VHS tapes may be unfashionable nowadays, but I still stand by mine like a trusted old friend. Most of my friends either threw their VCRs away years ago, or relegated it to the bottomless pit of some dusty closet, lost in a jungle of tangled cords and corrugated boxes from which it will never return. Aficionados of classic movies, however, realize that many great movies have never been released on DVD or Blu Ray. In the past couple of months, stores seem to be almost giving away old videos for as little as $1, and many of them are not only rare, but also fine films. Recently I’ve acquired the hard-to-find Grapevine VHS of King Vidor’s The Jack-Knife Man (1920), In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914) and Local Color (1913) with Tom Mix, The Disciple (1915) with William S. Hart, as well as a noir gem I had never heard of before: Plunder Road (1957).
The film opens with a magnificent, near-silent heist that rivals the famous scene from Rififi (1955). It’s the dead of night in the pouring rain, and a train moves steadily through a small, backwoods town, carrying with it $10,000,000 in gold bullion. A band of criminals lead by Gene Raymond overtake the train and its guards and make off with all the gold. Hiding it in three large trucks, the gang splits up and heads on a cross-country journey in hopes of avoiding the dragnet and reuniting at their hideout in Los Angeles.
A taut 76-minutes shaking with nervous energy, Plunder Road is a hard-edged thriller with nary a wasted word or gesture. Director Hubert Cornfield relies on dynamic sequences rather than a wordy script to tell the story: kinetic montages (such as the opening heist) capture action and movement that compels our attention but remain enigmatic. We enter the story without any pretext of the plan or what is happening. It is as if Cornfield and his screenwriters (Jack Charney and Steven Ritch, who also appears in the film as one of the criminals) have chopped off the entire first act of the story and hurdled us blindly into what would typically be the climax of the story.
Cornfield turns the film 180-degrees as they robbers hit the road. Instead of the wide-open rural train tracks and action-oriented scenes, we now are trapped in the claustrophobic trucks with the characters and the stolen gold. As they listen to the radio for updates, unaware of the progress of their cohorts in the other vehicles, we feel their every anxiety and share in their every drop of sweat. But rather than fill the void with unnecessary dialogue, Cornfield forces us to bear the strained, uncertain silence as we await the inevitable.
Strong acting (including the one-of-a-kind Elisha Cook, Jr. at his sensitive but hardboiled best), expressive cinematography by Ernest Haller (whose nearly five decade career included Rebel Without a Cause, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Gone With the Wind, and Mildred Pierce among many others) and a stellar score by Irving Gertz, converge to make Plunder Road a gripping, well-crafted crime movie that stands out from an era filled with so many great, gritty mysteries.