Reviewing one of my favourite movies for the British Invaders Blogathon
Hell Drivers is an exciting find of a movie that you get one kick out of watching and then another as you recommend it to other movie fans. The 1957 picture is about an ex-con finding new employ at a gravel (ballast) trucking firm. He soon discovers that the company’s policy is to pay by the trip, with a minimum quota of ten loads a day to keep the job, and the added reward of a gold cigarette case to any driver who can beat the record set by the mad bully of a foreman. Those terms have created a highly dangerous and downright deadly race and competition among the drivers. The problem is that there are no rules or fairness in the races, mainly sabotage, short cuts and cheating. Meanwhile there’s also a scam at the firm in the form of having “phantom” drivers whose pay is handled and divvied out by the crooked boss, who hires ex-cons and lowlife precisely because they aren’t likely to be whistlebowers. So, Tom the ex-con, played by Stanley Baker, has to navigate the roads, survive the deadly contest and the corruption, in a daily grind that seems about to run into the ditch at any moment. All while driving truck number 13.
If that doesn’t grab you then let’s sweeten the deal with Hell Drivers’ fantastic all-star cast: the aforementioned Baker, Herbert Lom (playing an Italian driver who befriends Baker), Peggy Cummins (the romantic interest), Patrick McGoohan in a deliciously villainous turn as the menacing foreman Red, plus great support and spot-the-future-star appeal of Gordon Jackson, Sean Connery, Jill Ireland, William Hartnell (Doctor Who), Sidney James (Carry On movies) and David McCallum. I admit I have an added affection for this movie due to my job running a small business in construction. Friends run a gravel business which I can assure you operates nothing like Hawlett’s, the hauling firm in this story. But you need no familiarity with the industry to enjoy this intense, noirish action drama; it’s a must for any movie fan.
Baker worked here with director Cy Endfield in one of many pictures they did together, a list that includes Zulu and Child in the House. I’m a fan of Baker’s, find him always intense and likable or, where not so likeable, intensely watchable. Here he’s an authentic, angry but righteous tough who won’t make trouble “unless he’s pushed,” is convincingly soft with his brother McCallum, deeply hurt by his mum’s rejection and brutal in a fistfight with McGoohan. As for McGoohan, now where to begin describing his work as a slouching thug, a modern day pirate with scarred-up face and precariously dangled (but it seems permanently attached, except for one moment) cigarette, a hard drinking, burping bully and scary, psychotic enemy. Lom is a lovable romantic who’s set up a mini church in the boarding house where he escapes to pray. He plans on marrying Cummins and taking her back to Italy, but she doesn’t share those feelings, and has eyes for Baker. The loyal Lom becomes a tragic figure when he switches truck numbers with Baker. Cummins and Baker have great chemistry, which is a big plus in helping her stand out as more than just the token girl among the macho men.
So many details and memorable bits stick in your memory after viewing: the ramshackle Dodge trucks with the failing brakes, the run down cafe called “The Pull Inn,” the dance hall scenes with drunken shenanigans, a big fight, truck footage wound up to impossibly, nearly comical speeds to simulate breakneck driving, Ma’s boarding house which amazingly still stands after the mob of truckers barrel in and out each day, and what you must by now have guessed just HAS to be in this movie, a road duel, a quarry cliff side drive to the death. The sets were mostly created at Pinewood Studios but look like lived-in places with character, and speaking of characters, as one IMdb reviewer puts it “what other film has a supporting cast featuring Chief Inspector Dreyfus, The Prisoner, a Dr Who, a Man From Uncle and a James Bond.” Hell Drivers is hard, tough, fast and gritty, makes you hang on to your seat as it races along and then hits you like a truckload of gravel from Hawlett’s.
This post is part of the British Invasion blogathon; click Sean here to go see all the other posts