Endfield’s decision to shoot in black and white, rather than the showy Technicolor of many Rank films of the period, was a calculated one. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (himself an expert in colour filming, later winning Oscars for Cabaret and Tess) creates an effectively bleak, occasionally noir-ish mood with some beautifully subtle light sourcing. The scene of Tom and Lucy’s first kiss, lit by a single bulb, is incredibly potent, while the candlelit conversations between Gino and Tom convey the intense nature of their friendship.
But the film’s biggest attraction is the thrilling action shots of the seven-ton Bedford lorries racing through the Buckinghamshire countryside, screeching round the corners and running family cars off the roads. The BFI’s newly remastered presentation allows audiences to once again savour the macho exploits of the Hell Drivers on the big screen.
Waiter! There’s a fly in my film! – the restoration of Hell Drivers
If there’s one criterion that sums up the approach of the BFI National Archive team in mastering titles for release, it’s the aim to remove only those signs of time’s decay or the problems generated by previous, incorrect duplication. For that reason, this fly squashed into an original fine grain positive became a touchstone for us.
Hell Drivers was shot in the VistaVision format, as was Marlon Brando’s One-eyed Jacks (also showing in this year’s LFF). Indeed, Brando’s film was the last to be shot in VistaVision before the format was used for special effect backgrounds. This method had been devised by Paramount studios in order to create widescreen images in much higher quality than contemporary alternative systems, primarily the anamorphic Cinemascope.
VistaVision used 35mm film stock in the camera, but ran it horizontally so that images were captured across an area usually encountered in still photography: almost 36mm wide by 24mm high. After production and editing, the original negative was printed optically to make a 35mm film master in the usual ‘geometry’. The result was an image fitting within the standard four-perforation height and running vertically, which could be copied and run in cinemas without additional lenses. Widescreen projection was achieved from a print that was compatible with existing equipment.
Rank licensed VistaVision in the mid-1950s but Hell Drivers seems a curious choice for the format, especially when compared to White Christmas (1954) or The Searchers (1956). There are plenty of reasons to be grateful today, however, for Geoffrey Unsworth’s powerful combination of black-and-white and widescreen photography.
Thanks to the BFI National Archive’s preservation of an original, eight-perforation fine grain positive, printed from the original negative in 1957, the new digital masters could begin from the best existing source. After frame-by-frame scanning at Pinewood Post Production, the mastering happily taking place not far from the film’s production location, extensive image grading was used to present the photography in its glistening tones.
The digital grading tools were also needed to remove the appearance throughout of ‘d-lines’. These continuous lines are created when a particle trapped in the printer’s gate restricts light reaching the film stock. The result is a narrow line of light grey. Fortunately, a shape could be created, and tracked across shots and camera movement, to even out the appearance.
Simultaneously, we needed to find a sound source that matched the VistaVision copy – which is of the original UK release and not the shortened US version. Fortunately, three 35mm copies in ITV’s collection were loaned for analysis and the best track from those was digitised at very high specification for mastering and equalisation. Respecting the characteristics of the original mono mix, noise was reduced and the clicks and pops from particles on the track have been removed.
Removal of dirt and scratches is probably the best-known aspect of film remastering. Certainly, plenty of those have been removed from the new master of Hell Drivers, along with a reduction in the flicker caused by the printer’s lamp. In all cases, we’ve chosen to leave the texture of the original negative as it was produced. It’s for that reason, that we reluctantly recognised this fly as having been squashed in the printer between film negative and fine grain positive under pressure of a roller.
Perhaps appropriately, the affected shot is Tom’s tying of Ma West’s corset under her vigorous encouragement. The fly’s spectral appearance, a little like an x-ray, is due to its presence blocking light exposure to the positive. It has ‘minus density’. Understandably removed from the new digital release, it will remain preserved on both film and data tape in the National Archive’s collection.