plunder-roadA low budget crime thriller from the late ’50s, Plunder Road is a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of Hollywood storytelling. It provides an engrossing, suspenseful situation, considerable technical flair and enough gritty texture to convince as “Realism” while you watch. It is also formulaic, almost diagrammatic, with stock characters offering few surprises, good or bad. Its pleasures are akin to watching a well-oiled machine roll along. Anything deeper would work like grains of sand to clog the gears.

Which is appropriate to this story about a train robbery of $10 million in gold bullion and the efforts of the five thieves to get away with it. They are led by Eddie Harris (Gene Raymond), a stern mastermind who calls the shots and whom the others obey more or less implicitly. The action starts in media res, and the robbery is shot and cut with so many fetishistic close-ups of gears, wiring, ropes, knobs and widgets that it feels like an episode of Mission: Impossible. More time is spent laying out the mechanics of the heist and the crooks’ escape than on their characters.

Each is nonetheless given a formulaic moment to express his dreams and ambitions. Skeets Jonas (Elisha Cook Jr.) has the most blatant of these, a long, sentimental discursion about what he’s going to do with his share of the loot. Like all of the characters other than Eddie, his wistful ambitions feel more obligatory than convincing, the filmmakers’ token efforts to humanize the hardware. If Eddie is the exception, it is for the negative reason that we never know much about him, thus making him mysterious. As just one example, how is he able to pay for the elaborate gear necessary for the heist?

There is some felicitous filigree, however, that rises above pure formula. For example, Eddie gets more than he bargained for when a waitress in a diner puts the moves on him when he just wants to get back on the road. And when the crooks are melting down the gold in an LA foundry, their hearts skip a beat as cops knock on the door. The anxiety proves comically unwarranted because they only want to give Eddie a smog ticket. The wittiest touch in the film, however, is the ending. Crime mustn’t pay, of course, but the way the crooks come a cropper is just as LA as that smog and too grimly funny to spoil.

The spare efficiency provided by director Hubert Cornfield and his technicians borders on the elegantly experimental at times. The opening credit sequence, for example, cuts between the thieves in their trucks on the way to the robbery with rapidly moving close-ups of the lines in the road that make an almost abstract visual pattern. It’s a very arty way to open a low budget crime film. But it promises that the skills of the filmmakers will be up to providing a good hour and a half’s diversion.