The biggest problem with British thrillers of the 40s and 50s was their unfortunate tendency to water down the grimmer aspects of the stories. The result was that too many movies displayed an artificial “niceness”. Hell Drivers (1957), fortunately, avoids this trap by setting the story in a world that was far removed from middle-class respectability. Instead, it deals with men without roots risking their necks for a corrupt employer.
Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) is fresh out of prison and in need of a job to get him back on the straight and narrow. On the recommendation of a friend he approaches a haulage firm that has the reputation of paying good wages. This is a firm that takes on all manner of drifters on a no-questions-asked basis so long as they’re prepared to get the job done, even if it involves bending or breaking the law. Getting the job done means hauling as many loads of stone as possible at breakneck speed along winding provincial roads. The foreman and pacesetter is Red (Patrick McGoohan), an explosive Irish psychopath, who takes an immediate dislike to Tom. These two men’s mutual antipathy is at the heart of the film and leads first to a brutal fistfight, and later to the climactic trucking duel along the rim of a quarry. Along the way we learn the reason for the haulage firm’s insistence on speed, and there’s also a three way romance with Baker, Peggy Cummins and Herbert Lom.
The film provides a snapshot of working-class life of 1950s Britain; cheap rooming houses full of men who have no family and pasts that are perhaps best not dwelt upon. Free time is mostly spent hanging around the greasy spoon cafe, with occasional forays to the pictures or a local dance. In fact, it is in the depiction of one of these dances that we see the contrast between the world of the truckers and the more genteel society that the British film industry of the time frequently portrayed. The drivers don’t belong in this setting and the almost inevitable brawl that breaks out causes the further alienation of Baker’s character – he has to duck out on his companions since he can’t afford another run in with the law.
Hell Drivers is full of familiar faces: from a young Sean Connery, David McCallum and Jill Ireland to regular character actors Sid James, Wilfrid Lawson, Gordon Jackson and William Hartnell. While no-one gives a bad performance, the film really belongs to Baker, McGoohan and Lom in equal measure. Baker has an intense desperation about him as he tries to blot out his past, and assuage his guilt over the injuries he caused his younger brother, by earning an honest living. Yet he seems doomed to fail as his family spurn him and he betrays his only friend. McGoohan plays the kind of hard, aggressive Irishman I became only too familiar with myself, growing up around my father’s scrapyard in Northern Ireland. However, he takes it to a whole different level by giving us a leering psychotic barely able to control his animal instincts. Lom’s Gino is a touching and tragic figure; a former POW who dreams only of marrying Lucy (Peggy Cummins) and returning to his beloved Italy. I would hesitate to classify Hell Drivers as film noir, but these characters bring it close. There are no happy endings for any of them – even Baker’s romance appears to be built on a shaky foundation.
Hell Drivers is out on DVD in R2 from Network, and it’s an excellent anamorphic transfer. In fact it’s an excellent all-round package spread over two discs. The first disc has the film, commentary track, a Stanley Baker interview, a vintage featurette etc. Disc two holds episodes of Thriller and Danger Man, a documentary with Baker and more. There’s also a 24 page illustrated booklet in the case. This is one of the best British thrillers and it’s been treated to a deluxe presentation on shiny disc.