Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Their Mileage May Vary: Thundering Down 'Plunder Road'

I took James Ellroy's advice -- it didn't come directly from him, you understand -- and checked out "Plunder Road," one of his all-time favorite crime films that was included in Monday's post.

It's a great-looking, pared-down gritty drama made in 1957, obviously on a small budget. The cast includes the great Elisha Cook Jr., as well as lesser known actors Gene Raymond, Jeanne Cooper, Wayne Morris, Stafford Repp and Steven Ritch.

"Plunder Road" starts with a train robbery that takes place in a driving rain. There's little dialog for the first 10 minutes or so, and what there is starts out with each robber's thoughts expressed in voice over. It's one of "Plunder Road"'s few unconvincing moments, and fortunately it doesn't go on for long.

The heist itself is carried out just about wordlessly, as any good heist ought to be. Then the gangsters split into three groups, each driving a truck with a third of the loot packed inside. It doesn't take long for things to go wrong, which is inevitable in a heist movie -- if the crooks got away without a hitch there would be no story.

They point their trucks toward California, which is 900 miles away, and split up rather than travel together. The crooks try to blend in with everyday traffic, which works for a while. The great irony is that while the escaping robbers are barreling down the open road toward California -- a trip that for many Americans is the very symbol of freedom -- they're trapped in a claustrophobic journey that is likely to have no good end.

The final twist in the gang's getaway plan -- a way to smuggle the ill-gotten wealth out of the country -- helps lift this film above others in this genre.

Like "Detour" and "DOA," two exquisite, low-budget noir road movies, "Plunder Road" gets a lot of mileage out of a simple but well constructed story. You can stream it on Netflix.

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