Hell Is a City, 1960.
Directed by Val Guest.
Starring Stanley Baker, Maxine Audley and Billie Whitelaw.
World-weary police inspector Harry Martineau is on the trail of tough escaped convict and jewel thief Don Starling. His search ends up in Manchester, where the two men play a cat and mouse game of chase across the gangster and moll inhabited city…
A tense British thriller, Hell Is a City takes its stylistic and atmospheric cues from the Hollywood school of film-noir pictures, in particular1948’s groundbreaking The Naked City. From the opening credits and bombastic jazz music played throughout, the influences on this Val Guest (The Quatermass Experiment, The Day the Earth Caught Fire) written and directed slice of crime action loom large.
The city in this case is Manchester, and never has the place been more threatening and eerily beautiful than in this flawed, yet compelling production. For the most part a slickly produced and fast moving affair, the film’s 92 minutes duration is time well spent for noir buffs and those interested in what reveals itself to be something of a curiosity in British film history.
Also taking a few pointers from the growing British new wave movement, typified by the likes of Room at the Top and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the film can be best viewed as a merging of British sensibilities alongside classic American noir tropes.
Following the pursuit of tough gangster Don Starling (played by an American, John Crawford) by Inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker), the film takes the audience on a trail through rain darkened Manchester’s low life hangouts. Seedy pubs, hide-outs and lock-ups all get the gritty noir treatment, lending a tense, uneasy atmosphere to what is a well composed picture.
On the negative side, the movie falls into cliché at certain points and some scenes – especially one focusing on the hardly as rude as it sounds ‘tossing school’, an un-thrilling game of betting on thrown coins – are overlong and tedious. Add to this the somewhat random mixture of English accents heard throughout and unintentional laughs can be close to the surface.
The relationship between broody alpha male Martineau and his waspish stay at home wife remind the viewer of the stark gender imbalance of early 60’s Britain. He says to her at one point; “justify your existence by having a baby or two!” A somewhat depressing, but no doubt realistic, portrayal of married life back then…
Even taking all this into account, the film’s plus points generally outweigh its limitations, and cameos from Donald Pleasence; Halloween) and Billie Whitelaw (The Omen, Frenzy) add some star quality to proceedings.
Extras: The disc contains an alternate ending, which was quite rightfully left out of the cinematic cut.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.