Thursday, November 26, 2015

It's the Little Mistakes That Will Get You Killed

Plunder Road is a little gem of a Noir/heist movie. Made in 1957, it stars Gene Raymond as the leader of a five-man gang that pulls off an elaborate train heist, getting away with 10 million dollars in gold.

The first 10 or 12 minutes of the film covers the heist--which, for our "heroes"-- turns out to be the easy part. The gang divides the gold into three trucks. The plan is for them to travel (singly or in pairs) to California, where they have a scheme set up to smuggle the gold out of the country.

That seems simple enough compared to pulling off the heist, but the rest of the movie shows us just how hard this can be. The cops have roadblocks set up in an effort to catch them, so any little mistake is likely to give one of them away. And when fear and paranoia gradually build up inside you, it is notoriously difficult not to make little mistakes.

It's a simple plot--following the gang as they drive across the country, cutting back and forth between the three trucks. The gradual building of tension and suspense is expertly done, helped along by both the subtle performances of the actors and Hubert Cornfield's tight directing.

I also appreciate that the movie remembers just how heavy gold is. Even otherwise great heist films, such as Kelly's Heroes, often gloss over or ignore this. In fact, the gold's weight is a factor in Plunder Road's mildly contrived but still tense conclusion.

There's another interesting part to the film. Inevitably, in any heist film, we end up kind of rooting for the bad guys to get away with it--even if the movie isn't otherwise trying to justify the theft in some way. That's certainly the case here for most of Plunder Road. Intellectually, we know that the robbers are in the wrong. But the whole movie is told from their point-of-view and we can't help emphasizing with them and appreciating their cleverness.

Then--about halfway through the movie--one of the robbers commits a particularly brutal act of violence. It's a stark reminder that these really are bad guys.

Of course, the violence also adds to ever-building tension. Maybe this particular scene was in the movie for that purpose and any moral statement was simply an afterthought or side effect.

For me, that scene also highlights one of the reasons I like classic Film Noir. We often hear the story told from the perspective of bad people, but great Noir never forgets that they are indeed bad and that there are always consequences when we do evil.

I'm embedding a YouTube version of the film--but if you have Amazon Prime, a better quality print is available there.

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