Fast Film Friday: A Race For Life
Your eyes do not deceive you. That is the treacherous Don Barzini from The Godfather as a grand prix driver in Mask of Dust. This 1954 British movie was produced by Hammer Films, best known for horror movies like 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein (here’s a review from our friends at B&S About Movies). Before they found their niche, Hammer Films took footage of the 1953 Formula 1 season, added some melodramatic ‘plot’ to fill up the run time, and created this B-Movie masterpiece.
Released in the USA as A Race for Life, the movie tells the tale of racing driver Peter Wells (silver screen star Richard Conte) a former champion who hadn’t won a race in two years. In the opening scene, Wells hops out of his race car after practice (filmed at Goodwood Circuit in England) thinking he’d laid down blistering times, only to be shocked at his slow laps. The pit crew tries to blame the carburetor, but Wells knows the truth… he’s lost his mojo. His younger, better, faster, stronger teammate tries to convince the team boss that which is obvious to all; Wells is all washed up.
Fellow racers tell Wells to hang up the goggles. Wells’ hot blonde wife even tells him to quit and tells him some drivel about wanting a cottage, a white picket fence, and him not to die. She does not understand that a man like Wells, a superstar racer, cannot quit when he’s down. He needs one more win.
Let’s just get through the rest of the plot quickly. During a race, a rival is critically hurt in a wreck. Wells abandons his car while leading the race, and rushes to the hospital. Team boss is pissed off, and gives Wells’ race car to his young teammate. Wife is pissed off, and leaves Wells rather than watch him face the same fate.
After 30 minutes of self-doubt and hand-wringing, the filmmakers mercifully added one more racing sequence (possibly shot at Oulton Park). The 1950’s Formula 1 cars take their place as the stars of the movie. Front-engined Ferraris speed around treacherous corners, the tree-lined track looking deadly and devoid of safety measures.
Raw footage of grand prix cars is interspersed with some of the worst phony-baloney onboard shots ever filmed. You can only assume this was the maximum special effects of the day, but gosh, would it have been so hard to put a race car on a trailer, and film Richard Conte from the back of a pickup truck?
In a challenge of man versus machine, the race car spits hot oil at Wells, reminiscent of the flames Mickey Rooney drives through in The Big Wheel. Wells’ feet and legs are being burned by the overheating engine. But there’s no quit in Wells! It’s not just a race…it’s a race for his life! You’ll never guess how it ends.
Who cares! If you just ignore the ‘acting’ and ‘plot’ you’ll see that this film provides an rare glimpse into racing action from the genesis of Formula 1, those earliest years. The film includes racing footage of Sir Stirling Moss and John Cooper, so it must be viewed as a preserved piece of history, and not just a B-movie. This one is a champion!
This great old racing movie can be found on Cult Cinema Classics channel on YouTube.