This dark, feral film invented British ‘kitchen sink’ drama

British cinema was slow to emulate the full grimness of American – or French – film noir, not least because of the maiden aunt sensibilities of our censors. The British new wave – the kitchen-sink, “it’s-grim-up-north” sort of film – is usually thought to start with Room at the Top in 1959: real working-class actors (or people doing effective impersonations of them) talking and behaving like working-class people. But there were precursors of the new wave, and one of the most notable is Hell Drivers.

Filmed in 1957, Hell Drivers is an examination of men acting in a gang, or as a pack, for whom machismo is the be-all and end-all of a claustrophobic, shallow life. Directed by Cy Endfield, a Hollywood refugee from McCarthysim who went on to make Zulu, it echoes the French masterpiece Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), made by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1953, about tough guys driving lorries in a Mexican oilfield. Hell Drivers, too, is about tough guys driving lorries, albeit this time carting gravel dangerously around the back roads of Buckinghamshire. The film could just as easily be interpreted as an attack on the perceived exploitation of the working class by the forces of capital, or the obsession with money that some who lack it acquire.

An ex-convict, Tom, played by Stanley Baker, turns up at a trucking company seeking work. For his interview he has to drive to a quarry, load up with gravel, and then deliver his cargo to its destination: in the course of the “interview” he learns that the brakes of his 10-ton truck don’t work – and that the man interviewing him lost his own licence for dangerous driving. The firm is not that particular about its staff and anyone who fails to do a dozen 20-mile round trips a day is fired.

Most can manage 13 or 14, but the leader of the pack, Red, played with psychopathic evil by Patrick McGoohan, has done 18. Payment is by results. No sooner has Tom joined than he starts to smell various rats.

Red does more runs than anyone else because he takes a dangerous shortcut across a disused quarry. Tom eventually discovers that Red and Cartley, the manager (William Hartnell, on especially repellent form) have a number of fake employees on the payroll, whose wages they pocket. Red takes against Tom because he does not join in with his gang of all the other drivers.

Then Red swindles him out of some money; the two men fight, and Tom wins. Red is hell bent on revenge. The gang of men (including Sid James, Gordon Jackson, Alfie Bass and Sean Connery: virtually every great character actor of the era is in the cast) exudes a brutish lack of intelligence that suggests an age before Christian civilisation.

Red gains their loyalty and admiration because he drives fastest and earns the most money, and because of his ruthlessness. When he decides to start bullying Tom, the other men are his passive accomplices, because in their system of values they lack both the individual will and the moral weight to question his moronic and vicious behaviour.

Road warriors: a poster for Hell DriversCredit: Alamy

There is one exception: Gino, an Italian prisoner of war who stayed on in England. A devout Roman Catholic, Gino longs to marry the business’s secretary, Lucy (Peggy Cummins).

He befriends Tom and tries to protect him from Red. Gino is played by Herbert Lom, very much against the rather sinister, dodgy foreigner type that Lom perfected in a series of British films in the 1950s and early 1960s. To help Tom become top driver, Gino suggests they swap lorries, but Red duly causes an accident – intended for Tom – that kills Gino instead.

Tom swears revenge, but once Red realises he hasn’t killed Tom, he tries to run him off the road – not just because he had failed earlier, but because he learns that Tom has rumbled their scam. Red does manage to force Tom almost over a cliff, but before he can finish the job, his brakes fail and he (and Cartley, whom he has taken with him) go over the same cliff, and end in a fireball. Hell Drivers is a profoundly feral film; there was nothing like it in British cinema beforehand.

The stunt drivers must have loved it; one trusts the Buckinghamshire natives were given ample warning before their minor roads were filled with these hurtling lorries.

This is a showpiece of 1950s culture, and a film truly to revel in.