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It took a while for Hollywood to realize that John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle had initiated a new sub-category of crime film, the Heist Caper. Complex robberies involving teamwork among thieves didn't become an entertainment staple until Jules Dassin's French thriller Rififi wowed audiences with its extended, wordless after-hours jewel robbery. Generally speaking, a Caper Thriller involves a team of crooks, at least some of whom have specialized talents or functions; the 1954 Mickey Rooney movie Drive a Crooked Road comes close, but it's really just about one getaway driver. As the 1950s drew to a close, capers like Seven Thieves found ingenious ways to almost allow crooks to escape with the loot. The movies become interesting when the heist plan changes suddenly: crooks that can improvise on the spot are worthy, but the losers go to jail. By 1960 and the original Ocean's 11, the caper had become a story hook to enable its Rat Pack swingers to romp through Las Vegas.
A fairly unique caper thriller from 1957 is Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road, a somewhat artsy but very progressive show that carries over some of the existentialist feel of French crime pix. Director Cornfield would later emerge every few years to deliver an awkward but critically debated show like the Sidney Poitier movie Pressure Point and the very odd Marlon Brando crime picture Night of the Following Day. Critic Andrew Sarris pigeonholed the director in the category "Miscellany" and could only say that he thought Cornfield had a European sensibility.
Plunder Road strips the caper concept down to its bare essentials. Five men converge on a train bearing tons of gold bound for San Francisco. Organizer Eddie Harris ('30s light comedy star Gene Raymond) stops the train in a rainstorm, and Roly Adams (Stafford Repp of TV's Batman) uses a crane to unload the boxes of gold ingots into a waiting truck. The crooks then divide the bullion between three trucks. Roly takes one truck, hiding the gold under a load of furniture. Eddie and ex- racecar driver Frankie Cardo (Steven Ritch, also the screenwriter) drive a large tank truck. Explosives expert and ex-con Skeets Jonas (eternal loser Elisha Cook Jr.) and middle-aged ex- stunt man 'Commando' Munson (former leading man Wayne Morris) hide their third of the gold in a truck loaded with coffee. The plan is to bluff their way through police roadblocks to a boat waiting in San Pedro Harbor, south of Los Angeles.
Cornfield and Ritch's picture might have been called Pockeful of Losers. The five thieves are nearing or already in middle age and each wants escape from a life of chronic failure. Skeets has lost his wife and daydreams of taking his grown son to Brazil, to "walk on sidewalks made of colored mosaics." Commando is a nice guy too old for Hollywood work; he seems to like some advice he hears about "finding one thing and sticking to it." Nervous Frankie Cardo is depressed about being blackballed from car racing for a mistake made in a big competition. The calming influence is Eddie Harris, who has a clever (if grossly impractical) scheme for smuggling gold that he feels cannot fail. Eddie's self-confidence may be due to his loyal girlfriend Fran Werner (Jeanne Cooper of The Intruder, Black Zoo and TV's The Young and the Restless), who loves him so much that she's willing to roll the dice on his all-or-nothing long shot. The only other woman in the picture is a truck stop waitress who gives Gene Raymond an extra-big smile. She's Nora (Naura) Hayden, the sparkling redhead best known from the Sci-fi attraction The Angry Red Planet.
Plunder Road drops us into the heist as it is happening. For a few minutes our crook heroes are all but anonymous, their faces hidden under stockings. Each eventually gets an opportunity or two to explain himself during the long truck rides, but they say little or nothing to each other as they work. Director Cornfield takes the time to simply observe their faces. Obvious similarities abound between Plunder Road and H.G. Clouzot's suspense classic The Wages of Fear. Elisha Cook Jr.'s Skeets stares at the unstable nitroglycerin capsule suspended on shock-absorbing springs; the middle of the movie is a nervous trek avoiding police roadblocks. The aura of failure around Cook is so strong that we wonder why Commando is willing to drive with him, even though Skeets proves to be the only one of the five who doesn't screw up royally.
Plunder Road raises the concept of fate in film noir to cosmic dimensions. Everything about the robbery is hard work and such a psychic strain that we almost feel the men deserve their hard-earned loot. Unlike other caper pictures, Eddie's master plan goes like clockwork. When things go wrong, it's because of stupid mistakes, some of them linked directly to Eddie's supposed safeguards. Plunder Road is similar to Stanley Kubrick's crime classic of the previous year, The Killing, in that it observes its thieves with an almost complete emotional detachment, as if they were mice in a maze of their own making. The film features Kubrick's Elisha Cook Jr., and Jeanne Cooper serves the same function as The Killing's Coleen Gray. The conclusion is similar as well. Remember the annoying old lady at the airport in Kubrick's movie, the one with the toy poodle? She has an equivalent in Plunder Road, a woman in dark glasses on the freeway who doesn't look where she's going.
Then again, any crook that expects the L.A. freeway system to cooperate with his getaway plans is a fool begging for trouble. The last scene uses the iconic image of a jammed freeway to express the cruelly comic nature of fate. Cornfield's final crane shot prompts us to remember the ultimate meaninglessness of all human strife and struggle.
We remember the faces of the thieves as reality pulls the rug out from under their dreams of a life of ease. Once a big name star, by 1950 Gene Raymond was working almost exclusively in Television. The much younger Steven Ritch broke out of acting work for only a few years, writing for TV but also for Irving Lerner's modest noir City of Fear. Elisha Cook Jr. continued being one of the most recognized vintage faces in film, always standing out in supporting roles. The most soulful of the crew is Wayne Morris, once a Warner Bros. contract player specializing in happy-go-lucky nice guys. Morris had been a decorated combat fighter pilot in the Pacific, an experience reflected in the weary face of 'Commando', a guy trying to steal back his self-esteem. Morris would pass away just two years later, of a heart attack.
It appears that author Ian Fleming was a big fan of crime movies, for more than one of his James Bond books recycles ideas from classic noir thrillers. As if reacting to the Cornfield movie, Fleming's 1959 novel Goldfinger notes the impracticability of stealing gold bullion with trucks, as the metal is so heavy that a single vehicle can't carry very much. We tend to agree, when we consider the fact that Eddie's getaway plan doesn't take into account the function of highway truck weighing stations. But much more notably, Fleming seems to have been impressed by Eddie's fanciful method of smuggling pure gold in a Cadillac sedan. The idea is too exciting to be nixed over a little thing like practicality.
A dynamic title sequence by editors Warren Adams and Jerry Young superimposes the credits over nighttime shots of lines on the highway blurring past the camera. We can tell that the final sequence was partly filmed on an incomplete section of freeway because of the lack of painted road lines. Many second-unit shots of trucks in motion were filmed out on the open highway, but other 'country roads' have concrete curbing, indicating that they were probably filmed in Los Angeles' very large Griffith Park.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Plunder Road Blu-ray rates:
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