by Alan Rode
Not a classic like its non-B noir cousins, but still worth a look
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Plunder Road is a bare-bones noir caper flick with some nice plot and performance discriminators. The film opens with five robbers in three trucks heading toward a major heist in the midst of a driving rainstorm. All of the men silently consider their thoughts (audible to the audience) as the trucks rumble and a cliched B-movie soundtrack blares. The “brains” of the caper, Eddie Harris (Gene Raymond), is paired with washed-up racecar driver Frankie Chardo (Steven Ritch). Frankie (Wayne Morris), an ex-Hollywood stuntman, shares a front seat with two-time loser Skeets Jonas (Elisha Cook, Jr.). The last rig is driven solo by impassive Roly Adams (Stafford Repp). The men stage the trucks and equipment at various locations along a railroad siding near Salt Lake City check their watches and don facial stockings as a train whistle sounds in the distance.
The gang makes short work of a special-run train moving ten million dollars in gold bullion to the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. One truck, possessing an articulated extension ladder, drops Morris on the passing train roof where he pumps knockout gas into the bullion car to take care of the guards. Another gangster waving a railroad lantern flags the locomotive down. The brainless conductor stops the train, ambles out to investigate and is promptly slugged and dumped in a ditch. The men rapidly transfer all of the gold into the trucks and head on a five hundred mile ride while checking the time. Attention to detail is the order of the day for this heist.
After leaving the scene of the crime, Director Hubert Cornfield begins to intersperse actual dialogue into the film that is as sparse and efficient as the preceding robbery. The gang makes the initial rendezvous point at a barn that serves as a drop-off point for the hot trucks and split the gold into three new vehicles as they prepare to make the run towards California. Each truck has a hidden police scanner in the cab and several gimmicks to fool roadblock searchers. Leader Gene Raymond (“He has two years of college,” remarks an impressed Elisha Cook) quickly takes charge in directing the disposition and timing of the final getaway routes. The tension is palpable as Raymond and Ritch leave in a tanker truck full of gold topped with enough fluid to fool the cops. Repp takes off in a furniture truck with Cook and Morris following in a tractor-trailer.
Back on the road, the well-designed plan quickly unravels. The huge heist becomes common knowledge and the tri-state dragnet quickly follows. Repp is stopped at a police roadblock, searched and allowed to pass through. Just before he pulls out, a cop hears the police scanner chatter in the van and locks eyes with Repp, who immediately panics and flees. He gets fatally plugged in the back for his trouble. Raymond and Ritch observe his body being loaded in the meat wagon as they sail through the same roadblock.
Cook and Morris fare no better. When they stop for gas, Morris clumsily drops his gun and is pinned as the robber by the gas station attendant (played by the venerable Harry Tyler). Morris shoots the old man dead and stupidly leaves his body lying in the filling station to be found by the next customer. With the heat bearing down on them, they are forced to stop at roadside truck scales to weigh their load under close scrutiny. Queried about the obviously overweight truck, the inept pair flubs the explanation and spontaneously decides to shoot it out with the police. Both Cook and Morris are dealt aces and eights by them.
Raymond and Ritch make steady progress on the road, not without difficulty. Raymond is compelled to constantly reassure the shaky Ritch, who secretes nervous sweat like a sprinkler system while listening to intermittent radio bulletins about the heist. Ritch’s perpetually worried expression, (akin to wearing a neon sign reading “I am a gold bullion robber”) begins to lighten as the pair limbo dances through the truck scale stop and roars ahead to the City of Angels.
Raymond phones his main squeeze, Fran Werner (Jeanne Cooper), who readies a foundry in the L.A. area that Raymond has rented. The reunion is brief between the two lovers when the tanker pulls up by the foundry. Much intensive labor remains to be done. The fuel in the tanker covering the gold bricks is pumped off (where to is not explained) with the gold bricks being offloaded via block and tackle into the foundry. Fires are lit in the foundry and the gold is melted down and poured into a series of molds. After a momentary scare when Raymond gets a Smog Citation for the foundry’s belching smokestack from the Air Pollution Police (a deft touch for 1957!), the trio collapses for some well-deserved sleep. They awake, clean up and conduct a quick review of phony passports for the ocean liner to Lisbon. They will take their car to Lisbon on the ocean liner, a new Cadillac with painted bumpers and hubcaps of solid gold!
The final getaway proceeds in the Cadillac and immediately runs into rush hour traffic, L.A. style. Ritch, who is nearly round the bend at this point, is rearended by an old woman and both cars fenders lock up. As a traffic cop attempts to pull apart the fenders, he notices the wet paint and then, the underlying soft gold. Ritch panics, draws a gun and is shot down as the cops grab Cooper. Raymond jumps off the freeway to the next level, is run over and killed.
Hubert Cornfield started his career in the mid 50’s with “B” features such as Sudden Danger (1955) and Lure of the Swamp (1957), as well as Plunder Road. His last film of record was Les Grandes Moyens (1976).
Gene Raymond’s acting career began as a juvenile actor on Broadway in 1920. He was a leading man in second features during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The long-time husband of screen songstress Jeanette McDonald, Raymond passed away in 1998 at ninety.
Wayne Morris had lost the “aw-shucks” cornpone demeanor from his debut in Kid Galahad (1937), but retained the clear-eyed sincerity. His heroic WWII service derailed a budding film career and he transitioned into B-movies before his untimely death of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of only forty-five.
Steven Ritch, who also co-wrote the script with Jack Charney, worked in films and TV as a supporting actor and writer into the 1960’s.
The long and varied career of Elisha Cook, Jr. is well known to all lovers of film noir (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Phantom Lady). One of the most distinctive film character actors ever, Cook was active in movies and TV (a regular on Magnum PI) until his death six years ago at age ninety-two.
Stafford Repp and Jeanne Cooper fared better on television than films. Repp enjoyed brief notoriety as Chief O’Hara on the Batman series during the mid 60’s. Cooper has been a regular on The Young & the Restless since 1973.
Plunder Road is not on a par with The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or The Killing (1956), but it is a worthwhile noir procedural. The film offers a novel story with solid performances and no frills. There is little character development or biting repartee to this caper. The movie is the story and the story is the movie and that is okay by me.
Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in San Diego, California.
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