Above: Patrick McGoohan (far left) and Stanley Baker (right).
Four decades on, Hell Drivers (Endfield, UK, 1957) still works as a no-nonsense action thriller, and an ideal vehicle for its star, Stanley Baker. He’s Joe ( “call me Tom”) Yately, just out of nick, desperate for work and thus suitable fodder for a shady backwoods trucking operation. No questions asked: just keep your foot on the pedal and your eye on the clock. But it isn’t long before ramrod-straight Joe clashes with wild-eyed lead-driver Red (Patrick McGoohan) both on the road – and off it…
Endfield (of Zulu fame) goes full-tilt down b-movie alley – this is a convincingly dead-end corner of rural Britain, and what we see of the city isn’t much more appealing. The shadow of the war hangs over these men - brawling, boozing, leather-jacketed cousins of their Hell’s Angels counterparts in the US - forced by the tough realities of the peacetime economy down increasingly desperate routes in search of kicks and cash.
Some of the dialogue strains too blatantly towards the hardboiled (“Don’t you characters ever say please?” complains a railway-station ticket-seller), veering towards the inadvertently humourous. There is one early sequence that’s played for laughs - Baker is put through his paces by a grizzled old souse (Wilfred Lawson, stealing the picture) who goads him ever quicker round the treacherous dirt-road bends – and it’s a deadpan comic highlight, but the prevailing tone is as dour as Baker’s perpetual bulldog-chewing-wasp scowl. The only unconvincing note he strikes in the whole picture is when Joe/Tom has to burst out laughing - that never was Baker’s game. He remains the hardest film star Britain ever produced, and much of Hell Drivers’ appeal lies in watching him square up to McGoohan’ swaggering, hunched, decidedly simian alpha-male, a few inches taller than his rival and unnervingly convincing in his psychosis.
It’s not least a fascinating a clash of acting styles, the slow-burning McGoohan roaring gleefully over the top while Baker underplays as grimly as ever. There’s genuine tension between them, steadily building towards a satisfyingly bone-crunching slug-fest that gives the actual finale a distinctly anti-climactic air.
As the two heavyweights go at it, the rest of the cast wisely keep out of the way - and what a cast it is: Peggy (Gun Crazy)Cummins as Baker’s love interest (nice touch – they’re both Welsh), a fresh-faced Neil (Man From UNCLE) McCallum as his brother, a pre-Dr Who William Hartnell as his corrupt boss, and a pre-Carry On Sid James, a pre-Pink Panther Herbert Lom and a 27-year-old Sean Connery as his fellow drivers. It’s bizarrely easy to overlook Connery’s presence here - he lolls on the sidelines, learning the ropes from Baker and McGoohan, never suspecting that his whole career was to hinge on the latter’s rejection of the lead in a spy thriller called Dr No.