Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hell Drivers

Psst! Wanna see a movie starring Number 6, 007, that stiff-upper-lip lieutenant out of ‘Zulu’, Dr Who, Inspector Clouseau’s boss out of the ‘Pink Panther’ films, “Bootsie” Bisley, George Cowley off ‘The Professionals’, one of the blokes in ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ and the guy with the dirtiest laugh in the ‘Carry On’ films?

“Yeah? You’re interested? Got just the thing for you, guv. The genuine article. Nice little 1957 British B-movie. Black-and-white and sharp as a knife. Pop in the back room and I’ll sort you out with copy. Cash only, like. Where did it come from? Fell off the back of a lorry, didn’t it?”

(Authorities arrive.)

(Trenchcoated, fedora-wearing spiv is carted off.)

(Normal service resumes at The Agitation of the Mind.)

But, to be fair, our newly nicked friend – presumably falling down some stairs at a nearby police station even as I type this article – has a point. Imagine it: a movie starring Patrick McGoohan, Sean Connery, Stanley Baker, William Hartnell, Herbert Lom, Alfie Bass, Gordon Jackson, David McCallum and Sid James.

An all-star cast, right?

Hmmmmm, sort of. An all-pre-star cast might be a better description. Connery was still five years away from his star-making turn in ‘Dr No’, Hartnell was six years away from being the first incarnation of a certain still-active time traveller, McGoohan and McCallum were seven years away from – respectively – ‘Danger Man’ and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ … and it would be another three years after that before McGoohan, who died two days ago at the age of 80, gave British television its finest hour (or rather its finest 13 hour-long episodes) with ‘The Prisoner’, a satirical, subversive, surreal, genre-defying and truly original masterpiece of the medium.

(Parenthetically, Jackson and James had probably had the most notable careers at that point, both starring in perennial Ealing favourites – ‘Whisky Galore’ and ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ respectively – and James delivering a scene-stealing performance as Knucksie the barman in Powell & Pressburger’s ‘The Small Back Room’.)

Was it serendipity that brought all these soon-to-be-greats together for ‘Hell Drivers’, or did director Cy Endfield have a unique eye for talent? It really doesn’t matter. The point is, ‘Hell Drivers’ is a hard as nails, tough-talking, two-fisted, pedal-to-the-metal B-movie that breaks the mold. B-movies were often referred to as “the little picture”. Not this one. ‘Hell Drivers’ stands tall in post-war British cinema and throws a long and enduring shadow.

Although Stanley Baker is the headliner (he and director Cy Endfield went on to form a production company together to bring ‘Zulu’ to the screen), it’s Patrick McGoohan’s ballsy, menacing performance that defines ‘Hell Drivers’.

The plot, in a nutshell: recently released ex-con Tom Yately (Baker) goes to work for a two-bit trucking company managed by the irascible Cartley (Hartnell) and whose lead driver “Red” Redman (McGoohan) is a truculent bully forever brawling, chewing on a cigarette and downing Guinness at the wheel. Yately is still stewing over a road accident he caused, in which his younger brother Jimmy (McCallum) was injured. Discovering the corruption, swindling and dangerous driving conditions his fellow truckers are coerced into, Yately is compelled to make a stand.

It could almost be a western. And to be honest, the narrative doesn’t matter. It’s Endfield’s commitment to gritty realism that makes ‘Hell Drivers’ a bona fide classic. My father was starting out in the road haulage business in the late fifties and all of his recollections, as well as details he’s pointed out to me whilst watching the film, identify the film as being the real deal, with the (obligatory for the day) exception of the language being considerably toned down.

‘Hell Drivers’ inhabits a milieu of truck stops, digs and haulage yards. There is camaraderie, but also rivalry. The drivers – pulling in long hours and driving recklessly fast to make up their runs – live for booze, birds and brawling. Outside of the films of Sam Peckinpah, it’s one of the most nihilistically accurate portrayals of how men interact. Particularly when that interaction explodes into violence. The inevitable punch-up between Yately and Redman is brutal and intense, anticipating the visceral hand-to-hand of the Bourne films by fifty years.

Everyone wears their role like a threadbare donkey jacket. Endfield directs with the speed and velocity of one of the Dodge trucks. And Patrick McGoohan, a decade before he re-defined what the small screen was capable of, tears up the big screen like a man possessed.

i.m. Patrick McGoohan (19 March 1928 – 13 January 2009)

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