PLUNDER ROAD (1957)

Plunder Road 1957

On the surface, there doesn’t seem like Plunder Road has much going for it. No big name stars, a low budget, and a second string Turkish director with a total output of eight films. But holy hell, this is one remarkable slice of noir. From the opening sequence in which a cast of hardboiled crooks pull off a multimillion dollar heist in the pouring rain, to the impossibly tense freeway climax, Plunder Road is one mean little film. Everything superfluous has been stripped away. Dialogue is scarce. Characterizations and back story are vague. All that’s left is an astounding exercise in crime and punishment.

Plunder Road opens in the dead of night. As a blinding downpour rages on, five men daringly hold up a train carrying $10 million worth of gold headed for the U.S. Mint. They load the gold onto three trucks and split up on their way to the coast. Along the way they hafta make their way around an extensive dragnet that includes a whole lotta roadblocks. There’s no small talk as they drive, except for that made by noir’s perpetual fall guy, Elisha Cook Jr. Despite being a secondary character who doesn’t make it far (does he ever in films?), Plunder Road is Cook’s film. He delivers a fantastic dialogue about his desire to move to Rio, despite never having been there. Being in prison for a decade gave this sap plenty of time to read about the place though. It’s a brief, but wonderful little moment that adds a lot of depth to a minor character.

Everyone’s trap remains shut for the most part, so Plunder Road relies heavily on visual storytelling. It excels in this category thanks to the taught cinematography of Ernset Haller (Mildred Pierce). There’s nothing particularly expressive, just really, really tight visuals. The most inspired moments of the photography come during the opening heist. While many film capers are shot in a refined, crisp manner to accentuate the details, Plunder Road‘s train heist is an extremely dark and brooding affair. For a few moments it’s tough to even figure out what the hell is going on, that’s how dark the images are.

The cast is made up of lesser-knowns like Gene Raymond, Jeanne Cooper, and Wayne Morris. Elisha Cook Jr. is the only cat that I’m familiar with. Raymond plays Eddie Harris, the pseudo-leader of the crooks. He’s a mysterious figure – all that’s revealed about him is that he went to college. That, apparently, is why he’s able to come up with such a clever plan. Since that’s all that’s revealed about Eddie, you can’t help but wonder how he went from college boy to criminal mastermind. It’s brilliant sleight-of-hand characterization.

I’m a huge fan of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, so my taste tends to lean towards criminals with intentionally vague backgrounds. It creates a border between the world that we exist within and the underworld. That’s one of the main reasons I’m so in love with the crime genre as a whole. It’s a world that exists, but I will never know (unless my student loan interests go up again). That’s how it should be too. If laymen were hip to the workings of the underworld, it would cease to exist. Plunder Road is like a peek behind the curtain, and what we see on the other side is ugly and violent.

A primo example of this underworld lurking alongside ours comes during the aforementioned traffic jam. The driver Frankie is getting edgy, questioning how the hell there can be so much traffic. Eddie tells him, “It’s the morning rush, people who work for a living, Frankie.” Shit man, that sums it up right there.

In typical noir fashion, the crooks’ scheme comes apart due to banal circumstances.  For all of their careful planning, the unforeseen trappings of providence snare them. The funny thing is, Eddie’s convoluted way of hiding the loot is what fouls them up. If he had just decided to stash the booty in the trunk, there may have been a much rosier ending for the crew. In a nice narrative twist, the tense climax occurs during a horrific L.A. traffic jam – the exact opposite of the high-speed chase a title like Plunder Road anticipates.

Olive Film recently dropped a Blu-ray of Plunder Road, which is how I saw the film. Despite some minor dirt hiccups on one reel, the A/V on this bitch is stellar. Definitely check out the Olive Films release if you’re looking for a PURE crime film. Highly recommended.

Patrick Cooper

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