Plunder Road was released more than 50 years ago, but modern screenwriters could take a lesson from Steven Ritch’s screenplay; it is a model of pacing, structure, and concision. The film runs a lean 71 minutes. Many reviews of Plunder Road describe the film’s action as “taut.” I can think of few films from the last twenty years that would earn the adjective “taut.” When was the last time a modern film ended, and you were surprised that it was over already? “Always leave them wanting more” is a lesson forgotten by most modern entertainments.
The Plot In Brief: Five men (played by Gene Raymond, screenwriter Steven Ritch, Wayne Morris, Elisha Cook Jr., and Stafford Repp) stage a daring railroad robbery in the middle of a thunderstorm, using nitroglycerin and a crane truck. They get away with ten million dollars in gold from a shipment intended for the US Mint. Gold is very heavy, and their haul weighs almost nine tons. How will the men transport this immense load and get it safely past the police and across the border?
Raiders of the Lost Ark) to the James Bond films of the 1960s, which often seemed to start with the final scene from some other adventure that didn’t get its own movie. (Think of the way Bond blows up a chemical plant and foils an assassination attempt— “Shocking!”—before the opening credits in Goldfinger.) Clearly, 1957’s Plunder Road got there first.
Which is not to say that Plunder Road is 100% certified original and groundbreaking. Lifts and borrows from earlier, better films are on abundant display. It is as if Ritch put some of his favorite heist and action sequences in a blender and set it to frappe: we get a key action sequence filmed in a torrential downpour, as in Seven Samurai (1954); a largely silent heist sequence straight out of Rififi (1955); and, most tellingly, the tale of desperate men hauling difficult cargo across hostile territory from Wages of Fear (1953). Plunder Road has more than paid back these sequences on loan by influencing later films (like Goldfinger) not only with the “climax as exposition” that I mentioned previously, but also with the plot device of how to hide stolen gold. David Mamet also seems to have been influenced by Plunder Road in his terrific caper film Heist.
Gone With The Wind (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), Rebel Without A Cause (1955), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), and the pilot episode of Star Trek (1966). Plunder Road could be used in a cinematography class to demonstrate how a black and white film should look.
The cast is uniformly excellent and another reason to recommend the film. I was not familiar with a majority of the cast before screening the film, but that actually works in the film’s favor. These desperate men are strangers to each other and also strangers to the audience. Gene Raymond is a solid lead; he reminds me a little of Richard Denning in Creature From the Black Lagoon, handsome but in an untrustworthy way. Elisha Cook, Jr. appears performing his specialty, “Sweaty Nervous Guy;” he was also in the seminal noirs The Maltese Falcon and The Killing.
With one exception, Plunder Road seems to be a primer for film noir – it is dark in its atmosphere, brusque in its dialogue, and cynical in its execution. The exception is that Plunder Road has no femme fatale (which, I suppose, is why it has no Marie Windsor.) In fact, the two women who do appear in Plunder Road (a waitress and the girlfriend) have such nothing parts that one can easily imagine the film with no women at all. It feels as though even Cooper was added at the insistence of some studio exec who felt that “every picture needs a dame.”
Also, in Plunder Road, as in most noirs, the grandest plans are undone by the most mundane circumstance. From the very beginning, we can tell things won’t go well; the art is not in how the plan proceeds, but in how it unravels.
1. The character with the least dialogue will die first.
2. The character with the biggest dreams and hopes will surely die next.
3. The smallest trivialities will cause the whole scheme to fall apart.
4. Chicks is poison.
5. Every night in every city in America, the streets are wet with rain.
6. Adding Marie Windsor to the cast improves every film noir.
7. Adding Elisha Cook, Jr. to the cast improves every film noir.
8. If the crime seems doomed from the very start, it is.
9. If the men seemed doomed from the very start, they are.
10. Nothing good ever happens at night. Or really in the day, either.
Any readers who want to suggest additional “noir rules” should feel free to add them to the comments section below. It’s time I put on my trench coat and fedora, holster my .38, and go looking for some trouble… or a dame… or a troubled dame. Or maybe I’ll just sit here in the dark and watch the rain.
Trouble usually finds me.