Hell Drivers, Directed by Cy Endfield
At Film Forum Aug. 7-Sept. 3
When dark-eyed Stanley Black, a long-jawed, macho Morrissey type, picks up a spark plug and kisses it, Hell Drivers gets off to a great start. It’s part of Film Forum’s Brit Noir series (screening Aug. 21 & 22 in a double feature with Never Let Go), a marketable slant on what should be looked upon as England’s pre–Angry Young Man series of social dramas. This retrospective of little-known imports includes some fascinating entries like Dirk Bogarde in Victim and a James Mason sidebar featuring The Reckless Moment proving the wide range of film history that noir entails.
The 1957 Hell Drivers is obviously a Brit version of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s internationally celebrated 1950 classic Wages of Fear (about men working under life-or-death stress). Baker hires on to deliver gravel at top speed, endangering his life—for wages. It’s uncanny how Brits take continental existentialism like Clouzot’s as a workman’s everyday fact of life.
That noir reaches further into film culture can also be seen in Hell Drivers’ connection to the modern political and spiritual crisis of Paul W.S. Anderson’s recent action film Death Race. Hell Drivers’ test of nerves, related to a profound social understanding, makes it noir thematically—though hardly stylistically. But it bests the macho games-playing in the quasi-noir war film The Hurt Locker. This presentation of physical stress vivifies life experience that even good Brit playwrights Terence Rattigan and Arnold Wesker couldn’t do. It’s a successor to Humphrey Jennings’ poetic/documentary view of British life.
Director Cy Endfield, an American-born protégé of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, made his film career mostly in England. His road race scenes have a pulse-quickening, Wellesian kineticism and physical truth that should astonish Cameron-Wachowski fans who think excitement is synonymous with CGI. Though light on the Marxist symbolism (after relocating to England, Endfield denounced his own Marxist youth) Endfield’s semi-documentary approach to workplace conflicts recalls Kazan’s 1954 On the Waterfront—somehow never identified as noir, yet clearly a major influence on British film. The working-class personal/political tension leads to a splendidly drawn immigrant characterization by Herbert Lom and the human drama of Baker dangling from a precipice. Both remain memorable.