Hammer productions: The great British production company proudly flaunting one of the most eclectic CV’s in the history of cinema- but also guilty of, more than a few, woeful
endeavors- got it pretty spot-on in their 1960 Brit-Noir Hell is a City. Adapted from the Maurice Procter book and written and directed by Val Guest, Hell is a City marked one of Hammer’s deviations from horror during the 60’s, a move meant to widen revenue in a trying time against the American market. Thankfully, the film is a solid stand-alone that does a great job at internalising the Noir genre to a murky industrial Manchester.
The film follows Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker), a tough, dedicated, but world-weary police inspector with a troubled home life. When Don Starling (John Crawford) escapes from prison Harry travels to Manchester to head him off, expecting the jewel thief and murderer to attempt to pick up the jewels he stashed before getting arrested. In order to make good his escape, Starling needs money so plans the robbery of a local bookmaker (Donald Pleasance), but the heist goes wrong and all of a sudden Starling’s escape spirals into a mess of murder and blackmail with Martineau hot on his trail.
In the typical Noir fashion, things don’t really go as planned, and the film’s narrative feeds off a sense of disorder and mishap. Martineau’s home life is plagued by his failing marriage, so he stays out, wandering the dimly lit streets like a true anti-hero. The dialogue is snappy and charming, the action is, for the time, brutal. Most interestingly is how the Noir framework fits onto the British scene, certainly a quainter and more sullied setting than the war-torn streets of San Fran or New York. The dark horizon of Manchester, punctuated by factory vents and smoke, makes an ideal setting, pushing the narrative of the film into some context, making the events seems small and insignificant (dare we say commonplace) in the face of the vast mechanical city.
Stanley Baker and John Crawford are on top form as disillusioned copper and desperate thief, respectively. One can’t help but read a slight Heat undertone to their relationship, especially from Martineau who seems to use his job as a means of keeping his personal issues at bay. Crawford captures the brutal nature of a genuine bad ‘un, usually found in the annals of 50’s and 60’s detective films, the likes of which rarely find screen-time nowadays.
The action has a swift pace, the plot is intriguing if sometimes convoluted with characters, and the roof-top finale gives a fantastic last indicator of how ahead of the curve this film actually is, even if it is a little short. The last poignant scenes really reinstate the sense of Noir that seems to dissipate half way through the film; exploring the lonely nature of the dedicated cop.
Special features consist only of an alternate ending that does little for the film. This particular ending sees Harry and his wife sort thier issues, leaving the film on a significantly more hopeful note than the one chosen. The more uplifting ending, at risk of sounding like a cynic, unravels the grimy and almost perpetual feeling of entrapment in, not just Manchester, but life for Martineau.
A fantastic example of sturdy British “cops and robbers” fun, Hell is a City garnered two BAFTA nominations for Best Screenplay and Most Promising Newcomer for Billie Whitelaw. It’s a highly recommendable Brit-Noir with some stellar talent, fans of Film Noir and British thriller will really enjoy.
Director: Val Guest
Stars:Stanley Baker, John Crawford, Billie Whitelaw, Donald Pleasance