The Plunderers

A new decade heralds change, or at least that would appear to be the received wisdom. It’s tempting to see it like Janus, as a point of transition gazing both ahead and back simultaneously. And no, this isn’t going to turn into some reflection on where we find ourselves today; it’s merely a coincidence that I happened to look at a movie which also appeared at the beginning of a new decade. The Plunderers (1960) came out just as the the western was about to enter a period of significant change. Could it be termed a transitional work? Well, for my money, it has much more in common with the works which preceded it, although perhaps there is a case to be made for it taking some tentative steps towards the post-classical era.

So, what’s it about? Conflict is naturally the key element of all drama and this movie presents it on a number of levels – interpersonal, intrapersonal and generational. On the surface, it’s a simple tale of four youthful drifters arriving in a tired and washed-up town, a place where all vigor has been abandoned and where the ageing population is unprepared for any challenge to the torpid complacency. These four are restless and dissatisfied, wearied from a cattle drive and emotionally raw at the realization that they just blew all their earnings in a week of indulgence in Dodge City. Right on the cusp of manhood, these youngsters need to reassert themselves, to make people sit up and take notice of their importance, but are singularly lacking in the maturity necessary to acquire that which they most desire, the respect of others. Thus, when an initial bit of minor roguery and mischief leads to the mildest of rebukes, their bravado is further stoked. It all leads up to threats, murder and, finally, a confrontation with a one-armed veteran, provoking a spiritual awakening of sorts.

There’s a lot going on here. We have the four interlopers trying to find their place in the world, but without the structure and guidance to point them in the right direction. This appears to be a throwback to the tales of rebellious youth that abounded in the previous decade, but the crucial difference here is that those earlier examples tended to push an essentially optimistic message whereas The Plunderers has an altogether sourer vision – the generational conflict depicted promises no positive outcome. Maybe this can be seen as a reflection of the stagnation that would begin to creep into the genre and give rise to a new and more nihilistic approach.  Or from a wider sociopolitical perspective it might be seen as holding up a mirror to the waning of the somewhat detached Eisenhower era which was about to give way to the more radical and energetic Kennedy years. Then again, I may well be trying to read too much into it all.

What is certain is that the movie charts the gradual reawakening of the conscience and sense of responsibility of its leading character. Jeff Chandler puts in a fine, understated performance as the  veteran who has been scarred both physically and psychologically by his wartime experiences. The fighting robbed him of the use of an arm and left him an emotional cripple as well. His withdrawal from his community is partnered by his distancing himself from his former lover (Marsha Hunt, happily still going strong at 102), and her needling of him for his lack of guts almost constitutes an assault on his masculinity. It feels as though his passivity and apparent impotence is being weaponized in both a literal as well as a figurative sense. What finally rouses him to action is the belief of the storekeeper’s young daughter (Dolores Hart). There is the suggestion that he has lost confidence in himself as a result of his injuries yet I think it’s clear enough that his fear is not based on an absence of self-belief as much as a reluctance to revert to the violence that he earned a fearsome reputation for indulging in during the war. While the classic 50s western built towards a spiritual rebirth, I think it’s telling that The Plunderers ends on a grimmer note with its emphasis on guilt and an inner monologue that’s actually a prayer for forgiveness.

Bit by bit, I’m getting round to featuring works by a variety of filmmakers who really ought to have been represented on this site earlier. Today it’s the turn of Joseph Pevney, an actor turned director who made a number of impressive genre movies throughout the 1950s before moving on to a long a successful career on television. The Plunderers was one of his last feature efforts and I think it’s a strong one. Almost the entire picture is shot within the confines of the town, keeping our attention focused and the dramatic tension ratcheted up. It’s very obviously a low budget affair, but Pevney’s interesting camera placements, along with the layered writing, help make a virtue of this. I feel it’s also refreshing to see the climactic duel making use of knives as opposed to the more traditional quickly-drawn pistols. All told, there is little on screen violence until quite late in the story – with  the exception of two tough and rather brutal beatings – and when it does take place it’s appropriately shocking in its abruptness and tragedy.

As far as options for anyone wishing to view this movie are concerned, there’s a manufactured on demand DVD available from the US via the Warner Archive and there had until recently been a release in Germany, but the latter seems to have gone out of print now. I’m an unashamed fan of low budget movies that punch well above their weight and I actively seek these out. Sometimes they work out fine and at other times they don’t; happily on this occasion, I felt The Plunderers was a success and I recommend checking it out. In fact, I enjoyed Pevney’s work so much here that I’m of a mind to feature a few more of his movies back to back. We’ll see…

21 thoughts on “The Plunderers

  1. “I’m an unashamed fan of low budget movies that punch well above their weight and I actively seek these out.” You and me both, Colin! I find much satisfaction to be found among these smaller movies (I particularly like their brevity of length – something current filmmakers have completely forgotten!).

    I saw this film for the first time in many years only recently and was impressed by its gripping tension and fine playing. Jeff Chandler has been somewhat underappreciated by me until more recent years (something I am trying to put right).

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    • Glad to hear you found positives in this one too, Jerry. Yes, realistic running times are becoming rare – most stories ought to be done and dusted in 100 minutes or thereabouts max, in my opinion.
      And I find Chandler hardly ever disappoints – he was very versatile and very effective.

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  2. Interesting choice!
    I saw this film as a blend of Western and the then popular J.D. Genre. This had been tried before in THE YOUNG GUNS (1956) and years later in the A.C.Lyles effort YOUNG FURY with Rory Calhoun and Virginia Mayo.
    Quite a few Pevney’s that I would love to see released in high quality on disc. One of his first films UNDERCOVER GIRL is a neat little Noir and an addition to the Female Cops genre. UNDERCOVER GIRL has a nice turn from Edmon Ryan playing a sleazy underworld character in the same year he played a strident federal agent in HIGHWAY 301. YANKEE PASHA I’m also on the lookout for especially with it’s enticing star trio Jeff Chandler,Rhonda Fleming and Mamie Van Doren.
    The list of these missing Universal titles goes on and on and,for me includes a couple more Pevney entries CONGO CROSSING and ISTANBUL. Last but not least is Pevney’s entry into the late 50’s early 60’s Gangster Film cycle PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER. This film had Vic Morrow going full tilt as Dutch Schultz but sadly
    Warners no longer own the films rights. A clue to these “rights” issues may be due to the fact that no producer is listed on the films credits or the publicity material-posters,ads.

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    • Yes, there are a fair number of Pevney’s films that are easy to locate but as you say, other are still missing. I wouldn’t mind seeing all of those you mentioned. Not least Istanbul, which I saw years ago and felt was OK. That, of course, was a remake of John Brahm’s Singapore, which I was not at all impressed with.

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  3. I note that Elizabeth Sellars passed away December 30 aged 98. Please forgive the hi-jack Colin,but I thought I’d mention this as Elizabeth had many interesting credits. Her career was divided between A and B pictures and she was equally adept in dutiful wife or Femme Fatale roles. Just thought I would mention a couple of personal favorite Noirs especially CLOUDBURST which I have championed many times before. CLOUDBURST certainly punches well above it’s weight in this intriguing tale of murder and mathematics from Leo Marks(PEEPING TOM). CLOUDBURST is,as far as I’m concerned the best of all the early
    Hammer Noirs. Elizabeth later returned to Hammer for one of her final film roles in John Gilling’s THE MUMMY’S SHROUD. CLOUDBURST is only available,sadly as an old MOD/DVD disc watchable, but with lots of neg damage. I live in hope it gets the Blu Ray treatment at some point.
    Another favorite Noir Robert Hamer’s very fine THE LONG MEMORY has also been given the RTHC treatment. I’ve only seen this one on TV although Colin has tracked down the DVD. The sheer visual bleakness of this picture makes it a prime candidate for a high def version at some point.

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    • You’re quite right to mention this, John. She made what I think is a significant contribution to post-war British cinema and it’s entirely fitting to mark her passing. To be honest, I was slow to appreciate her work but I became a much bigger fan as time passed and I became more familiar with her performances.

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  4. I picked up “THE MIDNIGHT STORY” only quite recently myself. Enjoyed it and I think you will too, Colin.

    Thanks, John, for the news on Elizabeth Sellars. I had missed that. I’ve long enjoyed her work and “THE LONG MEMORY” with its interesting locations is a good example of what she brought to her films.
    Another favourite, Tony Britton, died recently (also in his 90s).

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    • Tony Britton was, I imagine, much better known for his TV work. That said, I still need to see one of his movies, namely The Rough and the Smooth – I seem to remember hearing it’s nothing special but it’s one of the few by Robert Siodmak I’ve yet to catch up with.

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  5. When this piece appeared I was preparing to be away so did not have time to make a comment then though would have liked to. Now I’m back and it’s still here so will comment and try to be brief, given discussion seems pretty much over on this.

    I’m mainly wanting to chime in about Joseph Pevney as he’s a director I like, and I hadn’t realized you had not covered one of his movies. So if there is another one coming along maybe I will say more then.

    As some here may know, Pevney worked throughout most of the 1950s at Universal-International, a favorite studio of many here. In fact, of their contract directors, he has the most films (25), with Douglas Sirk running a close second with 21 and staying until decade’s end in 1959 while Pevney was gone in 1958 (they both started there in 1950). I’m not elevating Pevney to the level of Sirk; that’s just an observation they ran a parallel course there. And in his own way, Pevney also contributed to Melodrama, though of a somewhat different kind, not with a lot of levels, distancing, and the kind of irony one might find in Sirk, but more straightforward in emotional content, certainly serious–really this is where his strength was, and the same qualities are apparent in a Western like THE PLUNDERERS, which was among the half dozen features he made after leaving U-I, movies which do generally sustain the same level, which is not even but has a fair number of highs.

    There are a lot of genres covered in his body of work, with a range of stories and moods, and I’d just suggest he isn’t nearly as comfortable with escapist fantasy and though I can find things to like in say, his movies marginally of the studio’s second Arabian Nights cycle (YANKEE PASHA, DESERT LEGION), they are far from his best, though an uncharacteristic Technicolor war film AWAY ALL BOATS surely is among the best. These titles call to mind that Pevney had directed Jeff Chandler half a dozen times at U-I, very effectively (and in a few of the better Pevney movies as interesting neurotic characters) so the actor’s excellent performance in THE PLUNDERERS in another good role for him is not a surprise.

    I’d suggest looking first to those more low-key dramas and melodramas, usually but not always in black and white. I partly wanted to make this comment to thank those who already mentioned THE MIDNIGHT STORY. For me, this moody melodrama is definitely Pevney’s best film–kind of almost noirish in tone and content though it not at all cynical (and it’s in beautiful black and white ‘Scope), it has something rare in a genre movie like this one, a real touch of tragedy, and beautifully played by Tony Curtis, Marisa Pavan, Gilbert Roland and Argentina Brunetti. Really I’m at least tempted to say it’s great; it certainly deserves wider recognition. In any event, after seeing it mentioned here I had the impression it is now on DVD–the last time I looked it wasn’t. So checking this out, I found that yes it is available now, at an easy price on Region 2, so I am sure to get it.

    Not as brief as I intended. Getting into early 60s Westerns as opposed to the 1950s is too big a subject for me to starting going into now, though will say I’m always interested when you bring this up because it’s such a fascinating subject to me. Westerns in the 60s transitioned over the decade, pretty radically by the end, and I believe there are three stages, and 1960-1962 is for me still clearly in the classical phase; even with fewer Westerns being made and with themes changing and evolving in certain ways, it’s still pretty much at one through to 1962, where the two best American films are both Westerns and hold their own with any 50s Westerns. As for THE PLUNDERERS, I’ve seen it a few times and was pretty absorbed though it’s been awhile now and don’t remember it real well. You make me feel I’d like to get back to it.

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    • I never close comments on these things, Blake, so there’s no such thing as being late. Actually, one of the benefits of these blogs is that they are there for anyone to access, and contribute to, whenever they are ready to.

      My initial plan was to look at a few Pevney films, Back to God’s Country should have been next (and it still might be) but I’ve been unexpectedly swamped at work and time just isn’t/hasn’t been available.
      Coincidentally, seeing as you mentioned him in passing here, I also had it in mind to feature one of Douglas Sirk’s movies in the near future. We’ll see how it goes.

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  6. Just to clarify, with Pevney and Sirk for their U-I movies I was only talking about the 1950s, while they were there. Starting in the late 40s after the Universal and International merger, George Sherman made eight films there before the 40s and finished with 28, so the most for the whole U-I phase, though he was free-lancing later in the 50s..

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  7. Pingback: Undercover Girl | Riding the High Country

  8. Before I saw Joseph Pevney’s work at the helm of 14 episodes of STAR TREK, the first time I noticed him was for Boris Karloff’s THE STRANGE DOOR in 1951. As both producer and director here, he tells his tale with sharp details like the closeups on Dolores Hart’s eyes each time John Saxon’s amorous Mexican tries to seduce her, the final instance making use of a swinging lamp that may have been inspired by PSYCHO.

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    • Good points, Kevin.

      It’s years since I last saw The Strange Door and I’d almost forgotten it. Thanks for the reminder. There will be more of Pevney’s work featured here soon, probably at the beginning of next month.

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