Monday, May 11, 2009

Movies for Monday: "Plunder Road" (1957)

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.


  1. Somehow this one has escaped me. Sounds very good... Btw I still have a working Laserdisc and VHS. However my Dad's 8 Track bit the dust and now I have to buy all the old Hank Snow and Johnny Cash music over again.

  2. I have the trusty VHS I bought in the fall of 1996, you can't rewind while the tape is playing any more but hey, what else am I going to watch: Night of the Creeps, The Running Kind, Scenes from the Goldmine, Cookies Fortune and Dudes on? You would have thought that people would have learned from the LPs that they got rid of that have yet to make it to CD (which is dying currently) or to MP3.

    Plunder Road sounds great, your mention of the truck scenes make me think of Thieves Highway and They Drive by Night.

  3. I never had a Laserdisc player, but I still do have a Videodisc player from the early 1980s that a teacher of mine gave me. He bought it to show movies in class when it first came out, and then upgraded to VHS. It still works, but the records skip so much that it is hard to watch a movie.

  4. I didn't give up my VHS tapes either. I certainly can't afford to replace all my favorites in DVD format anyway. What I have is a combination player that covers both.
    What I wish I could have done is what a friend did. VHS players got so cheap he bought three or four and stored them in a closet. When one gives up the ghost, He tosses it and brings out a new one.

  5. Check out Cornfield's other films and what books they are based on. This guy was reading the same books as we are!

  6. Hey Cullen, Thanks for reading my review of P.R. and commenting. I actually discovered your blog and superb review of the film through a web search -- and am ecstatic to have done so. Just in a day you've really opened my eyes to many new voices in crime fiction, and for that I thank you. Great blog!

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


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