Obscure Noir: Plunder Road (1957)
In a nutshell, Plunder Road centers on – in the tradition of The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Rififi (1955), and The Killing (1956) – a meticulously planned heist, carried out by a mixed bag of characters, which is initially successful, but goes terribly awry. This feature stars Gene Raymond, who was a fixture in numerous films of the 1930s, including Red Dust (1932), Sadie McKee (1934), and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1937). Here, Raymond is Eddie Harris, the college-educated mastermind of the gang of thieves who come together to rob a train in Salt Lake City of $10 million in gold. The men are introduced to us through their thoughts during the opening sequence, which shows them driving through a pouring rain to the site of the heist. In addition to Eddie, there’s Frankie Chardo (Steven Ritch), who can’t stop worrying about the weather (“Why doesn’t this stinking rain stop?!”); Roland “Roly” Adams (Stafford Repp, best known as Chief O’Hara in the Batman TV series), who is apparently addicted to chewing gum; Skeets Jonas (the great Elisha Cook, Jr.), who is fretful about the various parts of the plan coming together; and Commando Munson (Wayne Morris), who spends his time observing Skeets (“Boy, that little guy is sure scared.”)
The men don’t utter a sound until they have successfully loaded the stolen gold in their truck – Commando and Frankie laugh heartily with a sense of combined relief and celebration, but Eddie – the first person in the film to speak aloud – grimly quells their mirth: “Before we start congratulating ourselves, let’s remember we still got 900 miles to go. Nine hundred miles through every cop between here and the coast, and you laugh it up like a couple o’ clowns.” (Buzzkill!)
I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to say that the men don’t get away with their crime, even though Eddie gives the men detailed instructions on how to get safely to their destination in California: “Stay on the main highway no matter what. No shortcuts, no backroads. Our best cover is to move right along with the rest of the traffic. Use that police wavelength only when you’re absolutely in the clear. Otherwise keep your radio set at 1600 . . . Stop to eat every eight hours – just sandwiches – change drivers every four hours, and never go more than 10 miles over the speed limit. If a cop searches your truck – keep talkin’ to him.” But the best laid plans of mice and men . . . well, you know what happens.
There are so many interesting facets of this movie – the majority of it, for instance, is spent on the road (PLUNDER Road, if you will), tracking the men’s journey from Utah to Los Angeles. And we never know how these men came together. We learn that Frankie used to be a race-car driver (but an incident caused him to be barred from racing for life), and Commando was a stunt man in the movies and has an 11-year-son he’s never met. And Skeets has been in and out of prison for more than 20 years but dreams of moving to Rio and putting his son through college. But with the exception of Eddie and Frankie, who seem to have known each other for a little while, at least, the men all appear to be complete strangers. Another noteworthy aspect is the fact that Eddie is highly intelligent, with a girlfriend (played by Jeanne Cooper, of Young and the Restless fame) who works as a secretary, but we learn that this is his first caper, and we never have a clue about his motivation for embarking on a life of crime. But these ambiguities don’t diminish the film’s taut direction or relentless sense of tension, or make it any less riveting. You’ll practically be on the edge of your seat.
Plunder Road is available on DVD and Blu-Ray (and it’s pretty cheap!), so there’s no excuse not to see this one. If you’re a noir-lover (and I know you are), start making plans to take a trip down Plunder Road.
You only owe it to yourself.