Monday, October 13, 2014

When It Rains #2 - Plunder Road (Hubert Cornfield, 1957)

Melville must have swooned. Nearly as much as in This Gun for Hire or The Asphalt Jungle, one can sense a wellspring for the great French director in the first 15 minutes of Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road. A nearly wordless, sartorially attentive and process oriented train heist taking place entirely in the rain and snipped at from a variety of viewpoints, this opening sequence (gobbling up roughly a quarter of the total running time) not only looks forward to the later abstract Melville's, but glances back a year as well; it's almost impossible to not be struck by protagonist Gene Raymond's Bob le Flambeur-like aura during his introduction: pensive, middle-aged, pale haired, a perfect gentleman with a "real hood's face". Actually, we can't ever know if Melville saw Road or not, but I'm not sure that it matters; this was 1957, and noir iconography at this point had already started to empty itself out and take a half step towards the kind of ghost imagery that Melville would shape to his own extreme and eccentric end. The spiritual union is there if nothing else.

Not that this opening is without its own eccentricity; indeed, part of its brilliance (and I would without any intended hyperbole deem it one of the great marvels of the 50s American B cinema) is the indefinable rhythm that it creates through a fundamental motional clash: fleet, exemplary action editing applied to images and movements of great physical weight. Cuts slam back and forth continuously between careful men, cumbersome machines and sensitive mechanisms; the object of the heist is a cache of gold bricks that can only be moved by crane and many guiding hands. And lording over all in this sequence is the rain, which sharpens the contrast in both directions: as a dynamic visual presence that adds an instant vivid force to the decoupage while simultaneously acting as yet another factor responsible for further weighing down of the bodies in frame.  Almost certainly a matter of budgetary restraint, the film's approach to depicting its rain actually doubles down on this central clash, very clearly using a rain machine at times, and clearly using some scratch or pencil technique committed directly to the emulsion at others. The difference between these two methods is the difference between a biting realism and a frenzied Brakhagian rush, or the difference between muddy bootstraps and the electric consciousness that carries them.


Jeffrey Goodman said...

Drew, great to have you back and great to see mention of this film. I have only had the opportunity to see it once but it is one that left a deep impression.

I was lucky enough to catch it as part of Eddie Muller's great annual noir series that used to be at The Eqyptian Theater in Los Angeles. Muller had Cornfield there to speak about it and PRESSURE POINT and it was of those special movie nights you knew you had better get to because it was probably not coming around again.

If I remember correctly the finale is also quite powerful.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks, Jeffrey! That sounds like a pretty amazing evening. This is still the only Cornfield I've seen to date, but it's extraordinary and I'm eager for more. From the little I've read it seems like he was a fascinating character.

The ending of Plunder Road is indeed something else, with its time capsule interstate anxiety and the way it sets the stage for the final doom twist that seems both mundane and fantastic at the same time. And taking place entirely in the busy broad daylight, it creates a striking bookend with the opening.

Jeff Duncanson said...

OK, You have left me with no choice whatsoever.

I gotta see this.

Jeff Duncanson said...

Found the full film on You Tube last night , so I gave it a watch.

I liked this, but not quite as much as you. I don't really see Melville in this. (JPM never let us get too close to his characters.) You wouldn't often see one talking about his kids, for instance. I would slot this film in with late-term low budget Noirs like Kansas City Confidential or Blast of Silence. Those films both have that close-to-the-ground feel and no trace of Hollywood veneer.

Loved the finale. It's wickedly ironic that this caper, planned to the nth degree, comes down to something so arbitrary.

I also have to say that a small smile came over my face when I saw the name Elisha Cook come up on the screen.

Anyways thanks very much for alerting me to this one. I am always up for stuff like this.

Drew McIntosh said...

Hey Jeff, glad you were able to track down and enjoy this one!

I hope I didn't give the impression that the entire picture reminded me of Melville. There are particular affinities in the opening heist, stylistically unusual and very much its own thing apart from the rest of the film, that I felt strongly and tried to highlight here, but once the second act steers things (no pun intended) down the more conventional route of the terse getaway then pretty much all of that evaporates. Though one feels that Melville would have still admired that stuff as well, as it's very much the kind of no frills, bread and butter crime craftsmanship that he was on record as loving, and it's also very American in particular ways that Melville tried to emulate in something like L'aine des Ferchaux, with the whole rural on-the-road vibe and the quick stops into the roadside diner, etc.

Yes, the finale is something else, and Elisha Cook is always a welcome face on the screen. He also has a nice little part in Don Siegel's great Baby Face Nelson, also in 1957.

Jeff Duncanson said...

You have tweaked my radar on something else. I assume that you have seen Magnet of Doom, based on your comments. Can I ask where, because it has traditionally been pretty hard to see?
I did a commentary way back when using a lousy quality DVD-R that I tracked down online. If there is a better quality version out there, I'd be interested to know.
It's a great film, as was most of Melvilles stuff from that era, and I always hoped for a good DVD treatment of it.

Drew McIntosh said...

I've seen it, Jeff, a couple of times, there's a good quality copy of the French DVD floating around online that someone has reauthored with English subtitles.

I really hope it gets a proper English-friendly release at some point. It's not my favorite Melville by a stretch (I did warm up to it more last time around) but it's as personal as anything he made and is very much in dialogue with his other movies, which isn't something you can say at all for When You Read This Letter, which is I believe the only other Melville feature to have not been released with English subs anywhere (like Ferchaux you can find a fansubbed copy in the right places). I have less than no idea what the situation is with the rights, but I would love to see someone like Cohen Films take up the cause and give it the treatment they gave Two Men in Manhattan which is one of my favorite blu-rays released in the past couple of years.

Jeff Duncanson said...

Drew, Regarding The League of Gentlemen, yeah. It is.

I've been on a caper movie thinglately, what with Plunder Road, plus Big Deal on Madonna Street (which I just wrote about).

It's is by Basil Dearden ,who also did Victim. I would call it a British Oceans 11. All the thieves are ex-soldiers, all struggling with civilian life.

Matt said...

Having just seen this I will attest to the Jean Pierre Melville iconography and tone early on. Glad you highlighted it. Good film.