Hell Drivers (1957)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Cy Endfield (as C. Raker Endfield)

By Roderick Heath

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.

My second blogathon entry allows me to write all at once about British film noir, a favourite field for me and one that hasn’t had much attention so far, and about Cy Endfield, one of whose films we’re raising money to restore. Hell Drivers, a far too little-known, rip-roaring gem of a melodrama, is one of the best British films of the 1950s, all the more admirable these days for its galvanising mix of action and realism, and lack of pretension.

Pennsylvania-born Endfield was a magician and inventor who got into filmmaking after impressing Orson Welles with his sleight of hand and being allowed then to watch him make films. His directing career was gaining momentum when the McCarthy era intervened, and after making his last American film, Tarzan’s Savage Fury (1952), a final indignity, he took an offer of work in Britain. He made over a half-dozen films and did some TV work in his new homeland, usually under pseudonyms, in the four years after his arrival. Today, Endfield is chiefly remembered for his collaboration with Ray Harryhausen on Mysterious Island (1961) and his one epic, Zulu (1963), one of the few war films ever made that manages to celebrate courage and dedication without also celebrating militarism and nationalism. Endfield’s mixture of admiration and ambivalence for such qualities is a defining trait of his highly uneven career, which even after he’d reestablished his credibility as a director, continued to be buffeted by the problems of movie financing. His career finally petered out in the late ’60s with De Sade (1969).

Hell Drivers kicked off his five collaborations with Welsh actor-producer Stanley Baker, a rare, bonafide movie star in 1950s British cinema who’s unfortunately not well remembered — look at how Zulu is promoted these days on DVD covers and in commentaries using not Baker, but Michael Caine as the hook. But Baker, who had risen as a star playing scene-stealing louts and villains to become one of the first of a new breed of more explicitly rough-trade British movie star, put a lot of effort into fostering a strand of gritty, punchy, often socially relevant cinema. This made Endfield an ideal collaborator.

1957 was something of a watershed year for British cinema after many uncertain years following World War II, with David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai winning notice for prestige cinema, and Hammer Studio’s breakthrough with The Curse of Frankenstein signaling potential for the more disreputable kind. Meanwhile Brit-noir, under the powerful influence of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949), had percolated through the late ’40s and ’50s, often in very-low-budget thrillers and sometimes edging into war movies, with distinct imagery and themes that developed simultaneously to the American variety. Endfield followed in the tracks of his predecessor Jules Dassin in cross-breeding the two strands. Whilst, like American noir, the British variety had been powerfully influenced by Expressionism and French poetic realism from before the war, it also borrowed the veracity of Humphrey Jennings and John Grierson, documenting the waning days of imperial trade and industry amongst grimy streets, depleted shipyards, bomb sites, lingering austerity, and crummy jobs. Heroes were often relentlessly hounded.

One thing about Hell Drivers that catches the eye from a contemporary perspective is the number of future stars and cult figures in the cast: the first Doctor Who William Hartnell, the first James Bond Sean Connery, Danger Man and The Prisoner Patrick McGoohan, Man from U.N.C.L.E. costar David McCallum and his future wife Jill Ireland, Carry On alumnus Sid James, and Inspector Clouseau foil Herbert Lom. Hell Drivers also maintains a spiritual link to classic Warner Bros. social realism in the guise of punchy genre stuff, especially the likes of Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Manpower (1941). Endfield’s film, adapted by him and John Kruse from Kruse’s short story, commences with defeated and desperate Tom Yately (Baker) looking for a job at Hawletts, a construction company that employs drivers to cart loads of ballast gravel from a nearby quarry. Tom meets the agent who hires and runs the drivers, Cartley (Hartnell), who’s explicitly contemptuous, but seems vaguely impressed by Tom’s grit when he suggests to him, “You’re looking for a sucker, aren’t you?” Cartley is willing to turn a blind eye to Tom’s lack of credentials and self-evident status as a recent jailbird, just as Tom is willing to play the company’s game of driving heavy loads at dangerous speeds along narrow, rough, rural English roads for the sake of unusually high pay. Yately moves into a boarding house run by “Ma” West (Marjorie Rhodes) and is initiated into the circle of Hawlett’s drivers who all live there, too.

The drivers are mostly unruly roughnecks from various walks of the British working class, including Cockney wit Dusty (James), Tinker (Alfie Bass), a Scotsman (Gordon Jackson), Welshman Kates (Connery), and others. This collective is dominated by their pacesetter and foreman, “Red” Redman (McGoohan), a bristling, violent punk who keeps the team moving in the direction he wants with a mixture of physical bullying and showy, aggressively garrulous leadership. The only human amongst the drivers is Emmanuel Rossi (Lom), who, as an Italian, is stuck with the nickname Gino. A former prisoner of war who stuck around in England after the war, his essential decency is the chief reason he’s managed to snare the affections of Lucy (Peggy Cummins), Cartley’s denim-clad secretary who’s inevitably lusted after by all the boys. Once she slaps eyes on Tom, though, her affections transfer irrevocably, and Tom is equally attracted, but he maintains his distance as he becomes good friends with Gino. They form a partnership in an attempt to unseat Red as the pacesetter. There’s a reward in this effort: Red waves a cigarette case worth ₤250 in front of the crew’s noses each night, to be awarded to the man who can make more runs than Red, and Tom’s determined to be the man. With a chip on his shoulder after his prison stay, ostracised by his mother (Beatrice Varley), and hungry for self-respect, Tom wants both the cash and the glory. But he finds the odds against him lengthened when Red and the boys start a brawl at a social dance in the nearby town. Because Tom walks out on them, wishing to avoid trouble with the cops and disdaining that behaviour, Red labels him “Yellow-belly” and he faces relentless sabotage and insults from the team. This builds to a head when Gino convinces Tom to change truck numbers with him so that Gino absorbs the abuse and Tom has a clear field. Tom decides to leave town when Lucy breaks up with Gino and comes on to him, but Gino still goes ahead with the number swap, and is mortally injured when someone rides him off the road.

Hell Drivers is one of those films that feels like the beginning of something that would later gain momentum, with the emphasis on high-speed thrills that would be fulfilled in the car-chase craze of ’60s and ’70s genre films, through to the likes of The Fast and the Furious (2001). And yet it’s also the kind of film that virtually no one seems to be able to make anymore, in that it manages to effortlessly be many kinds of movie at once. It’s a pulp melodrama. It’s a character study. It’s a portrait of group dynamics, social processes, and ethical vices. It’s a neorealist, detail-driven portrait of people who actually work for a living, and those at the very fringes of modern Western society. Endfield’s angry, anti-establishment mood would prove to be the vanguard of a rich, new cultural zeitgeist. Most irresistibly, it’s obviously a vehicle for Endfield to express his outrage and frustration at the conspiracy of ostracism that chased him out of Hollywood. Whilst the story is bound up in a certain required amount of genre cliché, the deep motivations of the film, the emotional force of the underlying anger at being taunted and ridden into the ground by forces that are outrageous enough at first glance but hide an even more malevolent impetus, is palpable. Tom is blacklisted by the drivers for refusing to play along, and indeed by almost everyone else in his life. “For us it’s a life sentence!” his mother spitefully informs him when he returns home to visit her and his brother Jimmy (McCallum), eaten up by the ignominy. Notably, much as Endfield had worked under different names, Tom does, too—he first gives his name is Joe—and so is Gino, who obviously channels Endfield’s exile status.

It’s Endfield’s riposte to Elia Kazan’s squealer apologia On the Waterfront (1956) and his harder-driving, rebellious answer to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fatalistic The Wages of Fear (1953). That it was personal for Baker, too, is signaled when his character says he comes from a town in Wales named after a mountain above his own real home town. Climbing to the top of British cinema, which was still grooming its young would-be stars to be proper young gentlemen and ladies, must have indeed felt like climbing a mountain or outracing the bastards to Baker, his friend Richard Burton, and their followers, like Michael Caine and Albert Finney. Baker himself was a committed socialist. The film’s plot is explicitly about the exploitation of workers, a point that deepens when Tom finds out through Lucy that the scheme is a scam run by Red and Cartley, who is hiring fewer drivers than he’s budgeted for and pocketing the difference, and the “competition” Red inspires is to make sure the men make up for the lack of numbers. Red’s domination is due to the fact that he takes a short-cut across a dangerous abandoned quarry, and those who have tried to follow him across have often ended up dead, including Tom’s predecessor, whose “dead man’s shoes” Tom all but literally steps into. Tom’s troubles with Red and the gang commence long before he learns about the scam, however. Red’s first gesture in the film when he appears is to kick the chair upon which Tom sits out from under him. He’s committed the cardinal sin, set up as a vicious joke by the others, of sitting in Red’s place.

Red is embodied by McGoohan with bristling, oversized force. Chewing on cigarettes, sporting a sheepskin jacket when driving, and willing to do anything to maintain his bullish supremacy, McGoohan resembles some variety of Vandal or Viking strayed into the modern world, radiating physical power with his slightly hunched, apish shoulders signaling his perpetual readiness to pummel someone who gets in his road. It’s not a subtle performance, but it is a tremendously energetic, entertaining one that pushes both Yately and the plot along, and there is a truth in its vivid conflation of everything unattractive about the macho bully. Balancing it is Baker’s quietly excellent simplicity, apparent particularly in the scene in which he accepts his mother’s spurning with a momentary contemplation, and then, after a few unfussy words, leaves. He’s great playing a man who picks and chooses the battles he fights with great care, whilst refusing to let his mixture of shame and his desire to assert himself lock him into immobility. His and Red’s differing styles of arch masculinity finally, after endless provocation, erupt into fisticuffs. Yately roundly defeats Red, who puts the victory off onto some imaginary unsporting move of Tom’s. Red needs to maintain the image of the unbeatable man of action to keep the others in line. Gino, running interference for Tom during their efforts to unseat him, parks his truck in front of Red’s at one point: Red gets out and marches over in a rage to haul Gino out, only to open his door and see the huge spanner Gino is holding in readiness. Red gets a big laugh out of this challenge, even if it doesn’t disarm him in the slightest.

Around the central drama is an intricately described world, from Tom picking up a discarded spark plug from the Hawlett’s yard and kissing it like a rosary for luck, to Ma West getting Tom to do up the straps on her spine-supporting corset, to the small Catholic shrine Gino keeps in the vacant room Tom moves into in the boarding house, hiding it from the gaze of those who might laugh at him for it. There’s the seedy diner across the street where Jill (Ireland), Ma’s quiet young daughter, works. Jill’s crush on Tom is dashed when she sees the crackle between him and Lucy. Lucy is defined by an unusually determined independence, which fazes Tom, who hardly expects to be getting the hard word from a woman, least of all one his new best friend wants to marry. She vengefully stalks into the dance hall dressed to the nines and sparking the drivers to act like a pack of howler monkeys. Later, when Lucy breaks up with Gino, she comes to visit him whilst he works on his truck. Their flirtation suddenly combusts in a saucy moment as Tom kisses her neck and fumbles to put away the work lamp he’s holding, plunging them into dark. The dark is then broken, in an inspired and moody scene transition, by Gino’s lighting a match in the pitch darkness of his room in the boarding house: you can feel his solitude and humiliation, as well as the solace of the darkness. The triangle between the three is easily the film’s most superfluous element, but it’s worth noting that Lucy’s love is for Gino, much the same as Red’s cigarette case is for Tom, an illusory spur to a goal always out of reach.

Endfield’s feel for the American tradition is given away by the Western references in the storyline, from some of the occasional transatlantic slang that creeps in and character names, like Dusty and Red, that would pass in a Horse Opera, to the High Noon-ish final joust of Red and Tom. But the diner, the boarding house, the dance hall with its tacky swing band, the ramshackle Hawletts yard and the rural landscape dotted with industrial detritus, all fairly reek of the still-lingering depression and exhaustion of post-war, pre-Beatles England, a milieu that recurs again and again in Brit-noir. It’s not hard to sense why Tom, for all the reasons not to, hurls himself into the high-speed duel with Red and the system to try to win an edge, and the terse, get-on-with-the-job milieu has an unfussy honesty that feels a lot like the war is still being waged psychically. That’s especially telling on the only occasion the “officer” class appears, one of the senior managers of Hawletts, who arrives to break up Red and Tom’s fight. Tom, asked by Lucy if the rumours about his incarceration are true, retorts with refreshing honesty and refusal of pathos: “Yes, it’s true. And I wasn’t framed, and nobody talked me into anything. And the judge didn’t give me a raw deal!”

The kinetic force of Hell Drivers, introduced by a first-person camera charging along the roads in the opening credits, is quite remarkable for a film of the period. Although the under-cranking of the footage to boost the impression of the trucks’ speed gets a bit obvious in places, the pace and sharpness of the editing isn’t to be denied, and it’s also admirable that there isn’t a moment of back-projection in the film. There’s one quickly glimpsed bit of model work, but the rest of the movie is utterly three-dimensional. There’s a particularly riveting sequence early in the film in which Tom is shown the ropes by Hawletts’ old-timer mechanic Ed (Wilfred Lawson), who pulls out his stop-watch to time Tom’s run from the gravel pit to the yard. Even after Tom crashes off the road, forced to swerve by two other oncoming trucks, Ed reminds him the clock’s still ticking. If there’s a major fault with the film, it’s that the subplot about Cartley’s malfeasance and collaboration with Red in screwing over the drivers is introduced too late, and Red’s forcing Cartley to join him in his final attempt to kill Tom whilst he traverses the old quarry is a bit too convenient a way of knocking off both baddies. Also, Lom’s Italian accent is-a bit-a hard-a to take-a.

A key aide to Endfield’s rigorous cinema is cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. With his grandiose work on the likes of The Lion in Winter and 2001: A Space Odyssey still well ahead of him, his work here with Endfield sees VistaVision frames filled with islands of casually brilliant deep-focus photography, capturing shots bustling with actors and variegated source lighting, and interesting levels of action diffusing throughout those frames. When Red first appears, Endfield situates McGoohan not in the rear of a frame, or emerging into the shot, but front and centre in a deeply composed, almost painterly shot in which he lifts his head from a washtub in the back of the diner, with the dining table loaded with the other drivers and Tom seated in Red’s chair in the background and Jill and the diner owner in the mid-ground. Red turns, observes the drivers, Jill eyes Red, speaks a warning to him; Red patronisingly cups her chin and then walks over to Tom. Red’s physical potency and eye on his target are all immediately conveyed. Later, there’s an equally sharp moment in which Tom, fleeing town, stands in a phone booth, calling his brother and making arrangements to contact his old criminal pals again. In the background, Lucy enters and flurries about barely noticed for several seconds before spotting Tom and racing forth to extract him. The use of the focus here is as good as that of Wyler and Mizoguchi, confirms what Endfield had learnt from Welles, and anticipates the intelligence of the widescreen work of Zulu. Another felicitous moment sees Tom and Lucy, waiting for word of Gino’s condition in the hospital; the shot peers along the centre of the corridor, but Tom and Lucy are crowded by their own guilt and worry to one edge of the frame.

Even in the fairly regulation climax, there’s a great little succession of almost throwaway detail: Red doesn’t realise it, but he’s taken Tom’s sabotaged truck to chase him down, for Tom has gone off with Red’s. Red only just realises this a moment before his brakes fail, pitching him and Cartley off the side of a cliff, one of their bodies hurled out the windscreen as the truck hits the bottom in a lovely punitive flourish. The tension doesn’t let up until literally the final moments, as Tom revives within his own smashed truck, which is hanging on the edge of the cliff, waiting for the gravel in the tray to slowly pour out before he scrambles out of the cab. The chains of cause and effect here are both naturalistic yet intricately plotted. Endfield and Baker reunited a year later with Sea Fury (1958), where they tried and failed to repeat the elements of this film, but still came up with a strong action climax. In any event, Hell Drivers is British noir at its gamey best. It’s worth noting, however, that the British Free Cinema, which would soon rise up and displace this sort of melodrama whilst also taking up some aspects of it, would offer up characters like Albert Finney’s in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), who act in ways rather closer to Red than to Tom, starting fights in dance halls and getting wasted, and yet were the heroes.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    20th/02/2011 to 4:11 pm

    Great rundown on a neglected film! I was amazed by the stunt work with the trucks, myself. McGoohan had a great way with villainy, didn’t he? Baker is a fave or mine, he was so intense, which shows in this film – you’re quite right about the Western aspects of this one, the personalized trucks are like favorite hosses, cowboy.

    BTW, the film “Checkpoint”, which Baker made just previous to this one, may be the only racing car noir ever made, (I’m a shameless and compulsive gearhead film watcher!) and he just managed to outshine the race cars and the stunning scenery enough to make a dent in the movie. The Brit ‘B’ film industry threw everything and everyone they had at “Hell Drivers”, though, including a killer title. Great post, Rod!

  • Rod spoke:
    20th/02/2011 to 7:51 pm

    Hi, Van the Man. I have noticed that Hell Drivers has somewhat climbed the slippery rungs of critical reputation in Britain, like too many other good films that didn’t much attention at the time when Laurence Olivier was getting too much. I myself first discovered this on VHS, buried deep in the once-capacious Action section of my local video store (those were the days…), and it still desperately needs/deserves to be better known.

    My admiration for McGoohan grows with every role I’ve seen him in, indeed. Baker was really good too – I particularly like him as the creep of a First Lieutenant in The Cruel Sea and his neurotic hero part in The Guns of Navarone, as well as here.

    Yeah, I’ve seen Checkpoint, but not in a long time. It’s revealing that the 007 Stage is apparently built almost directly over where the Hawletts yard set was in Pinewood Studios – built on the foundations of this film and the other Brit Bs, almost literally.

  • James Russell spoke:
    20th/02/2011 to 9:07 pm

    I must confess to only having ever heard of this film through the William Hartnell connection, but considering who else is among the cast I’ve clearly been missing out on something interesting. Onto the must-see list it goes!

  • Rod spoke:
    20th/02/2011 to 9:59 pm

    I know what you mean about “the William Hartnell connection”, JR. That’s much the same way I first heard about Carry On Sergeant and This Sporting Life, in the dim dark days of my pre-adolescent Doctor Who fandom.

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