While watching 1957’s Plunder Road, I found myself thinking about thinking a great deal about Henri-Georges Clouzot The Wages of Fear. I mean that as high praise—both movies are tense and terse. Not much dialog, but a great deal of suspense. In both movies, that tension comes down to the transportation of nitro glycerin to some extent.
In the opening scene of this movie, we see two trucks driving at night. One truck only has its driver. The other truck has two men in the cab and two additional men in the back, and those two (Gene Raymond and Elisha Cook, Jr.) are hooked up to a strange contraption.
Sitting with their backs to opposite walls of the truck, each man is fearfully looking at a canister nestled in a spring suspended from the ceiling, and wires running from that to each of their wrists. The scene is deliberately confusing. Are these men being held hostage?
It will turn out all of these men are together on a train heist. I assume that canister contains nitro glycerin, as something in it is used to blow up the door to a train car where US Mint agents are guarding cases full of gold. That explosion is the last in a series of events that include the train being redirected to a different track, stopped by a phony signalman, a man jumping on top of the train and a knockout chemical being shot into US Mint car via something that looks like a fire extinguisher.
All of this is done with very little dialog being exchanged. We don’t know what is going to happen until the moment it occurs. As my wife observed, we are shown an extensive planning stage in most heist movies, but this movie has a unique kind of suspense by keeping us in the dark.
Things become a little clearer with the actions immediately following the heist, though there still isn’t much dialog. The gold is divided between three trucks, which will start at different times. The plan is to meet up at a designated location. Two of these vehicles will have two drivers each, with the drivers working in shifts. Pity the poor guy manning the truck without a relief driver.
We will finally get to know these men a bit better once the vehicles are on the road. One guy is the mastermind, a college graduate who hasn’t worked a heist before. Another has done a long series of stints in prison and wants to flee to Rio with his adult son. Another guy used to be stuntman in Hollywood. Yet another guy was a professional racecar driver before being banned from the sport for life. Then there’s the poor shlub who’s driving solo—all we ever seem to learn about him is how much he loves chewing gum.
I don’t want to write much more about this film, for fear of giving too much away. There are many surprises in this feature. Things happen outside the usual types of surprises noir films tend to spring on a viewer. I soon gave up trying to outguess the film and just passively, and rapturously, watched.
Although there is far less dialog here than is typical for the genre, much of it has a spark that pleased my ears. For a change, the characters don’t use phrases that are cleverer than how people normally talk—it is just interesting how they say what they say. “No wonder you got sent up so many times. You think cops are dumb.” How about this line about trying to evade the law as technology improves: “Fellas hardly have a chance nowadays, what with radio and the science behind them.” Or this line concerning how hard it would be to cross over to Mexico: “An idea couldn’t get past the border right now.”
I can’t restrain my enthusiasm for Plunder Road. This is a lean and mean noir that had my full, undiverted attention throughout its runtime. Here is a movie that isn’t flashy in any way, and it is all the better for it. Simply put, it’s just an awesome fucking movie.
Dir: Hubert Cornfield
Starring Gene Raymond, Elisha Cook, Jr., Jeanne Cooper
Watched on Olive Films blu-ray