Wednesday February 22, 2017
Many car enthusiasts believe that Bullitt is the greatest car-related film of all time. In addition to that chase and Peter Yates’ direction, there is the brilliant support acting of Don Gordon, Simon Oakland and Robert Duvall, the locations and the music of Lalo Schifrin.
So, how could a 1957 British film shot in black and white with a plot concerning one Tom Yateley, an ex-con taking a job as a ballast driver hope to compete with this US cinematic icon? Especially as instead of a Ford Mustang 390 GT 2 +2 Fastback the hero drives a Kew-built Dodge 100 Series ‘Parrot Nose’. Yet I will give you ten reasons why I believe Hell Drivers is a more interesting motor vehicle-related film than Bullitt:
1) In what other film are you going to see The Prisoner and James Bond working for a crooked haulier run by the first Doctor Who? And when you add to a young Patrick McGoohan, a fresh-faced Sean Connery and a pre-Tardis William Hartnell, Sid James, Herbert Lom, a pre-Professionals Gordon Jackson and the great Stanley Baker in the lead, it is clear that Hell Drivers is an essential part of anyone’s DVD collection.
2) The chase sequence in Bullitt is indeed a masterpiece and everyone who has seen the picture will recall the Mustang and the black Dodge speeding through San Francisco. However, it is arguably even more of a challenge to make a 1955 Dodge tipper lorry look as though it is reaching speeds of 100 mph as it lurches through Buckinghamshire. Admittedly this effect was achieved via the director, Cy Enfield, undercranking the camera but the result was still unforgettable.
3) A controversial point for some fans but Stanley Baker and Sidney James are arguably both more interesting actors than Steve McQueen, whose range tended to encompass the cool and the taciturn or the taciturn and the cool.
4) One of the highpoints of Bullitt is the splendid performance from Robert Vaughan, a master at portraying smooth and very plausible corporate corruption; everyone who has seen the film remembers his Lincoln Continental limousine with ‘Support Your Local Police’ on the rear bumper. However the chief villain of Hell Drivers is an even more interesting figure, with Hartnell creating a seedy little man whose ill-gotten gains have only earned him one de-mob suit and a sit-up-and-beg Ford 103E Popular.
5) The period details of Hell Drivers have a fascination of their own; the lorries, some of which were on loan from WW Drinkwater of Denham, the wire spoked steering wheels and the amazing sight of Sean Connery sporting a quiff. Then there are the background vehicles, from the Standard Vanguard Phase 1 pick-up and the Austin K8 ‘Three-Way’ van.
6) Bullitt may have sun-drenched locations but it also has no equivalent of the hilarious yet very sinister mechanic of Wilfrid Lawson, whose job is to initiate Baker in the ways of driving a heavy goods vehicle like an utter maniac. ‘Suppose we meet something’ asks our hero, only to receive the reply ‘Supposing we don’t. Look on the bright side’.
7) McGoohan’s psychotic foreman C ‘Red’ Redmond is one of the great heavies of British cinema, variously starting fights, chain-smoking and swigging Scotch at the wheel throughout the film.
8) Yes, there are several inconsistencies in Hell Drivers – a Welsh protagonist apparently has a Scottish brother (David McCallum), a Dodge turning into a Leyland Comet after it descends from a cliff – but no more so that in Bullitt, which features cars with 16 hubcaps.
9) Unlike Jacqueline Bissett’s role in Bullitt, Peggy Cummins’ leading lady of Hell Drivers plays more of a central role in the drama, even if her war-surplus Willys Jeep lacks the glamour of a 1964 Porsche 356C Cabriolet.
10) That transport café – the hub of the haulier’s world and one of the least inviting eateries in cinema history. Sample menu – chips, lard, spam, more lard and sausages (with extra lard).
Of course, this is a deeply subjective Top Ten and nothing can distract from the enduring impact of Bullitt. Yet, Hell Drivers is a prime example of so many overlooked chase films made by British cinema, including Robbery, the 1967 Peter Yates-directed heist picture that deeply impressed one S McQueen. But more of that later…