After featuring the film that gave Stanley Baker his first break (The Cruel Sea) and one he produced and starred in once established (Robbery), this week I suggest that you take a look at the thrilling film that made him a star in 1957: Hell Drivers.
The plot is agreeably simple. Baker plays Tom Yately, a tough but moral ex-con trying to go straight. He takes a job at a trucking firm managed by a ruthless boss (William Hartnell, who effectively plays the villain here, albeit of a different type than in Brighton Rock). The business would give OSHA a coronary. The truckers are assigned to ship gravel from a mine to a worksite many times a day, getting paid more money the more trips they make. They respond by driving like maniacs, at significant risk to themselves and others. And they all compete to topple the domineering, violent and reckless “Red” (Patrick McGoohan) as the top driver of the crew. Meanwhile, Tom befriends a kindly, devout Italian driver named Gino (a spot on Herbert Lom) whose girlfriend (Peggy Cummins) begins to put the moves on him.
The driving scenes in this movie are thrillingly shot by the justly revered Geoffrey Unsworth (For another example of his prowess with a camera, see my review of Unman, Wittering and Zigo). This includes the ultimate driving test from hell for Tom Yatley, in which he is accompanied by a perfectly droll Wilfrid Lawson as the firm’s mechanic. The final confrontation of the film, as Red and Tom have a trucking duel in an abandoned quarry, is particularly well-done and highly satisfying.
Blacklisted writer-director Cy Endfield specialised in male-dominated, melodramatic films, and this is one of his best (He and Baker worked together many times, most famously in the epic Zulu). Other than McGoohan, who is disappointingly one-note here (he got much better later in his career), the men in the cast deliver solid performances.
But the one woman with a big part nearly steals the show. Peggy Cummins, whose disappointingly bland performance in another 1957 film I have commented on here, deserves special mention for being back in top form in Hell Drivers. As in Gun Crazy, she nails the part of the the edgy girl who has fire and sex appeal.
In addition to being entertaining and exciting in its own right, Hell Drivers is fun for fans of British science fiction and spy movies. That’s because it includes a future Dr. Who (Hartnoll), UNCLE agent Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), Prisoner Number 6 (McGoohan), British Secret Service Agent 007 (Sean Connery) and a fellow who turned down the chance to play James Bond (Baker).