Thursday, 28 April 2011

Hell Drivers - 1957

A vigorous, violent and thoroughly enjoyable ride, Hell Drivers (d. Cy Endfield, 1957) is saved from the B-movie graveyard by taut plotting, tense direction and potent performances. Stanley Baker is impressive as troubled ex-con Joe, haunted by a driving accident that crippled his brother, who drifts into a new job and ends up confronting corruption and murder.
Set among the swaggering drivers of a road haulage yard, Hell Drivers is an unusually tough film for its time, which, with its mix of regional, working-class characters, its natural, uncompromising performances and its bleak, black and white aesthetics, has something in common with the emerging British New Wave. The setting is an unidentified dead-end semi-rural wasteland, punctuated only by a greasy spoon café, a run-down guesthouse and the tawdry local hop, where the drivers vent their bottled-up aggression on the boyfriends of the local women.
An unusually strong supporting cast is led by Patrick McGoohan as Joe's arch-rival Red, and also includes William Hartnell, Herbert Lom, Sid James, Wilfred Lawson and a pre-Bond Sean Connery. In the film's only significant female role, Peggy Cummins is particularly good as Lucy, the sexy, tough but finally tender femme-fatale caught in the centre of a whirlwind of testosterone. Endfield delivers the thrills with some jaw-tightening driving sequences, as the fleet of decrepit trucks compete at breakneck speed along narrow and potholed country roads to carry off the trophy for most deliveries in a day.
It is a supremely macho film - a study of male aggression and rivalry, skill and professional pride which evokes memories of the great American director Howard Hawks and covers similar territory (although not quite so impressively) to the French classic The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur, France/Italy, d. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953), which was itself a model for the later Speed (US, d. Jan de Bont, 1994).



Published by


Volume 24, No.283, August 1957, page 102


Released from prison, Tom secures a job as a driver of a ballast lorry for a company which demands a minimum twelve hauls per day. There is a bonus system and good wages, but a driver who falls below the minimum number of hauls is promptly sacked. Fast driving on death-trap roads is demanded of all drivers. The foreman, Red, is the pacemaker and champion driver; and tension between him and Tom reaches its climax when Red attempts to send Tom's lorry hurtling over the edge of a quarry, after Tom has uncovered a racket operated by Red. Red meets his death in the manner intended for Tom.

This extraordinary film may interest future historians for its description of road haulage and masculine social behaviour in the mid-twentieth century; perhaps fortunately, however, it is so unconvincing in every respect that even the most gullible could not accept it as a representative picture of either. There are some good individual acting performances, but the film, though produced with efficiency and assurance, is disagreeable and occasionally vicious.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

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