Some decades ago, after being up all night playing cards with a Papua-New Guinean family on their first train journey across America, I sat down in the observation car to watch the sun rise over the Utah Salt Flats. A tired-looking middle-aged woman sat down directly opposite me but looked away, as if she had just entered a confessional. She may have been a little drunk or a little hungover, and I may have been too.
“I was a vote counter under Ferdinand Marcos, so I had to flee The Philippines”, she wearily intoned.
Because we were alone in the car, this cryptic remark was clearly an invitation to me. I did not know her name, her background, her motives or even her veracity. But I didn’t need to know them either. She was offering to tell me a story, take it or leave it.
“Tell me about it”, I said.
An extraordinary, tortuous tale followed, compelling my complete attention for some lost amount of time. When she was done relating it, she left the car and I never saw her again. But I have thought about that interaction many times when analyzing movies because it illustrates something important: All an audience really needs is a good story. All the ponderous scripts, lax direction and flabby editing in movies that results in 20-30 tiresome minutes spent telling us about all the characters’ childhoods and marriages and personalities and little quirks before getting to the story can almost always be condensed or eliminated entirely if the filmmakers fundamentally have a good tale to tell. That lesson is beautifully illustrated by the criminally forgotten crime caper that is this week’s film recommendation: 1957’s Plunder Road.
The films opens with the execution of what is clearly a meticulously planned robbery of a train carrying gold bars from the U.S. Mint. The four men who pull off the heist barely speak to each other so the audience knows almost nothing about them, not even their names. The audience’s sole insight into their characters comes from brief voice overs of each of their racing thoughts. The thieves move with precision despite the pitch-black night and unexpected driving rainstorm, escaping the scene of the crime and transferring their weighty loot into three separate trucks which they start driving south, hoping to elude a growing police cordon.
The magic of Steven Ritch’s taut script, the credible performances by a star-free cast (A sturdy Gene Raymond being the only “big name” and his fame had peaked over a decade earlier) and the no-nonsense direction of no-name director Hubert Cornfield is this: 20 minutes into this movie, we are utterly hooked into the lives of four people that we really don’t know a thing about.
As the film unfolds, little snippets of biography are revealed about the characters that round them out, but it’s all done naturally without ever sacrificing pacing of a story that runs only a bit over an hour end-to-end. Some contrivances in the script as the criminals attempt to evade the police are the only weakness of an otherwise perfect example of no-frills film making (Plunder Road ranks with My Name is Julia Ross in that respect).
Plunder Road was a production of Regal Films, which churned out B-pictures to fill out double-bills for tonier 20th Century Fox products. When I see a quality movie such as Plunder Road that was likely shot in less than a week on a budget that wouldn’t cover catering on the set of a studio blockbuster, I am again stunned at modern Hollywood’s ability to regularly release $100 million pieces of crap to the theaters.
This fine B-movie is in the public domain, and I post it here for you to enjoy.
p.s. If you like Plunder Road, you may also enjoy prior RBC recommendation Robbery.