Sunday, 18 October 2020

Road rage… Hell Drivers (1957)

I haven’t seen this film since a black and white Saturday in the seventies and it deserves its reputation as one of the best dramas of the period. Yes, the film is sped up to make some of the truck driving look even more dangerous than it probably was but on the bigger modern screen this is still a white knuckle ride as your foot reflexively pushes down hard on the imaginary brake at the base of your living room chair with every manic swing round an impossible corner or reckless overtake into on-coming traffic. 

Cy Endfield’s cutting is masterful of course and the editing of John D. Guthridge, pulling back and forth from the road, the monstrous trucks and the sweated reactions of one of the finest ensembles of actors you’ll find. Indeed, it’s not so much the speed of vehicles that scare you but the display of desperation and mad determination on the brows of Stanley Baker, Patrick McGoohan and Herbert Lom. This is Britain’s answer to Clouzot’s Wages of Fear with the dynamite being in men’s hearts and minds, post-war austerity of the soul.

Stanley Baker

Baker is brilliant as Tom Yately, just out of prison for an unspecified crime but aiming to follow the straight and narrow if he can only get a chance. He has the right mix of quite shame in his past with a modest, yet fierce belief in his own worth; such a likeable actor and one of the icons of post-War British cinema. None of the characters in Hell Drivers is entirely innocent and it’s a tough film with a dark heart. Tom finds his way to Hawletts, a haulage contractor ruthlessly run by Mr Cartley (William Hartnell), which makes money by moving as much gravel across from quarry to building site as possible with the mathematics of the daily deliveries being unrelenting: each driver needs to make at least twelve ten-ton, twenty-mile round trips a day or lose his job. The trucks are parrot-nosed Dodge 100 "Kew" vehicles not designed for comfort or even safety at the speeds the top drivers take them. 

Cartley's secretary Lucy (Prestatyn’s finest Peggy Cummins in jeans!) has an instant spark with Joe who’s heard from a pal about a vacancy – caused, as we learn, by the death of a driver – and he soon learns the ropes after a near miss on his first trip out in truck no. 13, with head mechanic Ed (the excellent Wilfrid Lawson). It doesn’t get any easier as Joe soon comes up against the driver’s top dog, "Red" Redman (Patrick McGoohan), the fastest and most reckless who has truck no. 1. McGoohan has screen presence to match Baker’s and is at his most febrile here, as out of control as the Dodge’s with a performance that veers towards the barrier of believability but stays just inside the double yellow line of sincerity.

Peggy Cummins

Herbert Lom’s Gino, driver of truck no. 3, provides a counterbalance, an Italian who remained after the war and who is both religious and honest. Gino loves Lucy, and sweetly calls her his “girl” even though we suspect she is only marking time with him as she soon proves with her advances to Tom; see, no-one is innocent.

The rest of the team is a roll-call of character-acting excellence, everyone of whom would have long careers; Dusty, no. 22 (Sid James), Tinker, truck 11 (Alfie Bass), Scottie, no. 7 (Gordon Jackson) and, sorry mate but the Scottie nickname was already taken, Johnny, no. 19 (someone called Sean Connery). We also have the stunningly stunning Jill Ireland as a waitress in the Pull Inn café where the boys congregate for breakfast and after a hard day’s truck. 

Tom soon gets with the flow and sets himself the target of beating Red’s record and winning the gold cigarette case for anyone who can better his 18 runs in a day. But the game is rigged as Red cheats by cutting across country and does everything he can to hamper the competition by fair means or foul. This is a tough film and you know not everyone will make it through…

What a carry on Mr Bond?

Tom goes to see his mother (Beatrice Varley) and brother Jimmy (David McCallum) to give them some of his hard-earned cash, but he’s still in disgrace with her not just for his crime but the fact he involved Jimmy who is now permanently on crutches as a result. It leaves you thinking what would have made the otherwise decent Tom so desperate for money that he’d risk both her sons in the crime. There’s something in this film that touches on working class choices and also exploitation as Hawletts turns out to be a crooked enterprise, with Cartley and Red colluding to cream off the pay for more drivers than they actually employ. They’re driving the men into the ground to make up for the missing headcount. 

The mood changes after a scrap at the local dance when Tom, wary of breaking his parole, makes a getaway before ethe police arrive to settle matters. The other drivers now start to call him coward and to undermine him at every turn, encouraged by Red. Gino swaps trucks with Tom to give him a chance at the record and pays the price… things are getting personal and Tom determines to risk everything to prove himself and to expose the con.

Parrot-nosed Dodge 100 "Kew" trucks

Dusty verdict: Hell Drivers is a classic late-period Brit Noir that manages to entertain whilst making you feel uneasy throughout. Even the lead character has been driven to such extremes that his brother is crippled and his mother won’t forgive him, whilst the rest, even those such as Sid and Alfie, are happy to join in with Tom’s victimisation, following Red’s miss directions.  

All of which gives the film the winning edge of a reality that remains, survival of the fittest against all the odds of a rigged system.  

It’s available on BFI Blu-ray with ten ton of extras and frankly, I wouldn’t hesitate to snap it up!





  1. If Stanley Baker had been American, how big a star would he have been? On the other hand, we got some great British films from him over the years.

    It's a hard film alright - it's a combination of action melodrama and serious drama that IMO doesn't always match properly, but matches most of the time.

    What a cast - especially for genre fans: The Prisoner and Doctor Who as the villains, with a Bond, a Man from Uncle, the head of The Professionals, Clouseau's mad boss and half of The Lavender Hill Mob.

    And definitely get the Blu Ray! The DVD isn't bad, but this is one for the Blu Ray collection.

  2. Agreed and the Blu-ray is the one! Stanley Baker is so consistent and always holds something back for his characters. McGoohan's always more "out there"! The cast is iconic and as you say would dominate British TV screens for years to come!