Plunder of the Sun (1953) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

This is one of a small number of films produced in the early 1950s by John Wayne’s company (originally ‘Wayne-Fellow’, later ‘Batjac’) in which the star did not himself appear. Some became unavailable for several year and fell into relative obscurity – perhaps too quickly in this case though, especially given the presence of Glenn Ford in the lead role. A mixture of treasure hunt adventure and mild Film Noir, it was directed by John Farrow, one of the unsung heroes of the genre.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.

“I decided to parlay a hairpin and a hunch into a little action.”

Shot in the winter of 1952, this adaptation of the eponymous novel by David Dodge (to be reviewed here soon) relocated the action from Peru to the equally exotic (but at the time more readily accessible) Zapotecan ruins of Mitla and Monte Alban in Mexico. This was of course a major selling point for the movie, with the result that quite often the travelogue requirements overwhelm any serious attempt to provide much more than a cursory sense of plot coherence. It certainly can feel like a bit of a collage of elements at times, which is a bit of a shame because in its various constituent parts this is a pretty entertaining adventure yarn.

We begin, as with so many example of Film Noir, near to the end of our journey and then claw our way back for the majority of the narrative. We open at a judicial inquiry in Oaxaca, Mexico. In a grand old building, which we are lovingly introduced to courtesy of one of Farrows’ trademark long tracking shots, members of the local judiciary are deciding the fate of Al Colby (Ford), an American adrift south of the border. After this intriguing start, we then flashback to begin the story proper as Colby begins his narration … Just one week ago, he was stuck in Havana without even enough money to settle his hotel bill. He gets a chance to square himself financially when at a bar he is approached by Anna Luz, played by glamorous beauty Patricia Medina who had recently divorced Richard ‘Robin Hood’ Greene and would a few years later become Mrs Joseph Cotten (incidentally she will be celebrating her 93rd birthday this July).

She says she is looking for a guide, but actually she is looking for a courier to help her smuggle antiquities into Mexico. Colby isn’t too impressed but after meeting her wheelchair-bound boss (heavyweight British character actor Francis L. Sullivan), and the offer of $1,000, he accepts passage on a ship to Mexico with the mysterious package. An amusing wrinkle is that the item in question is in fact being returned to Mexico rather than being exported out. On board he meets the other main players of the film: the heavy, played by the great Irish character actor Sean McClory, here resembling Peter Van Eyck thanks to a crew cut and a blonde rinse; and second-billed Diana Lynn as neurotic heiress Julie Barnes, who has a seriously self-destructive streak that blows hot and then cold with the regularity of a fairly inebriated metronome.

“Kiss me, mystery man.”

Julie makes a pass at him which, when he turns her down, leads to a showdown with her ‘companion’ Raoul, who gets knocked out for his chivalrous attempt to protect her ‘dignity’. But that’s OK, he’ll get several more chances later on …

Anna Luz’s boss dies on ship and it is fairly typical of this film’s frequent fuzziness and overly elaborate plot that we are never quite sure if he died of a heart attack or of something more sinister. But never mind, because this is when the story (and the film) really takes off – with its arrival in Oaxaca. For all its various contrivances and the various scenes in which the scheming characters – very much in the style of The Maltese Falcon – attempt to get hold of the package, it is the location work that sticks in the mind. Farrow certainly makes the most of the various locations – along with a touristy guide to the sacrificial history of the ruins with Lynn to a detailed history of the treasure that everyone is hunting, something to do with a map in twelve pages leading to gold buried somewhere in the vaults hidden in the ruins. This is just as well, because at this point the plot does become a bit turgid as we try to keep tracking of just who is double and triple-crossing who.

The somewhat heavy-handed plot revolutions are a bit of a surprise given that this is one of several collaborations between director John Farrow and writer Jonathan Latimer. Their relationship spanned 10 films in as many years, including such very fine examples of Film Noir as Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), from the classic novel by Cornell Woolrich, The Big Clock (1948) from Kenneth Fearing’s best book and perhaps best of all Alias Nick Beal (1949), a mixture of crime, politics and fantasy that is really in need of critical re-evaluation – here is a complete list of the films made by this nearly forgotten writer-director partnership:

  1. Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)
  2. Beyond Glory (1948)
  3. The Big Clock (1948)
  4. Alias Nick Beal (1949)
  5. Copper Canyon (1950)
  6. Submarine Command (1951)
  7. Plunder of the Sun (1953)
  8. Botany Bay (1953)
  9. Back from Eternity (1956)
  10. The Unholy Wife (1957)

Ultimately the code to unravel the map is broken and the treasure trove is unearthed – at which point Colby does something incredibly stupid, gets shot several times virtually at point-blank range – and somehow doesn’t die. From his bedside he makes a miraculous recovery (I use the word advisedly as Farrow was a major Catholic apologist) and is even able to secure the settlement of the various (frankly extraneous) romantic entanglements. In the final 15 minutes of the movie things do get a bit scrappy – Anna Luz breaks off her engagement and Julie Barnes decides she’s going to sober up and be a good girl after all. At which point her character exits the narrative with no fanfare whatsoever and we get served up a climactic shootout that that was clearly tacked on back at the studio. In fact it was filmed three months after the end of principal photography back in Hollywood as part of re-shoots undertaken at the Samuel Goldwyn lot. It clearly sticks out a mile, though it’s not even remotely as damaging as the kind of post-production tampering that Farrow had just had to endure a couple of years earlier on His Kind of Woman (1951) under the monomaniacal regime of Howard Hughes at RKO.

The new studio scenes are perfectly efficient and offer a bout of fisticuffs among a basement full of antiquities and some extra thunder and lightning added for ‘atmosphere’, but clearly can’t compare with the location footage. We return for one last time to the source of the narration, Colby’s judicial inquiry, to see him off and on to the potential start of a new adventure. The final result is a bemusing mixture that doesn’t quite come off but which is plenty of fun if you don’t mind a wayward narrative and some glaring plot holes. Along with its handsome leads it also offers character actor Sean McClory in one of his best roles – and of course some stunning location work.

DVD Availability: Paramount released this title worldwide in a handsome special edition as part of its John Wayne collection.

The trailer available on the IMDb website:
http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2271477785/

Plunder of the Sun (1953)
Director: John Farrow
Producer: Robert Fellows
Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer (from the novel by David Dodge)
Cinematography: Jack Draper
Art Direction: Al Ybarra
Music: Antonio Díaz Conde (and Hugo Friedhofer, uncredited)
Cast: Glenn Ford, Patricia Medina,  Francis L. Sullivan, Sean McClory, Diana Lynn

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to Plunder of the Sun (1953) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Great review. I really enjoyed the book, and wasn’t aware there was a film version. Though, from what I recall, most of the book took place on a ship, and those stills imply the movie was pretty land-based.

    • Thanks very much for the comments. I’m planning on running a proper review of the book on the site soon but structurally the film basically follows it – the original voyage from Chile to Peru is turned into Havana to Mexico and takes up about 15 minutes of screentime probably, with art collector Barrien’s death taking place onboard as in the book. The chase for the gold then continues on land, which is when Colby finds out what was in the package – that’s pretty much the same in book and film – but watch this space for a more detailed comparison (there’s also a half-hour CBS radio version from the Escape series, produced only a few months after the book came out in 1949, which you can download from here).

  2. Colin says:

    That’s a very fair assessment of this movie Sergio. I wrote a piece on this myself about three or four years back but haven’t seen the film since. It’s a kind of noir wannabe that’s a distant cousin of The Maltese Falcon; it doesn’t always work but it’s still a lot of fun.

    Those Farrow/Latimer collaborations make a fine list. I would dearly love to see Alias Nick Beal too, and The Unholy Wife. I haven’t seen Night Has a Thousand Eyes in many years, but I recall it being quite good.

    • Cheers Colin, very kind. As you rightly point out in your review at Riding the High Country (don’t don’t know how I missed this), this is something of a semi-Noir though I think I am more inclined to consider it canonical than you are, especially in the first half. It is the basically very romantic section during Colby’s convalescence and the quite soft ending (inherited from the novel) that tends to make one, when the story is over, to just categorise it as a straight adventure story. Which is perfectly understandable and fair. I am tempted to argue that it’s an example of ‘Light Noir, a bit like Don Siegel’s The Big Steal maybe?), though Ford’s character is certainly tough enough for any Noir! In fact you could argue that tonally he’s in the wrong movie!

      • Colin says:

        Good point about Ford’s characterization.

        To be fair, there are sections of the movie that check off far more of the noir boxes than many a film where the label is applied.

        • It is only 81 minutes long, which is pretty short for a proper studio movie and I do wonder if there was some more serious post-production tampering than is generally known. The handling of the female characters, especially Diana Lynn’s is a bit cursory and stereotypical and it is a shame that we donl’t have much of a backstory for the Colby character to make it a bit more personal. he behaves like a hardbitten Foir protagonist, but we don’t really knwo why! According to Peter Ford on the DVD commentary it was commercially very successful. I haven’t read his book about his father, which apparently is pretty sympatheric without being too blinkered about his apparently pretty serial philandering …

          • Colin says:

            Yes, Diana Lynn’s character is a poorly drawn one. I didn’t mind the lack of explanation for Ford’s motivations though – he seems to fit into that line of late-40s/early-50s guys who we just more or less accept as being hard nosed opportunists. A legacy of the post-war period, I suppose.

            Re the running time: this film seems like an example of the “not quite A yet not quite B” pictures that got made during that era. As such, there are a fair few movies with similarly spare running times.

          • That’s fair enough really about Ford’s character – I was, in my mind, comparing it with The Big Heat, clearly a superior movie, as the relationship with Lynn’s character seems to mirror the Gloria Grahame a bit (without the horrible violence), with McClory a bit like Lee Marvin’s character. If George Raft had played the main role (not that he was in the running), it probably would have turned out that he was an undercover federal agent the whole time (i.e. what Raft referred to as the ‘lapel bit’ when considered for the Walter Neff role in Double Indemnity).

          • Colin says:

            Interesting alternative casting choices! But, as you say, this one has nothing like the depth or ambition of The Big Heat.

            Seeing as you mention George Raft, that was one actor I have a hard time getting on with. His apparent desperation to inject respectability into his roles tends to get on my nerves. There’s more than a few movies badly compromised by the need to present us with noble George before the credits roll.

          • I know what you mean about Raft – he is so impassive a lot of the time that it is hard to understand why he was such a major star in the 30s. Can it all have been down to his mob connections? I have yet to see the 1935 version of The Glass Key and I really would like to compare it with the Ladd versions. It’s available online so I may have to take that route … Raft and Ladd are, in some ways, similar sorts of actors though clearly Ladd could project a slightly more vulnerable persona when required.

          • Colin says:

            Fair enough – although I think Alan Ladd had much more depth and was generally much more of a class act all the way round. Just seemed like more of a human being, if that makes sense.

            Raft’s insistence on playing essentially upstanding characters meant he turned down a lot of plum parts – some very famous ones of course going to Bogart subsequently – and the drabness of the roles he did accept ultimately killed off his career. I mostly find watching his performances a bit of a chore.

          • I dare say Raft was trying to live down the impact of his early ganster roles in films like Scarface but you are absolutely right, it did make most of his roles from the 40s onwards just incredibly dull. I remember seeing Johnny Angel for the first time about 30 (or more) years ago and I think it was the first film of his I’d ever seen. I knew he was famous so was happy to watch it on BBC2 but was left completely nonplussed by the result. Perfectly acceptable programmer material, but he was just so bland!

          • Colin says:

            I remember thinking much the same thing when I saw Johnny Allegro – nota bad little picture but it could have been much better with someone more charismatic in the lead. He was ok in Each Dawn I Die, if I remember it correctly.

          • Funnily enough, Each Dawn I Die and Manpower are two of the last of the titles I can think of that I thought to an extent benefitted from his presence (apart from the amusement of the inherent parody of his early image in Some Like It Hot of course, where he plays it quite straight, not unsurprisingly perhaps).

  3. Todd Mason says:

    Wow…I had forgotten I’d seen this till I started to read your review, and can endorse your take on it pretty much down the line. It’s a solid not-quite in nearly every way, and I can imagine the novel being rather more engaging.

  4. Thanks for posting this . I’ve not seen the film and wil look for it . The first part of the trailer is pretty odd, but interesting. I’m wondering how an insurance adjuster becomes stranded in Mexico (or Peru)? My first thought was Walter Neff.

    • Thanks Marley – it is a weird trailer, isn’t it? There was a convention for decades of having the actors appear in direct addresses to the camera which is usually funny and rarely enticing. We get little sense of why our hero is bumming around south of the border and it would be funny if it turned out he has some deep dark secret – but if there were it would make for a great sequel!

  5. p881 says:

    I have never seen this one. Although I am not much on adventure movies, I liked Glenn Ford and John Farrow so will look for it on TCM.

    • I hope you like it – it’s a bit all over the place but great fun! Does TCM show movies from the Paramount library? The version of TCM we get in Europe is incredibly limited compared with the US version. Originally this movie was released by Warner Bros. but Wayne took back all the Batjac titles he produced and Paramount seems to have video rights at least.

  6. Hello Sergio, never heard, never seen this film. But then I haven’t seen more than one or two Glenn Ford movies though I get enough opportunities on TCM. No particular reason but I seem to have neglected Ford and his films over the years. Time to rectify the lacuna. Thanks for an entertaining review of PLUNDERS OF THE SUN.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Prashant – Ford was a gigantic star in the 50s and he starred in some of my favourite movies, including The Blackboard Jungle (from the novel by Evan Hunter aka ‘Ed McBain’) and especially the wonderful Gilda of course, one of several he made opposite Rita Hayworth. And he is wonderful as the villain in the original (and best) 3.10 To Yuma. He has an amazing intensity, which may not make him popular with all viewers, I’ll admit, and can seem humourless though he was in fact quite versatile and could do comedy as well as drama. TCM should have many of his best films from the 50s as he mainly worked for MGM at the time after the end of his Columbia contract.

      • You beat me to it! I was about to mention 3:10 to Yuma . That’s an excellent place to start with Glenn Ford. I grew up with Ford movies; saw a lot of them. But he never particularly struck me until last year when I saw 3:10 which I’d not seen for years. He gives a really powerful performance. Though he was quite successful, he’s probably underrated. He didn’t have all that glam and was in many ways understated. I need to check IMDB, but I have a memory of a film called “Rabid” (?) in waich he plays a sheriff chasing down a rabid dog. It gave me a lifelong fear of hydrophobia.

        • I think having a fear of hydrophobia is a very good idea! Haven’t seen the mad dog movie (which I think is Rage, right? Isn’t Rabid the early Cronenberg horror movie?). The first movie I saw him in was as Pa Kent in the original Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve – I’ll never forget the poignant understatement of the performance of his death scene.

          • Yes, you’re right It is Rage. I just looked it up. I was surprised to see that it was made in 1966; I was sure it was 10 years older than that. Whatever, I still think the idea is demented, though I might enjoy the film now. I’d also forgotten that Ford was in Happy Birthday to Me, a truly dem4ended film on every level.

          • Never seen Rage but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for it now – and as for Happy Birthday to Me, you bring back some truly woeful memories (from what little I recall) – not to mention wasting that nice girl from Little House on the Praire (I bet Michael Landon wasn’t pleased).

          • Happy Birthday to Me makes “gratuitous” a compliment.

          • I think that’s pretty fair – mind you, we’re talking decades since I saw it so who knows, maybe this is some ironic cult movie waiting to be uncovered … naaahh!

  7. You are right, Sergio, TCM keeps showing Glenn Ford’s films through the week and i am surprised at myself for not watching at least some of them. I’ll look for the ones you mentioned though 3.10 TO YUMA sounds oddly familiar, like I might have seen it in the past.

    • 3:10 To Yuma is a really terrific suspense western adapted from a story by Elmore Leonard and frequently compared with High Noon – it was remade to less effect with Rusael Crowe and Christian Bale – for a comparison of both version, see Colin’s fine review at Riding the High Country.

  8. I generally wince at the word “unwholesome” but in the case of “Birthday” it fits.I hope cultists hae better taste.

    • Ford had a very long career as a major star so i guess the odd blip is permissable – it is fascinating to see how the supernatural horror genre became briefly acceptable to the Hollywood majors after the blockbusting success of The Exorcist and The Omen and then even the slasher movie became mainstream after Halloween. Me, I’d rather go watch The Big Heat, which in its own way is much more of a scary movie.

  9. Pingback: J is for … Jonathan Latimer | Tipping My Fedora

  10. Pingback: The Four Just Men (1939) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

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