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Plunder Road (Blu-ray Review)

21 Oct, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Gene Raymond, Wayne Morris, Jeanne Cooper, Elisha Cook Jr.

According to the AFI Catalog for the 1950s, director Hubert Cornfield & Co. shot this fairly taut little toughie in about two weeks, and indeed, it’s mostly minimalist aside from the visual excitement cinematographer Ernest Haller brings to the imposing trucks that dominate his Regalscope framing. Haller freelanced a lot, including on key projects for Warners after his contract expired there in the early ‘50s, and I’m not sure how someone whose credits included Gone With the Wind and Rebel Without a Cause ended up laboring on so many B-pictures later in his career. But hiring an ace behind the lens on a low-budget feature is always money well spent, and you can see what Haller was able to do via (finally) a letterboxed edition of a second feature whose looks have always been mangled on Encore showings and on the VHS edition that came out in 1990.

I was always curious about this movie when I was a kid because one of the first editions of Steven Scheuer’s Movies on TV (a rival to, and predecessor of, the Leonard Maltin guide) raved about it. In truth, this is hardly a film to be oversold, but it easily fills the bill if you like your ‘50s cinema grimy and kind of gamey (it’s not too hygienic out there on the road). Assembled by a production crew who appears to have studied Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Killing from the previous year, it deals with a motley assemblage of not-quite-hoods who rob a train of government gold and split the stash into the back of large highway-bound trucks — with one member almost inevitably played by Elisa Cook Jr., a standout in the earlier film. The Killing is much better at backstories and at fleshing out the narrative, though imaginations can have some fun filling in their own dots. Just how did the fairly hot partner in crime to lead Gene Raymond (played by future “The Young and the Restless” star Jeanne Cooper) get together with him, anyway? And in fact, what is Raymond — an MGM second-lead mainstay and real-life husband of Jeanette MacDonald — doing in this movie in the first place? In an event, the way the gang plans to camouflage the gold is ingenious — or would have been.

Predictably, things fall apart almost at once as the various participants start deviating from agreed-to instructions on how to deal with roadblock cops, who seem to be all over the place. Of course, there were no cell phones in 1957, which means drivers in one truck (logistically spread out from the others, so as not to attract attention) have to learn what’s going on from a radio reporter who breaks into regularly scheduled broadcasting seemingly every five seconds to report that some participant screwed up again. Fortunately, the narrative is fast, and the story gets a boost at the end from Cooper’s show-up, leading to a nicely staged finale in a traffic jam that dooms any financial thunder from the plunder. This is not exactly a spoiler because … well, name another movie of this type that ends happily.

Cornfield had a strange, spotty and oddly limited career, but the movies I’ve seen of his always have a little edge to them (I’ve never forgotten one verbal blow-up by Marlon Brando in 1968’s The Night of the Following Day, a cult flop I need to check out again when I get some spare time). As for drive-in natural Plunder Road, it actually played the most lavish of my hometown’s movie houses in mid-December of ’57 — as second feature to the notorious Zero Hour!, which was the Dana Andrews-Linda Darnell “straight version” of what much later became Airplane! This was the kind of commercially dubious bill that held the fort until the Christmas biggies arrived, and management got this one off the premises fairly fast to make room for Jerry Lewis in Sad Sack, which even ended up getting held over (and as a solo feature) back when Jer still had plenty of box office clout.

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