Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Cracking Good Yarn

I didn't plan it this way, but over the Labor Day weekend, I saw an excellent film about the troubles of one working man in England and how he overcomes his daily struggles. Hell Drivers is the picture, released in 1957 and while it was a relatively low budget B-film, it's a heckuva film, a "cracking good yarn," as they'd say in England.

The film was directed and co-written by Cy Enfield (John Kruse was co-writer of the screenplay). Enfield was an American who was named a Communist at an HUAC meeting in 1951 and was summarily blacklisted; he moved to England soon after and wrote and directed several films, his most famous being Mysterious Island (1961) and Zulu (1964).

Given Enfield's political ousting from America, it's easy to understand the motives that were at work in Hell Drivers. It's a deceptively simple piece of work - I say that as a compliment - about a young man named Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) who, upon being released from a year in prison, looks for any sort of decent job to get back on his feet. As the film opens, he is inquiring about a job as a truck driver for a company in the gravel business - their fleet of drivers transports ballast over short distances several times during the day. Seems simple enough, but a necessary requirement of the job is to make as many runs in a day as possible - 12 is a minimum - but one driver, "Red" Redman (Patrick McGoohan) regularly completes 18 in a single day. Of course, the only way to approach that level is to drive as fast and as loose as possible, often with potentially dangerous results, as the drivers' route shares a few roads with local country traffic.

The title sequence, filmed from the P.O.V. of a driver's seat, puts us front and center into what these men face on a daily basis, as they maneuver twisty, narrow roads on the way to their destination. Filmed in stark black and white by the great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (who would go on to be the director of photography on such films as 2001: A Space Odyessy and Cabaret - he won as Oscar  for the latter), this brief introduction to the trucker's perils is edgy and a little rough around the edges in its approach, which is an ideal way to draw us into this world. This is followed a few minutes later by a test run that Tom takes with the assistant of the company boss, who gives him tips on how fast he must drive and how he needs to take turns. He narrowly survives more than one serious accident along the way - this is the first day, mind you -but as he needs an income, he takes the job.

Patrick McGoohan as Red (l.) and Stanley Baker as Tom

The conflict of this story involves how Tom has to deal with the rough and tumble attitude of Red. The latter not only makes the most runs per day (he fittingly drives truck number 1, while Tom works with truck number 13, an intriguing psychological quirk, to say the least), but also runs roughshod over the other drivers, who look upon him with a mix of fear and respect. You don't tangle with Red, as Tom is soon to discover and it's this subtext of the story that gives us a rooting interest in Tom. 

There's also a nice subplot about an Italian immigrant named Gino (beautifully played by Herbert Lom), who hates Red and befriends Tom in his quest to become the top driver. Gino has a girlfriend who happens to be keen on Tom; this piece of business is always in the background, but it quietly simmers, giving the film an even sharper edge.

What I loved about Hell Drivers is the straightforward, no nonsense way in which this story is told and how it unfolds. The character of Red is a bit clichéd, but thankfully McGoohan stops short of portraying him as a monster. The bottom line here is making the proper choice between greed or honor; combine that with a smart screenplay and pinpoint direction and you've got a B-film that makes the grade on just about every level. Maybe it was the humiliation of the blacklist that got Enfield to write this story/fable, but he definitely set about to right some wrongs and in doing so, he gave us a marvelous entertainment.

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