasionally true it certainly isn’t here: Plunder Road is an exceptional film that makes a potent noir statement. I feel empowered to write in praise of the film — because it seems to need it. After just one viewing it should be apparent to viewers (even those with a limited film vocabulary) that this is an influential film.

One short digression before continuing to the meat of the film: I mentioned above that I criticize artwork — I’m a college graphic design professor. A great discovery about Plunder Road is that the very effective titles were designed by none other than Bob Gill, who engaged in this kind of work on few occasions, unlike the much more famous and prolific Saul Bass or Maurice Binder. Nevertheless, Bob isn’t exactly unheard of in our world of computers and electronic publishing — Gill Sans, anyone?

Plunder Road is a heist movie. Hard-nosed tough guys bust a train during a midnight rainstorm and make off with millions in bullion. They load the gold into three large trucks and make for the coast, with a fleet prowl cars rallying behind them, and roadblocks on the horizon. There’s very little dialog in the first half of the film, and what is heard seems contrived merely to create atmosphere. The film instead relies on tight visual storytelling; well filmed and edited. Plunder Road is spare and precise; Cornfield and his editors have realized a minimalist vision of the crime film. Every scene, line of dialog, and facial expression contribute to the gestalt, anything superfluous has been pared away. As the reels unwind the cops pick off the heisters one by one as they try to circumnavigate the dragnet. Despite their elaborate plans to steal the gold and get away clean, events unravel as they typically do in film noir: the crooks are tripped up through trivial circumstances, details too seemingly silly to have been accounted for in advance of the robbery. By the final scene only two men and a gun moll remain free, as they head for their destinies in a sedan outfitted with solid gold bumpers and hubcaps.

There’s no real star among the ensemble cast, but Gene Raymond gets top billing. If the name is familiar it likely isn’t for his acting but rather for his longtime marriage to singing superstar Jeanette MacDonald. Raymond had a steady career in film and on television as a third or fourth lead, with his biggest part coming opposite Jeanette in 1941 for their remake of the Norma Shearer Fredric March classic, Smilin’ Through. He leads a cast of somewhat familiar faces with unfamiliar names — the lone exception being film noir safety valve Elisha Cook Jr. This is a guy’s movie through and through — Raymond’s love interest doesn’t appear until the final third of the film, played by soap opera icon Jeanne Cooper (who still appears as Mrs. Chancellor on The Young and the Restless after a run 40 years). Nonetheless, I was left with the impression that Cooper was only included in the cast because on of that old Hollywood adage that every movie has got to have a girl.

The characters, although never fully developed, are far from stereotype. They keep to themselves, burdened by their own thought, and thus keep us at arm’s length. Plunder Road wants to make distinctive the boundaries between their world and ours — we can’t fully know them or theirs and they have long forgotten squares like us. In the final sequence, as the remaining members of the crew seem to be in the home stretch — in broad daylight on the sun-baked L.A. freeway, ex-race car driver Frankie sees traffic stacking up in front of him. He says “It’s gotta be a road block, why else would it be piled up like this?” Raymond’s Eddie Harris responds “The morning rush — the people who work for a living, Frankie.” It’s in this moment, when they break the unseen barrier between the two worlds by attempting to pass in ours — that fate intervenes and seals their doom. At the literal and figurative end of “Plunder Road” the movie reveals itself to be a definitive film noir — in an ending of extraordinary irony, these crooks who have planned and executed a robbery of tremendous daring and complexity are undone by one of the most banal occurrences of the modern freeway: the fender-bender. That they would have survived even this unscathed had they not been too smart for their own good, and simply stashed their loot in the trunk, is shattering. For Harris, death is a welcome alternative to a life in prison after being dealt such a blow.

Throughout the film, viewers hear snippets of radio broadcasts talking up the caper, updating the audience in the theater as well as the robbers on the screen as to the progress of the escape. It clearly brings to mind the radio DJ from Hill’s The Warriors. Also noteworthy is the method the gang uses to camouflage the gold, by casting it in the form of the car bumpers and hubcaps. David Mamet, a student of film noir if ever there was one, lifted the idea for his 2001 Gene Hackman film Heist, though Hackman escapes with his precious metal. The difference between the two films is that Hackman has the audience’s blessing — he’s fleecing a scumbag. Fates exacts a stiff penalty from the thieves in Plunder Road. They’ve knocked over the U.S. Mint — essentially meaning you, me, and everyone else who walks in the light.

Plunder Road (1957)
Director: Hubert Cornfield
Cinematographer: Ernest Haller

Writers: Steven Ritch and Jack Charney

Starring: Gene Raymond and Jeanne Cooper

Distributed by: Republic Pictures

Running time: 76 minutes

12 comments:

  1. Thoughtful and insightful review. I picked up a used VHS of this a few weeks ago never having heard of it before but liking the story and was blown away. One of my favorite crime films of the period now.

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  2. This is one film that I have actually never seen before. I enjoyed your thoughtful and informative review--now I'll need to see if I can find a copy to view!

    ~Emily

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  3. Great writeup. I've actually never seen this film. I've heard about it though. You definitely inspired me to wanna see it.

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  4. Mykal: Ha! Well it isn't intentional! You should be getting some discs from me very soon. ~ Mark

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  5. Wish this was available on DVD! I don't even own a VCR anymore...
    Great review and love the website Prof!

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  6. Mark, very nicely written. I saw this movie on TV as a child (it couldn't have been long after it was made), and it made a vivid impression on me. I still remember that Cadillac with the gold bumpers! As one gets from your post, it's almost an exemplary forgotten B-noir and makes a very enjoyable viewing experience. I've been trying to recall the title of this movie for a while, and here it is. Thanks for helping fill in this gap in my memory.

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  7. Thanks for this review! It's a great piece of writing about a film I have unfortunately only seen once (on late-night TV) but which really stuck with me. (And I had no idea at the time that the love interest was also Mrs. Chancellor on The Young and the Restless, even though I spent one summer watching Y & R every afternoon with my grandmother.) I have been keeping my fingers crossed for years now that Lion's Gate (or whoever currently owns the rights to Republic's theatrical catalog) will release Plunder Road on DVD. I'd be one of the first in line. Anyway I just discovered your blog through your Netflix profile, and I love it. If you get a chance, check out mine, in which I'm watching and reviewing movies from the '40s in the order they were released into theaters. -Adam Lounsbery

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  8. Can anyone tell me where it was filmed specifically? I assume in LA but what sections? Thanks.

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  9. Can anyone tell me where it was filmed specifically? I assume in LA but what sections? Thanks.

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  10. Excellently written, Mark. I saw the film when it was released in 1957, but I hadn't seen it again until last night when my wife and I watched (and enjoyed) the DVD release from Olive Films. Although it was clearly an inexpensive film to produce, the script and pacing were as good as most films from the mid-1950s.

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