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"Roaring Down the World's Deadliest Roads!" in Hell Drivers 

January 13, 2016

Disclosure: Peggy Cummins has mesmerized me ever since I first watched her in Gun Crazy (1950) years ago. Her resume isn't long, and about half her films are British productions, but I've always scouted out her movies. However, her role in Gun Crazy is so entrenched in my mind that it's almost difficult to accept her in a comedy or any role where she doesn't portray a hot-blooded femme fatale.


Side note: In reality, I've attended a Q&A with her after a screening of Gun Crazy and you couldn't find a more adorable, soft spoken English lady to listen to for an hour. It's truly remarkable that she could have ever played a woman as deadly or dangerous as Annie Laurie Starr.


Well...this picture, 1957's Hell Drivers, comes kind of close to Gun Crazy. Sub trucks for guns and keep the violence and you've got a similarity, though as opposed to Gun Crazy, Cummins doesn't actively partake in the brutality nor does she directly cause any deaths here. A British production from blacklisted writer/director Cy Endfield, Hell Drivers can be pretty accurately summed up by the below poster. Men, trucks, recklessness, and ferocity. 

The Movie

Joe (Stanley Baker) walks in to a trucking company to find a job. Boss Cartley (William Hartnell) gives it to him straight: He wants guys with guts who will drive a minimum of 12 runs a day, 50 mph or more, on bad roads. Joe accepts a test run and is paired with an old timer who gives him tips on how to drive reckless enough to get the job done.  

Joe (Stanley Baker) receiving a lesson in dangerous driving.

Cartley gives Joe truck 13. When sultry secretary Lucy (Peggy Cummins) asks for his papers, he replies that he's been away for a while, and though it sounds funny, he prefers to be called Tom. Tom's shadiness doesn't faze Lucy, who flirts incessantly with him.  


Tom rents a room in a dingy boarding house where he meets fellow truck driver Gino (Herbert Lom). Gino warns Tom to watch out for Red (Patrick McGoohan), the temperamental driver of truck 1 who will stop at nothing to make the most runs each day. Gino also tells Tom that Lucy's his girl.

Joe/now Tom making friends with Gino (Herbert Lom).

Red instantly looks upon Tom as a threat, and the two men quickly engage in a raging, dangerous race that Red wins. Tom notices that Red takes a shortcut through a quarry, but Gino warns him that the move is extremely dangerous.


One night, Tom ducks out of a fight that breaks out at a town dance, and the truckers mess with Tom's vehicle when he returns to work. Tom’s had it and attempts the quarry shortcut to beat Red, but it isn’t enough. Gino makes a deal with him: he’ll change plates with Tom - giving Tom plate 3 on truck 13 - so the boys will meddle with Gino instead.

Gino warning Red (Patrick McGoohan) not to mess with him by way of a threatening wrench.

Lucy pays Tom a visit one night to inform him that she's confessed her (non)feelings to Gino, and Tom finally relents, aka gives up, and kisses her. Tom must have regretted that move, because the next day he buys a one way ticket to London. However, before he can leave, Lucy rushes in to tell him that Gino's been badly burned in an accident.


At the hospital, Lucy spills the beans: Cartley is contracted for an extra five drivers, but he pushes the men to the brink so the company makes their quota while he splits the extra £200 with Red. Cartley hires drifters like Tom because he knows they’ll take the job, no questions asked.


Tom and Lucy try to soothe Gino’s mind during his final moments, but Gino knows the truth.  Gino talks to Tom about the changed truck plates, and it dawns on him: the men thought Gino was Tom.

Tom and Lucy (Peggy Cummins) before going in to see Gino.

Tom confronts Cartley, who tries to cut him into the deal. Tom refuses. He takes truck 1, Red and Cartley grab truck 3, and Lucy follows close behind. Red is dead set on pushing Tom over a cliff, but miraculously Tom's truck comes to a stop on the edge. Roaring ahead, Red quickly discovers that the brakes aren’t working and realizes he actually has truck 13 because of Gino’s switch, a car he cut the brakes on! Red and Cartley plummet over the cliff, while Tom pulls himself out of the truck as Lucy rolls up just in time to rescue him.

Welcome to Red and Tom's race to the death.

Besides the driving...

Hell Drivers sparked my interest because 1. Peggy Cummins, as noted above, 2. the title, and 3. the British-ness. I've a fascination with British films, particularly darker ones from the 40s-50s, and I'm not sure why.


Though I enjoyed the movie, near the end of its 1:45 runtime it started to feel repetitive - grown up boys fighting over trucks, life size, deadly machine trucks, over and over again. The action and consequent adrenaline rushes were clearly priority in this production, especially since there's no real explanation for the absolutely insane working conditions for most of the picture until Lucy reveals the truth near the end. That confession helped make some sense of things, but it was too little, too late; the bulk of the story really lends itself more to big auto battles and the war that Red and Tom wage, which is actually one of my biggest questions - why is it Tom's personal goal to beat Red? Is it just because Red takes a (random) instant disliking to Tom and Tom hates shady, no-good guys like him? No one else in the company really seems to care that Red acts like he does!

Tom keeping count in his deadly race with Red.

Tom plagued by Red and Cartley (William Hartnell).

OK, I will admit that there was a little more going on than just the crazy driving. One piece of the production that particularly stood out was the cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, who captured some excellently framed moments. For example, several scenes taking place in the trucks were shot from below the wheel angled upwards (a device used to great effect in Gun Crazy), capturing the drivers in the midst of their terrifying, maddening race to glory. 

Not sure what Red is drinking here, but the low camera angle makes him all the more badass/treacherous.

Unsworth also beautifully utilized depth of field in the hospital scene with Tom and Lucy: the two stand in the foreground, nervously looking at each other, as a nurse tends to Gino in the middle and a priest, behind her, recites Gino's Last Rites. So much tension, sorrow, and tragedy occur on all three planes in those few frames, yet nary a word is uttered.  

What skillful composition in this screenshot.

Finally, fantastic lighting and editing reign in a sequence that represents a turning point for Lucy, Tom, and Gino. Tom works on his truck by the light of one single, high-powered bulb when Lucy makes an appearance. He turns out the light after they kiss, and the frame remains dark for a few seconds before cutting to Gino, in his room, lighting a match. Gino's flame illuminates the room for a few seconds before he blows it out and sadly looks down at the ring meant for Lucy.

How convenient that light is right there!

Gino's match is no competition for the strong diffusion above.

Director Cy Endfield was nominated for a BAFTA with co-writer John Kruse for Best British Screenplay for Hell Drivers, which is...rather surprising to me. In my opinion, Endfield's sturdy direction was the stronger of the two on this picture; while the end result still came across as a little too chaotic for my taste, the film didn't go completely overboard when it could have, and I have to give Endfield credit for keeping everything contained...just enough. With regards to the basic story, it felt very bare bones, only fleshed out by the strong performances from the cast, who didn't have much to work with. However, on that note...


Yes, there were characters in addition to the trucks

This is the first film of Stanley Bakers' that I've seen, and it definitely won't be the last. His Tom reminds me of those badass every-day heroes who bubble just underneath the surface, ala a Marlon Brando or James Dean. His character is working hard to make a go of it and turn his life around, but as a short scene with his family and most all of his interactions with Lucy show, that won't be an easy task. The script doesn't provide much of a background for Tom, which can make it harder to feel sympathetic for him in the beginning, but as he evolves, his actions speak louder on his behalf.

Tom standing up to Red. Or an attempt to stand up to Red.

As for Peggy Cummins, her Lucy exhibits shades of Annie Laurie Starr - both women use their sexuality to get what they want, for one - but whereas in Gun Crazy she simply smoldered with an electrifying, seductive volatility, in Hell Drivers she leans towards sleazy with a more depressed desperation: “You think I’m flinging myself at you, don’t you?” she asks Tom at one point. “You’re giving a pretty fair imitation,” he replies. Yes, yes she was. Forlorn, she may be at points, but when she whispers to Tom in the food line at the town dance, "Come on, let's dance. Come on..." it's clear that she's certainly still got that breathy tempting look and sound down pat.

Stand down, Tom. Stand down.

Despite netting Gino, a sincere soul who's naive enough to take Lucy's quest for companionship as genuine interest, Lucy definitely isn't looking for "nice" or "good" by the looks of it. Perhaps Red would suit her best, or is he too brutal? Patrick McGoohan's portrayal of Red definitely outdoes Cummins in terms of vicious depravity, as Lucy's wickedness hurts select men emotionally as opposed to physically. Though Lucy certainly undergoes a transformation over the course of the film whereas Red does not, both at least begin as rather sordid characters; it would have been a cheeky move if Endfield had thrown in a reference to Lucy and Red together, because I'm sure that pairing would have made for one explosive relationship in so many ways.



How to play with trucks, big boy style:

When I started writing this piece, Hell Drivers was available for streaming on Amazon, but as of this posting the film is currently unavailable. However, if you happen to live in Los Angeles, you're in luck! The UCLA Film and Television Archive will be screening the film as part of their Cy Endfield retrospective on Saturday, January 16 at 7:30. The movie shares a double bill with Sea Fury, also made in 1957. It may be your only chance to catch the picture...for now at least.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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