Hell Is A City – DVD review

Director: Val Guest
Writers: Val Guest (screenplay), Maurice Procter (novel)
Stars: Stanley Baker, John Crawford and Donald Pleasence
IMDB page here.

Based upon the 1954 novel by crime novelist Maurice Procter, a former policeman who served for 19 years with the Halifax police force, Hell Is A City is a highly effective and punchy 1960 British Film Noir/police procedural drama, mostly set on the mean streets of Manchester.

Made by the famous Hammer film studio and directed and written by one of its star directors, Val Guest (The Quatermass Xperiment, Expresso Bongo, The Day The Earth Caught Fire), Hell Is A City is most notable for a driving, Elmer Bernstein style Crime Jazz score by Stanley Black, Arthur Grant’s (The Curse Of The Werewolf, The Devil Rides Out) lush black and white cinematography depicting a forbidding and mostly vanished post war Manchester and by a fine cast, lead by the irreplaceable Stanley Baker.

The opening titles of the movie set the tone: shot from the back seat of speeding police car, the silhouettes of the driver and his partner face the icky blackness of the night, illuminated by their car headlights, ominous speckles of neon and the street lights of central Manchester, while Stanley Black’s (in the early 1950s he habitually topped the Melody Maker chart of the most-heard musicians on radio) blaring big band soundtrack blasts a suitably portentous accompaniment. Guest transforms Manchester into a twilight vision of urban inferno Manhattan, as it was envisioned by fellow Brit Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 classic Sweet Smell Of Success.

Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker: The Cruel Sea, Zulu, Accident) is a tough, dedicated police inspector on the trail of Don Starling (John Crawford: The Enforcer), who escaped from prison after serving 5 years of his 14-year prison sentence for a jewelry robbery, and killed a warden in the process. Inspector Martineau was the arresting officer and knew the troubled Starling from his youth. He suspects Starling will be traveling to Manchester to recover the stolen jewels he hid away before being convicted.

As Martineau deduces, Starling returns undetected to Manchester and goes to see Laurie Lovett (Charles Morgan: Sergeant Cork), who was in on the jewelry heist. Grateful Starling never turned him in Lovett finds him a place to hide at night. He reveals his plans to get a phony passport and flee the country, but not until he gets all the money he needs to implement his escape. He plans the next day to rob the bookmaker Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence: Halloween) of his gambling take with the help of Lovett’s gang.

The robbery expectedly does not go as planned and the gang is forced to disappear in different directions. Starling contacts Gus’ wife Chloe (Billie Whitelaw: The Omen, Frenzy) with whom he previously had an affair. She hides him in the attic located in the bedroom but when Gus takes a peek thinking he heard a noise, he is hit on the head and hospitalized with a concussion as the police take note that Starling has been spotted for the first time in Manchester and thereby connect him to the robbery.

As inspector Martineau tracks Starling down, the gang fall one by one, until only the murderer is left.

Upon its release in 1960 Hell Is A City was acclaimed for its realism, bold depiction of violence and gritty Manchester locations, while nominated for two British Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Most Promising Newcomer for Billie Whitelaw. More than half a century later, the films faults are glaringly obvious ”“ the portrayal of the troubled domestic life of Martineau and his wife is unconvincing (all would be well if she would just submit to his desire to bear him children), American actor John Crawford’s complete inability to muster a halfway convincing English, let alone Mancunian, accent, a somewhat clichéd illustration of working class life and the sanitized depiction of the Manchester police force, which is without any single taint of corruption lurking in the shadows.

Yet the fantastic Stanley Baker’s intensely committed performance, which highlights the fact that the obsessed Martineau has really no life outside police work and that he will freely use any degree of emotional blackmail upon those he questions, regardless of the consequences, in order to catch Starling, endures. Coupled with Grant’s striking location photography (very well served by this digitally re-mastered DVD) of vintage Greater Manchester locations (including Piccadilly Gardens, Moss Side, Oldham, Levenshulme and Strangeways prison) and Black’s propulsive score, Hell Is A City remains an exciting proposition.

All words by Ian Johnston. You can read more from Ian on LTW here.

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