Plunder Road

“Remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him. Said you were rushin’ toward death. Yes, just rushin’ toward death.” – High Sierra (1941)

The above quote seems as good a summation as any of the thinking behind Plunder Road (1957), a late entry in the classic film noir cycle and a lean, streamlined one at that. Any fan of pared down, low budget filmmaking ought to find much to appreciate here in the simplicity of the narrative and the clean, uncluttered technique. The movie provides an object lesson in how to be economical without becoming cheap and how to take a sparse, minimalist approach to storytelling without sacrificing the engagement and involvement of the viewer.

If you’ll excuse the pun, this is a driving movie in every way. It opens in that breathless style that leaves one in no doubt regarding its urgency. The credits are punched up on screen as the white lines of an anonymous highway hurtle by below. The filmmakers are clearly in a hurry to get to the point, and as the camera moves into the interior of the vehicles it’s abundantly clear that the characters presented to us are just as conscious of the need for haste. There are five men in two trucks and they are racing through the rain and the darkness, racing to catch a train. Eddie (Gene Raymond) is the brains of the outfit, the mastermind behind a plan to lift millions in bullion from a late night train. They’re running late and he’s worried, though the guys in the back of the truck, a hooligan (Wayne Morris) and a explosives man (Elisha Cook Jr), are probably even more tense, sitting either side of a precarious looking contraption supporting a vial of nitroglycerine or some other highly volatile substance. Despite the inclement weather and the rush, the heist is a success, and then a new race is on. Perhaps it’s actually two races, that of the gang to make good their escape with the loot and that of the largely faceless authorities to lay them by the heels before they have the chance of slipping out of the country.

Director Hubert Cornfield has an extremely brief list of credits to his name but Plunder Road is the only one of his movies I’ve seen so far. As such, I’m not in a position to comment on whether or not it’s representative of his work. What I can say, however, is that this is one stylish dynamo of a picture. That  pacy beginning segues into a heist sequence that is fabulously smooth in its execution and  memorable in its visuals; the rain, the masks and the clockwork precision of it all shot in a spare yet evocative manner by Ernest Haller. From this point on the tension never lets up, the gang now attempting to put into practice the crucial getaway their laconic leader has mapped out. Any connoisseur of the heist movie will know that a big part of their success derives from observing how even the most tightly woven and seemingly foolproof of schemes can slowly unravel, with the pressure generally coming from within rather than without. Plunder Road follows such a formula, but avoids descending into cliché as it does so. This is partly due to the “shape” of the narrative moving in what might appear to be a reversal of the usual noir route; it goes from darkness, confusion and turbulence towards the light, the ending deceptively bright and sunny, everyday and bland. Bleak and bland. That’s part of it, the other part is the characterization.

What we get in Plunder Road are thumbnails, brief sketches that highlight a few prominent or significant features. A more lavish budget might have led to flashbacks, a wider cast and maybe parallel storylines to add apparent depth, but I doubt the end result would be any more effective. Narrative padding tends to be irritating, inflating the running time unnecessarily and damaging the rhythm. Here we learn only the essentials about the characters and this is typically communicated via snatches of throwaway conversation. The point here is that this minimalist writing style works, and it works by telling us enough about the characters to catch a glimpse of who they are,  and who they were, almost without us being aware of it. And it’s just enough to humanize them, to make the viewer interested in them, to care.

Gene Raymond had top billing as the planner, and what is learned about him? Surprisingly little beyond the fact he’s supposed to be a first timer, a man without a criminal past and therefore an object of curiosity. All that’s really revealed is his skill in logistics and, crucially, his relationship with Jeanne Cooper. Those two people are essentially defined inside the movie by this relationship, both of them acting as they do as a result of their devotion to the other. Steven Ritch wrote the movie and also played the part of the expert driver, a twitchy, hot-tempered type who blew a promising career and is now desperate for a big score. Stafford Repp was a few years off becoming Chief O’Hara in Batman but makes an impression as the dead-eyed but careless gum chewer who proves to be the first weak link in the chain. Elisha Cook Jr displays, perhaps unsurprisingly, more pathos than anyone else. His widower who hopes to secure a privileged, comfortable future for his son and himself in Rio is the very epitome of naivety. Finally, there is Wayne Morris as a former stuntman; tough and detached, here’s a man who depends on his muscles more than his brain. The pivotal scene at the gas station, where he first elicits sympathy from the viewer through his casual chat with the elderly attendant before flipping the whole thing in the blink of an eye after he makes the  kind of error that cannot be ignored, shows him at his best. That scene, on a number of levels, is the most tragic and affecting in the entire movie.

Plunder Road was released on both Blu-ray and DVD in the US some years ago by Olive Films. The black and white Scope image looks excellent and there are no noticeable flaws. This is a fine movie which benefits from tight scripting and sharp cinematography and direction. The precision of the heist is classic thriller material and  having each character’s downfall stem from their own unique traits  is pure film noir – the notion that everyone is in effect his own nemesis is a dark thought indeed. This is a movie which retains freshness even after multiple viewings and is therefore an easy recommendation, something especially true for those who have yet to see it.

69 thoughts on “Plunder Road

  1. Colin
    Well said! About 15 years ago I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen here at the local art-house cinema. It was part of a week of 40’s and 50’s films. I also saw DETOUR, CASABLANCA, and THE MALTESE FALCON the same week. PLUNDER ROAD is so well put together, from the story, the cast and the top flight direction. One gets the feeling that it is a bigger production than it actually is. I have seen two other of the director’s films, THE 3rd VOICE and PRESSURE POINT and liked both.

    Again, well done my good man.
    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds great – I do love black and white ‘Scope! I’ve seen Cornfield’s NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY from a novel by pulp heist supremo Lionel White. It’s mainly remembered for starring Marlon Brando but it certainly left an impression on me. It is technically adept, and very odd indeed – and certainly takes itself very seriously. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have liked this movie a lot but haven’t seen it in a long time. The way that you talk about it seems to capture it very well–at least my memory of it. As it happens, I’ve had it on a short list to order and this is motivating me to get to that. For now, I’ll just stand with what you wrote about it.

    Regal Films are low budget, made in black-and-white ‘Scope–a format much favored by aficionados like me and others there. There is just something wonderful about it, and Regal used it very well. When these movies turned up on TV scanned they were really hurt by it. The properly anamorphic DVDs will prompt some rediscovery. Toby Roan (50 Western from the 50s) proselytized effectively for Regal quite a bit and that may have helped.

    As it happens, I’ve seen most of Hubert Cornfield’s handful of films through THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY. The exception is his debut feature, SUDDEN DANGER, one of those Bill Elliott crime movies, and I’d like to see that–I know Elliott from his Westerns where he is a strong presence and a fine actor. As far as Cornfield’s others, PLUNDER ROAD is much the best–and though I don’t like to say something like this, it almost seems like it could be described as falsely promising. The reason is that he took the imaginative gifts with which this is realized too much in a direction of artiness–notably in PRESSURE POINT as someone else already pointed out; and that movie did have some potential (and is resonant in the present for those who might be interested). Peter Falk is not the only good actor in it; star Sidney Poitier was surely as good as Falk and Bobby Darin had talent as an actor though didn’t take it far. It felt like Cornfield hurt that movie. There is also ANGEL BABY which he started–an interesting movie but it’s generally felt that Paul Wendkos saved it when he stepped in and that’s believable as Wendkos sustained his considerable talent and skill much more than Cornfield ever did. Finally, it’s surely best to forget THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DEAD–yes, Brando is in it, just about past the point he could even be taken seriously and he was always far from the best, but Richard Boone is somehow there too–it is one of those mysteries how Boone establishing himself in the 50s had that wonderful run of nuanced supporting roles that showed all his talent (VICKI, THE RAID, WAY OF A GAUCHO and reaching a peak in THE TALL T) but after the stardom of HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL couldn’t find leading roles as good in the 60s, RIO CONCHOS being a conspicuous exception

    None of what I’m saying about Cornfield takes away from PLUNDER ROAD or the excellent job he did there. There are a lot of movies like this by directors who might not hold our attention for their bodies of work–they have to be taken one by one.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting overview of the director’s work. It’s noticeable how many directors are not highly regarded a result of a patchy or less than stellar filmography but who somehow find one or perhaps even a few movies where all the elements combine to highlight their skills.
      Regarding Boone, I sometimes wonder if he didn’t come along at the wrong time for leading roles that would have suited him better.

      Like

    • Just to pick up on something else you mention here, and blatantly digress as I do so, your comment on Brando being past the point of being taken seriously caught my eye.
      A week or ten days ago I watched The Comedians after a gap of many years and found it a rather hollow experience – I remembered it being better or more involving anyway. I know I liked Greene’s novel much more and I think, alterations aside, that some of my disenchantment stemmed from Burton. he could be a desperately frustrating actor – immense and powerful on occasion yet detached and unengaged at other times.

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      • Burton tells how he, a noted Shakespearean actor, struggled before the camera in “The Robe” while for Victor Mature*, it was a piece of cake. Speaking of Mature, Burton said “I’ve never known an actor so happily aware of his limitations. He rejoiced in them. He liked to joke that he was no actor and he said he had 60 films to prove it. But against him, I looked like an amateur. We had a scene where the robe falls on to me and I scream like a girl before becoming overcome with religious fervor. And all the time Victor just stands there gazing into heaven with great conviction. I asked him, “How do you do it? What are you thinking?” He said, “I’m thinking of the money they’re paying me”. What a wonderful man.”

        * Although Mature himself did spin a little of the Bard’s language in “My Darling Clementine”.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Mature was a whole lot better than people, and perhaps even the man himself, gave him credit for. Sure he had limitations, but within those he had much to offer and there are a number of very strong performances for us to enjoy.
          I think there’s a strong case to be made for the contributions these types of underrated and frequently dismissed stars made to cinema as a whole and genre pictures in particular.

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        • I feel that the few lines he did from that famous speech have never been done better or more soulfully or meant more than the way Mature’s Doc Holiday speaks them. For me, this film more than Shakespeare’s play is now the real home of those words.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. PLUNDER ROAD has been on my radar for a long time now.
    Your fine review has made me question why have I not
    tracked down this film earlier.
    I recall reading a review in Steven H Scheuer’s “Movies On TV”
    the essential watching movies on TV guide at least until Mr Maltin
    appeared on the scene.
    Scheuer’s review went something like this “make a million B Movies
    and you are bound to turn out one gem…THIS IS IT”
    NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY is the only Cornfield movie that
    I have seen and sadly it seems to have brought an end to his Hollywood career.
    It was a problematic shoot.
    Brando from the outset disrespected Cornfield.
    Things came to a head when Boone questioned one of Cornfield’s decisions
    “I’ll do it Hubert but it makes as much sense as a rat fucking a grapefruit”
    Brando cracked up laughing and Cornfield soon threw in the towel.
    Boone directed the remainder of the film.
    Boone directing Brando “It’s me asshole,quit phoning in your lines”
    NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY in the UK was double billed with
    COOGAN’S BLUFF and I was more interested in the latter title because of
    Don Siegel,I was not the biggest Clint fan at that time.
    I saw the program at the Odeon Westbourne Grove a 1844 seat theatre.
    Sadly NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY was not the only film where
    Cornfield faced problems.
    On THE THIRD VOICE Edmond O Brien had a lengthy monologue,4 pages
    worth of script actually.
    Towards the end of his delivery O Brien fluffed a line,Cornfield visibly muttered
    something. “What did you say” asked O Brien. Cornfield replied “If you knew your lines
    you would not have to apologize”
    O Brien flew at Cornfield “Im going to finish this show but when we wrap I’m going to
    mash your head to a pulp”
    O’Brien then delivered a perfect reading of the monologue everyone except Cornfield
    applauded.
    When the filming wrapped Cornfield made a beeline for his car. Before the engine
    started he nervously saw O Brien storming towards him.
    Cornfield wound down the window and O Brtien then shook his hand.
    The above tales come from the Bob Thomas Brando Biography and the Lippert
    book “Talks Cheap Actions Expensive”. The latter is a darn good read and essential
    for anyone who loves RegalScope pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, it’s unusual for me to come up with many films of this period that you’re not familiar with. When I do it feels like a bit of an achievement! 😀
      I feel sure this is the type of movie you would appreciate a lot though.

      Thanks for sharing those bits of info from the books – the image of Boone laying down the law to Brando made me smile.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I should have mnentioned that the Lippert book was
    written by Thomas Mark McGee it’s highly recommended.
    McGee states that Lippert’s right hand man Maury Dexter was very
    helpful with his research and lots of info was lifted from Dexter’s own
    book which I have not read.
    Lippert did not trust Hubert Cornfield who had done two RegalScope
    pictures for him (the other being LURE OF THE SWAMP) especially
    as THE 3RD VOICE was basically a bigger budget A picture with bigger
    stars as well.
    Dexter was brought in to make sure Cornfield never went over budget
    and I’m sure all the tales regarding O Brien came from Dexter himself.
    Sorry about the “fruity” language in my above comments but I gather
    we’re all adults here.
    Maury Dexter directed scores of films for Lippert and oddly enough was
    getting a minor “cult” reputation among a cineaste clique in the UK circa
    1963-1964. This of course would not have happened had not Roger Corman
    blazed the trail for low budget film makers earlier-when he did the Poe/Price
    films people started taking Corman really seriously and started evaluating
    the no budget stuff like DAY THE WORLD ENDED and ATTACK OF
    THE CRAB MONSTERS.
    The general consensus was that Dexter made bad Westerns and good
    Thrillers. Having said that Westerns like WALK TALL are very good considering
    their micro budgets and had the appeal of being in color and CinemasCope.
    The two films that the UK cineaste clique really honed in on were
    HOUSE OF THE DAMNED (1963) and DAY MARS INVADED EARTH (1963)
    The former title played at Fox’s second string West End cinema The Rialto
    Coventry Street and the latter played as a B picture at Fox’s prime West End
    cinema The Carlton Haymarket. HOUSE OF THE DAMNED I might add is very much
    admired by our friend Toby Roan. DAY MARS INVADED EARTH looked fabulous
    in black & white CinemaScope on the huge Carlton screen,the film is also unusual
    in the fact that the Martians actually win!

    Like

  6. Good to see some love for Victor Mature in the above comments. With the right director it’s amazing just how good he could really be. He is magnificent in CRY OF THE CITY and for me it’s the Siodmak that I return to the most.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And of course this is an indication of how important actor/director collaborations are, o the way a good director will draw the best from a cast.
      I think Mature was good in film noir and it showed him off to good effect. I agree on the quality of Cry of the City. I also think Mature was well cast and well used in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death. I was lucky enough to pick up the UK Blu-ray for a little over £6 recently, a nice upgrade.

      Like

  7. KISS OF DEATH was another one I was lucky enough to see on the big screen at the cinema. Bad news here as the Plaza Theater, the local art house cinema I mentioned at the start of this thread, has announced they are closing. It opened in 1935 and was a neat old style theater. The closure is another victim of coronavirus. Closed down with all cinemas for months and then low attendance when it re-opened in July. Too bad, there just are not enough of these jewels out there.
    Gord

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    • That’s unfortunate. I fear it’s the type of development we may hear more of in the coming months, and it’s saddening. There are a number of very nice city center cinemas here that I tended to frequent but it’s hard to know how they will fare. Right now the the open air cinemas are still operating but the change in weather will see them close up for the season probably by the end of the month.

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  8. FILMS FOR THE WEEKEND

    This time I am having a complete Budd Boetticher weekend including a couple of Budd directed television episodes..
    1- HIGH LONESOME 1959 – Time for a re-watch
    2- DECISION AT SUNDOWN 1957 Re-watch time as it has been a while on this one.
    3- RED BALL EXPRESS 1952 Re-watch
    4- EAST OF SUMATRA 1953 Re-watch Jeff Chandler adventure film.
    5. COLONEL CAT 1960 An episode of “Hong Kong” TV SERIES
    6- THE AFFAIR OF THE THREE NAPOLEONS 1956 An episode of the tv series, “The Count of Monte Cristo

    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

    • That ought to make for a nice themed weekend. You mean Ride Lonesome of course.
      I mean to view Red Ball Express myself some time soon. And I watched East of Sumatra earlier in the year and liked it. It’s a solidly entertaining jungle adventure with a very strong cast and a fair enough script. There really ought to be an official commercial release of that one.

      Like

      • There was a movie called “High Lonesome” (1950) written and directed by Alan LeMay. LeMay, of course, wrote the novels that “The Searchers” and “The Unforgiven” were based upon. Even though I’ve never seen it, I sometimes find myself typing in “High Lonesome” when doing a search for “Ride Lonesome”. John Drew Barrymore stars.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I think “Decision at Sundown” is the darkest of the Boettcher-Scott Westerns. Four members of the cast in “Ride Lonesome” would eventually become famous — James Coburn and Lee Van Cleef in the movies and Pernell Roberts and James Best on TV (I swear I never watched a single episode of the “Dukes of Hazzard”!)

      Gordon – did you ever wind up watching Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog”? I tried watching it on ok.ru but after a few minutes, I decided to order the DVD from the library. I’ll let you know what I think of it.

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  9. Colin
    Opps on the LONESOME title.

    Frank

    Yes, I did watch STRAY DOG and quite liked it though some might find it a bit on the long side. I am a big Mifune fan and have seen at least a dozen of his films. One that I have never seen, RED BEARD, is coming up here on TCM on the 18th. Needless to say I will be recording it.

    Gord

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  10. So far I have taken in the bottom 4 off my Budd Boetticher film and tv episodes weekend.

    3- RED BALL EXPRESS 1952 Re-watch. A very nice war film with Chandler in the lead with Sidney Poitier, Alex Nicol and Charles Drake in support. it tells the story of the transport units that ran supplies up to the front in France after D-Day’
    4- EAST OF SUMATRA 1953 Re-watch Jeff Chandler adventure film with Marilyn Maxwell, Anthony Quinn and Suzan Ball in support. This one has Chandler trying to dig a mine on an island in the South Seas. Trouble with Quinn, the local chief of course stirs the pot. Not bad at all. I like these color adventure films.
    5. COLONEL CAT 1960 An episode of “Hong Kong” TV SERIES. The series stars Rod Taylor as a reporter stationed in Hong Kong. In this episode he gets mixed up with a former Japanese commander of a pow camp. The man is back in Hong Kong to recover some valuables he had hidden there during WW2. I quite enjoy this series and have seen the complete run.
    6- THE AFFAIR OF THE THREE NAPOLEONS 1956 An episode of the tv series, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. The series ran in 56 and had 39 episodes produced. George Dolenz plays Edmond Dantes. He is a man who is always helping out those in trouble. Along with his two men, Fortunio Bonanova and Burt Lancaster sidekick, Nick Cravat. Dolenz is helping Faith Domergue find the killer of her father. Quite frankly I would rather watch old ROBIN HOOD episodes than this series.
    Nothing wrong with Boetticher’s work in any of these productions.
    Gord

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  11. Took in only the one film today. Did not have time for – DECISION AT SUNDOWN 1957 which I’ll get to later in the week.
    1- HIGH LONESOME 1959 – This is the 4th or 5th time I have seen this and it gets better every time. The story, cast and crew all meld into a great western. it also never hurts to look at Miss Steele.
    Gord

    Like

    • Gordon,

      I watched Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog” and thought it was brilliant, a police procedural with many poignant scenes and startling images. I highly recommend it. It’s perhaps the best film that I have viewed in 2020. I never would have watched it if you hadn’t mentioned it.

      Like

    • This is a busy time for me and so my viewing has been necessarily curtailed. However, on the weekend I did manage to take in the Michael Curtiz directed war/romance Force of Arms (1951).
      Curtiz was such a fine craftsman, and his ability to seamlessly blend genres is highlighted here. The movie has a classic three act structure with the events in each being either provoked by or resultant from a set piece combat sequence. To the credit of Curtiz, and the moody, evocative cinematography of Ted McCord, the battle scenes are tense, exciting and tragic, while the slow flowering of the relationship between an ideally cast William Holden and Nancy Olson is credible and, ultimately nearly unbearably touching.
      The progression from doubt to guilt, and then the final acknowledgement of the restorative nature of simple love makes for a deeply satisfying movie viewing experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Colin…..as you state and perfectly put “a deeply satisfying movie viewing experience”. No melodrama fluff here……the well written dialogue was realistically convincing and straight to the point. I was particularly impressed how the battle scenes were so expertly melded together with actual real time battle footage. I do remember seeing this movie years ago and glad I had a chance to revisit it once again.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s good you were able to revisit the movie, and of course that it worked out well for you. It’s an extremely polished piece of work from Curtiz, as so many of his movies were, and tells an absorbing and rewarding story.

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    • Well in all honesty Gord, even though a big George Raft fan, I was drawing a blank, thus needing some assistance from Google. Heck……I had just watched the movie less than a month ago. Which by the way, I enjoyed.

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  12. Yes, “JOHNNY ANGEL” is probably one of Raft’s best IMHO.

    BTW, Guys, the old memory leaves something to be desired but am I right in remembering a mini-thread fairly recently in which we discussed the films of director Lawrence Huntington? (Please tell me we did….). Only, our favourite TV channel in the UK, Talking Pictures TV, just showed one of his films, from 1943 “WARN THAT MAN”. A semi-comical spy thriller where a dastardly Nazi plot to kidnap ‘that man’ (who I think we are to believe is Winston) starring Gordon Harker (ooh a very fain waine, if I may say so), Raymond Lovell, Philip Friend and Jean Kent. A review on IMdB didn’t think much of it but I found it fun and entertaining. Hadn’t seen it in decades. Anyone else know it?

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    • I can’t say off the top of my head whether Lawrence Huntington came up in conversation more recently but I do recall him and others getting mentioned a few years back when I wrote up Vernon Sewell’s Wrong Number.

      I’ve seen Warn That Man and liked it well enough. I remember seeing and enjoying some of Gordon Harker’s Inspector Hornleigh series on TV many years ago, probably in the early days of Channel 4 back in the early to mid 1980s.

      Like

    • “Anyone else know it?” I didn’t before, but I do now. I had never heard of Gordon Harker. He sure is a crafty sort. Are most of his roles of similar character? About the movie……it did hold my interest.

      Like

  13. Yes, Scott, Gordon Harker’s ‘thing’ was playing cockney characters who lapse into ‘refained’ dialogue at the drop of a hat. He always amuses me .

    Watched another ‘does anyone know this?’ film today (courtesy TCM this time), namely “NAZI AGENT” (1942) an MGM feature starring Conrad Veidt playing twin brothers, one a senior Nazi official, the other a placid bookseller who had escaped to the USA. Very good film, directed by Jules Dassin.
    Apparently Conrad Veidt had actively opposed the Nazis in his native Germany, had come to the attention of the Gestapo and escaped to America by a hair’s breadth ahead of a Nazi death squad. Sounds like a pretty fantastic movie plot in itself.

    I am guessing you are back in Greece, Colin, and up to your armpits in work??!!

    Like

  14. Jerry
    I agree with you all the way with “NAZI AGENT” (1942) with Conrad Veidt. Good little upper grade programmer imo. That other escapee from Germany, Martin Kosleck, does a nice turn here as well.

    Gordon

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  15. A pair of seldom seen David Janssen films, TWENTY PLUS TWO and RING OF FIRE, both from 1961 are coming up on TCM here. A recording is in order.

    Gord

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  16. This weekend’s films are…..
    1- THE STORY OF DR WASSEL 1944
    2- DAY OF THE BAD MAN 1958
    3- SMASHING THE RACKETS 1938
    4- NICK CARTER, MASTER DETECTIVE 1939

    Gord

    Like

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