Hell is a City (1960)

Stanley Baker and Donald Pleasence star in Val Guest's gritty crime film for Hammer. Anchor Bay US R1 DVD.

The Film

Manchester Police Inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker) is very disappointed to see that Don Starling, the criminal he worked to put away, has escaped. Starling returns to Manchester that night and meets up with his old comrades - needing money for a fake passport and to get out of the country, he persuades them to carry out a quick robbery the next day against a betting shop clerk taking the money to the bank. After she dies in the robbery attempt the police are on their tail and might just have a useful clue to track the culprits down - but things become complicated when Starling turns to help from his old flame, Chloe Hawkins - wife of the betting shop owner...

Scripted by Val Guest and based on a novel by former Manchester police man Maurice Procter, Hell is a City is well scripted from start to finish crafting a tense but always believable film. The atmosphere is very authentic throughout, aided by the film's very strong dialogue and believable characters - everyone in the story is human from the cop to the villlain, all flawed in their own ways. A particular suprise is the depiction of betting shop owner Hawkins, who in many other films would have been shown as heartless, but here he is just a hard working businessman who has real sympathy for the family of the dead girl. Guest also avoids turning Starling into a simply 'evil' man and his use of force always has a purpose - the over-the-top violent extremes of the 1970s crime films (particularly the Italian entries) are not present here and it does make the occasional violence even more striking.

A number of interesting story threads help to add some good backgrounds to the characters, from Martineau's problems with his wife and the affection towards him from Lucky, to the obviously collapsing relationship between Hawkins and his wife - they are all kept in the background and do not interfere with the main story but simply add an additional layer to the characters and make the whole story even more believable. These background details were common in 1960s Brit-crime, but here is probably their most effective use. The pacing is very brisk throughout - certainly no time is wasted getting to the robbery - but it avoids becoming rushed and builds up to an incredibly tense climax with a fitting conclusion. A neat epilogue adds a curious closing note to the film.

Val Guest has excelled with Hammer's sci-fi series during the 1950s with a straight forward shooting style that he refered to as being news-reel quality. He brings that assured style to Hell is a City and it works well with the script to bring Underworld Manchester of the 1960s to life. Extensive use of real locations, both in the city and the moors, helps to emphasise this realism. The soundtrack is particularly effective - a contemporary jazz score from musician Stanley Black.

Stanley Baker was becoming one of Britain's favourite stars at the turn of the decade despite his tough demenour and frequent villaneous roles that were a strong contrast to the usual heroic leading players of the era. Here he takes the lead role and looks every part the policeman with a good solid Northern accent. American actor John Crawford as the villain and Donald Pleasence in an early performance both do sterling work while Billie Whitelaw gives a good turn as Hawkin's wife. A few recognisable Hammer faces crop up including Peter Madden (The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)).

An incredibly realistic and gritty look at underworld Manchester life is created by Val Guest's solid script and assured direction and helped by a selection of strong performances from all concerned. Hammer fans who enjoy the studio's non-horror works might be interested in this and it certainly comes recommended to fans of Val Guest and highly recommended to fans of British cinema and 1960s crime films.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Stanley Baker - the hardened Welsh actor who came to fame with this film and Campbell's Kingdom (1957)
Donald Pleasence - an early film role for the future star of Halloween (1978) and THX 1138 (1971)
Directed by anyone interesting? Val Guest - a regular director for Hammer in the late 1950s he worked on their early sci-fi sucess The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and the grim war film Yesterday's Enemy (1959)
Any gore or violence ? Some fight scenes, nothing particularly violent.
Any sex or nudity? A fleeting topless scene from Billie Whitelaw - nothing seen.
Who is it for? Fans of Stanley Baker and Brit-crime will certainly enjoy this and of interest to Hammer fans.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 widescreen. Anamorphically enhanced. Black and White.
A strong print with mild grain and some damage but plenty of detail throughout.
Audio Original English mono - sounds fine.
Subtitles None.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Audio commentary with writer/director Val Guest and Hammer scholar Ted Newsom. Guest remembers a lot about the film and there are some interesting facts and details.
  • Alternative ending - a different version of the epilogue that gives a very different tone to the ending. Includes optional audio commentary. (6 minutes)
  • Original theatrical trailer.
  • Text bios of Stanley Baker and Val Guest.
  • The DVD box also includes a postcode poster with chapter listings.
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Availability Like all of the Anchor Bay US Hammer releases, this title is now out-of-print.
Other regions? A Cinema Club UK release includes a similar print and the trailer/alternate ending but no commentaries.
Cuts? The DVD is believed to be fully uncut - the topless scene was allowed by the BBFC but cut on American theatrical prints. English language print.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 14th July 2008.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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