Appellate Judge James A. Stewart may not be good with his fists, but he knows a McGuffin when he sees one.
"Does a tourist usually leave a trail of bodies throughout the countries he visits?"
If your answer is "yes," change travel agencies immediately. If, like most of us, you answered "no," you may enjoy living (and facing death) vicariously through the eyes of Glenn Ford in this noir thriller produced by John Wayne's production company.
Facts of the Case
With the aforementioned trail of bodies behind him and Mexican authorities and U.S. consulate officials in front of him, insurance adjuster Al Colby (Glenn Ford, The Blackboard Jungle, Superman) must answer the question posed above. The best way to do that, especially in a noir picture, is through flashbacks:
"The whole thing started in Havana," he explains. "It seems like it was a long time ago. Actually, it was just last week." It sounds like a line that could have opened a novel. Maybe even David Dodge's Plunder in the Sun, on which this adventure was based.
Anyway, Colby finds himself broke and stranded in Havana, so he goes into a bar. Naturally, sultry Anna Luz (Patricia Medina, Mr. Arkadin) sits down beside him and starts up a conversation—or at least a monologue. "Without him, it's impossible to live. Without him, I can't live," she begins.
Turns out that Anna Luz knows Colby's name and offers to buy him a drink. Her goal is to get Colby back to the home of her invalid employer, Thomas Berrien (Francis L. Sullivan, The Four Just Men), who has a proposition. It's not the romantic proposition Colby was expecting from Anna Luz, but it's more profitable and, he thinks at the time, less dangerous. He could be wrong, since the proposition involves valuable objects that were smuggled illegally out of Mexico and need to be smuggled back in to legitimize their purchase.
Since he needs money to get back to San Francisco (it's not clear why he can't just wire his employer), Colby accepts the offer and boards a freighter bound for Mexico, where he meets Jefferson (Sean McClory, The Quiet Man), an "independent coffee broker" who seems to know the business of everybody aboard (and quickly proves to be a rival of Berrien's), the beautiful inebriate Julie (Diana Lynn, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek), and suave Raul (Eduardo Noriega, The Revengers, with whom Colby ends up in a scuffle.
"It had been a good day. I'd made three, maybe four, bosom enemies," Colby recounts in the voiceover narration.
When Barrien dies unexpectedly, Colby finds that all these people he's meeting want the package he's carrying. Maybe it's time he took a look at it himself, before he winds up like Berrien.
Plunder in the Sun is full of atmosphere, both the shadows and odd camera angles of classic noir and the bright travelogue scenes of Mexico, with Colby taking time to tour Aztec ruins as he dodges people angling for the mysterious package. The plot boils down to a simple McGuffin chase, with its tough-guy swagger leavened by an occasional humorous moment, such as when a mariachi band surrounds the table while Colby and Anna Luz are discussing the package.
Glenn Ford's battling insurance adjuster, quicker with fists than with claim forms, seems improbable, but the actor delivers tough turns of phrase (like calling a beautiful woman "a silken invitation to trouble") deftly and handles himself well in the fight scenes. Ford shows a softer side of Colby, sort of, as he gets involved in the lives of the ladies. Typical here is the scene in which he pulls Julie in front of a mirror to show her how she looks when she's drunk. Ford lets the message behind the macho noir dialogue through, enough that it's not completely ridiculous when Julie shows that she got the point later on.
The two leading ladies add spice to the noir proceedings as well. Patricia Medina remains mysterious, sultry, and alluring as her presumed identity keeps switching, and Diana Lynn delivers lines with a subtle hint of drunkenness and a not-so-subtle pout in her voice. Among the smaller roles, Francis L. Sullivan's fussy invalid artifact expert and Sean McClory's Jefferson, who is "softhearted—till somebody tries to cross me," stand out.
The combination of noir technique and location shooting makes this movie visually striking. The shadows occasionally make scenes hard to read, but that seems to be an aspect of the original film rather than the transfer. I didn't see problems with the transfer, and the mono sound came through clearly enough so that you could hear the music, which becomes louder and more urgent whenever someone throws a punch.
The features aren't slick, but they do pack in lots of information. Dr. David Carballo, an archaeologists, considers the issue of preserving ancient artifacts raised by Plunder in the Sun in "Plundering History." He tells about the choice of shooting location and the freedom the local authorities gave the filmmakers. "The John Wayne Stock Company: Sean McClory" gives a bio of the actor who played the villainous Jefferson here. Note that it gives away the endings to two other films he did for Wayne's production company. "On Location with Glenn Ford" is all too brief, only a couple of minutes long; it shows photos he took during filming and reads us a letter he wrote to his mother from the set. You'll find a few candid snapshots in the photo gallery and might get a chuckle out of the ominous original theatrical trailer.
Film historian Frank Thompson is joined by Peter Ford, Glenn's son, for the commentary. He shares a few good anecdotes from his father, who is still alive at 90 years old. Not bad, but I'd wished we could hear from the veteran actor himself for at least a few minutes, since the anecdotes we hear hint that he was an observant person with a store of knowledge about his costars and shooting movies on location. Interestingly, they note that Glenn Ford saw Plunder in the Sun for the first time shortly before the commentary was recorded.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Battling insurance adjusters? Why not avenging accountants?
If you think too much about plot holes, you probably will fall into a few with Plunder in the Sun, but if you let yourself escape into the story, it's fun, with several strong performances that make it worth a look.
Not guilty, although I'll convict Colby on a misdemeanor charge of typical noir stupidity for not knowing a McGuffin when he sees one.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Peter Ford and Frank Thompson
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