Hell Bound presents a clever twist on the "perfect crime" caper. There's a brilliant mastermind, an intricate scheme, a motley crew, a potential femme fatale and a sensibility that would be right at home in the merciless universe of film noir. That hard-bitten attitude is not surprising given the film's creators. Hell Bound was produced by Bel-Air Productions, an independent filmmaking outfit created by director Howard W. Koch with veteran producer Aubrey Schenck and financier Edwin F. Zabel to turn out B-movies and low-budget features. Koch had made his directorial debut with the film noir Shield for Murder (1954), a crime thriller about a corrupt cop, and he brought a brutal edge to the prison break thriller Big House, U.S.A. (1955) for his own company. Screenwriter Richard H. Landau, a jack of all trades who had dozens of budget-minded films to his credit, wrote the story for Roadblock (1951) and scripts to the noir-tinged science fiction thriller The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Blonde Bait (1956).
For Hell Bound, Koch stepped back to produce and plucked a neophyte for the director's chair. William J. Hole Jr., a former script supervisor, made his directorial debut and gave the low-budget production a few memorable set pieces. The plot involves surplus military drugs being shipped into Los Angeles and the filmmakers shot much of the film on location at Los Angeles Harbor in the San Pedro and Wilmington neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The climactic chase moves from the docks to a scrap yard near the harbor where hundreds of discarded "Red Car" electric trolleys were stored, stacked three high in an imposing wall of metal, providing a unique and memorable backdrop.
Cast in the leading role of the caper mastermind is the strapping John Russell, a decorated Marine who became a reliable, rugged supporting actor in such films as Yellow Sky (1948) and Man in the Saddle (1951) and a leading man on the small screen in Soldiers of Fortune (1955-1957). He went on to star in the popular TV Western Lawman (1958-1962) and play the rancher villain in Rio Bravo (1959) opposite John Wayne and Dean Martin.
Stuart Whitman was promoted from a small role in Koch's The Girl in Black Stockings (1957) to a dedicated ambulance doctor, the closest the film has to a hero. He went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for his intense performance in The Mark (1961) and star opposite John Wayne in The Comancheros (1961), and he took the lead in the short-lived but much-acclaimed Cimarron Strip (1967-1968).
Hell Bound gave June Blair her first leading role. She was cast with only a couple of TV appearances and a few uncredited big screen appearances to her credit, but she also had been featured as Playboy's January 1957 centerfold just months before the production went before the cameras. In 1961, she married David Nelson and joined the cast of the hit TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as June Nelson, wife of David. It marked her final screen appearance; when the show ended in 1966, she retired from screen acting.
The production was initially given the title "Dope Ship" but pressure from exhibitors forced producers Aubrey Schenck and Howard W. Koch to change the name, first to "Cargo X," and then finally Hell Bound. Director Hole directed a few more films during his career but became busy directing episodic TV and found success as a producer and director on the hit night-time soap opera Peyton Place. Producer Howard Koch's career, however, went on to bigger and better things. After splitting with Schenck, he went to work for Frank Sinatra's Sinatra Enterprises, where he produced the landmark conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962), served as head of production at Paramount Pictures and produced the original feature version of The Odd Couple (1968), the cult comedy Airplane! (1980) and eight editions of the Annual Academy Awards TV specials.