Hell is a City (1960)

In Hell is a City, Stanley Baker plays Inspector Martineau, a detective with the City of Manchester police. Martineau was responsible for putting a notorious criminal, Don Starling (John Crawford), behind bars. As a result, when Starling was imprisoned he swore revenge on Martineau. When news comes that Starling has broken out of jail, Martineau is convinced that he's hiding somewhere in the city and wants to drop everything to bring him in.

But first Martineau has to deal with a robbery from a bookmakers run by Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence). The robbery led to the loss of £4,000 and the accidental death of a young woman, one of Hawkins's employees. As Martineau investigates the crime, he comes to suspect that Don Starling may in fact be responsible. Luckily, the cash from the bookmakers was stained with green dye, something that helps the police to gradually home in on the criminals. One by one, Martineau starts to track down Starling's accomplices, bending the rules a bit as he does so in order to get information. But Starling himself remains elusive.

Starling, meanwhile, is intent on recovering a hoard of jewellery he has stashed somewhere in the city. He takes to hiding in the attic of Gus Hawkins, with the help of an old flame, Hawkins's unfaithful wife Chloe (Billie Whitelaw). As the net gradually closes in on Starling, Martineau seizes the opportunity to set a trap.

Stanley Baker as Inspector Martineau in Hell is a City
Stanley Baker as Inspector Martineau in Hell is a City

Although Hammer Film Productions became famous for making horror films, they also dabbled in various other genres in their heyday from the 1950s to the 1970s. From comedies and war films to crime films, space westerns and Ray Harryhausen fantasy epics. Their product was particularly varied in the 1950s and early '60s, before the company committed itself to a mostly horror output.

Crime films were one of the genres the company cut its teeth on, making numerous mostly forgotten crime 'B' pictures in the early 1950s. But some of the Hammer films stand out as a cut above the rest of their crime output, including Cash on Demand (1961) and 1960's Hell is a City. 

Hell is a City is unusually vivid and punchy for a British crime film of this era. There's barely any wasted screen time in a brisk and well-paced 98 minute film. The film is lean and mean, with nicely etched supporting characters and some interesting actors among the cast. These include Donald Pleasence as the affluent bookmaker Gus Hawkins, who is tough in business but naive in his domestic life, and Warren Mitchell in an early role as a commercial traveller. It's Mitchell's character who witnesses the murdered woman's body being bundled out of a getaway car outside the city. There's also a good eye-catching part for Billie Whitelaw, as Hawkins's duplicitous wife. Whitelaw is probably most familiar now as the sinister nanny in the 1976 horror film The Omen. 

Hell is a City was produced by Michael Carreras, the son of original Hammer co-founder James Carreras, and made by Hammer and Associated British, one of the biggest players in the British film industry in the 1950s. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Maurice Procter, a former policeman in the North of England, who became a crime novelist in the 1940s and '50s. The novel was published under the title "Murder Somewhere in This City" in the US. It was the first of Procter's novels featuring Inspector Harry Martineau, in a series that ran to 15 books in all. The title appears to be a reference to a poem by Percy Shelley:

Hell is a city much like London - 
A populous and a smoky city; 
There are all sorts of people undone, 
And there is little or no fun done; 
Small justice shown, and still less pity.

Stanley Baker as Inspector Martineau arresting a suspect
Inspector Martineau always gets his man ...

Hell is a City was written and directed by Val Guest, adapting Procter's novel for the screenplay. Procter's books were set in a fictional Northern English city, a thinly disguised version of Manchester. The film version is less coy, with Stanley Baker first seen stepping out of a police station with Manchester City Police written in prominent letters outside, instantly establishing the film's location.

The film makes good use of its settings, with studio filming at Elstree supplemented with location filming in and around Manchester, one of Britain's less cinematically explored cities. Guest and his cinematographer Arthur Grant give us a vivid portrait of the bright lights of Manchester's city centre, its grimy backstreets and industrial areas, and the austere surrounding hills and moorland. The city is depicted as harsh and unforgiving, a place of greed, duplicity and frustrated hopes, where there's no peace and no peace of mind. Everyone has their own problems, but no one seems able to escape them. Even the countryside we see outside the city is bleak and foreboding, offering no sense of freedom or escape.

Inspector Martineau's pursuit of Don Starling eventually ends with a dramatic rooftop chase, always a favourite thriller finale, especially in this era. Stanley Black provides a busy, jazzy score, although the opening scenes with a police car patrolling the mean streets of Manchester, set to Black's wailing brassy music, is now uncomfortably reminiscent of the opening of the crime spoof The Naked Gun.

Val Guest had worked regularly for Hammer in the 1950s, making a variety of films, including thrillers like Break in the Circle (1954), Robin Hood cheapie The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954) and the war films The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and Yesterday's Enemy (1959). He also directed Hammer's first big horror success, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and its 1957 sequel Quatermass 2.

Guest had an interesting career, including a stint as a gossip columnist and work as a screenwriter in the 1930s. He tackled a variety of genres, some more successfully than others. His comedy work included writing screenplays for 1930s and '40s comedy stars Will Hay and Arthur Askey, and acting as one of several directors on the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale.

His career declined precipitously in the 1970s and his final film was The Boys in Blue (1983), a remake of the 1938 Will Hay film Ask a Policeman, a film that Guest had originally co-written. The Boys in Blue replaced Will Hay and his regular team, Graham Moffat and Moore Marriott, with TV comics Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball. It's a poor film for Guest to end his career on, but there is at least a satisfying element of symmetry to it.

Stanley Baker on a rooftop holding a gun
Martineau pursues Don Starling across the city's rooftops to a final showdown

Hell is a City teamed Val Guest with one of British cinema's most atypical stars of the 1950s, Stanley Baker. When we think of 1950s British leading men, we usually think of Kenneth More, Richard Todd or Jack Hawkins, solidly middle class officer types who no doubt knew which knife to use at the dinner table. Baker was different, born in the mining area of the Rhondda Valley in South Wales, and from more obviously humble origins than most contemporary British leading men.

In the 1950s a working class regional accent would usually have confined an actor to playing supporting parts or comic characters, but Baker was one of the few who managed to escape those limitations. Although Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Michael Caine and others are usually seen as leading the way in changing the image of British film stars in the early 1960s, from gentlemanly upper middle class RADA-accented types to working class men from the regions, it was Stanley Baker who got there first.

Baker was dark and brooding, a little rough around the edges, and more obviously virile than some of his British cinema contemporaries. He began his film career mostly playing bad guys, like Mordred in Knights of the Round Table (1953) or unsympathetic braggarts, as in The Cruel Sea (1953). But he proved popular enough to escape his type-casting and progress to leading man roles, often as ex-cons trying to go straight, or men with a similarly shady past. By the late 1950s he was finally on the right side of the law in crime films like Violent Playground (1958) and Hell is a City. To confirm his star status now, Baker is billed above the title in Hell is a City. The film was one of two he made with Val Guest for Hammer. The other was the tough war drama, Yesterday's Enemy, released the year before.

Hell is a City finds Baker in a more conventionally heroic role than most of his previous films. The film's setting in Manchester in the North West of England, does saddle him with a not entirely satisfactory accent, one that veers a bit more towards the North East at times (and often back to Wales as well), but he's otherwise on good form and makes for a commanding presence as the driven cop. As the hard boiled police detective investigating the brutal murder of an innocent young woman, Martineau is tough and uncompromising, but he has to be when he's dealing with callous and vicious criminals.

Stanley Baker and Billie Whitelaw
Martineau has a few questions for Chloe Hawkins (Billie Whitelaw)

Baker's Inspector Martineau has a difficult home life. His wife, Julia (Maxine Audley), is bored and unfulfilled at home and lacks understanding of the nature of Martineau's job and the long hours he has to work. Martineau is also rarely at home, and doesn't seem to want to spend much time there. In one scene between the couple, the film tells us, not too subtly, that it's the lack of much-wanted offspring for Martineau that has caused the deterioration in their marriage.

Although it would later become an almost mandatory requirement for any fictional police detective to have an unhappy home or personal life, at this stage it wasn't yet a cliché. Instead it marked a decisive break from the depiction of policemen and of marriage as seen in other British films of the time. Traditionally the British police inspector was portrayed as a solid, sober, middle class professional doing a difficult job. But he at least has his fragrant wife and loving family to return to, and usually his wife's only worry is whether little Timmy has done his homework or not. But home offers no such comfort in Hell is a City, any more than anywhere else. Instead of a place of refuge, it's just a source of more conflict. Martineau is willing to go back on the streets, among the criminals and the low lives, because it's no worse for him than anywhere else.

The film is reasonably open in its attitudes to sex and relationships for a 1960 film, and its portrayal of its female characters is not all that flattering. Martineau's wife Julia is demanding, and not fully understanding of the requirements of her husband's job. Pleasence's younger wife Chloe (Billie Whitelaw) is manipulating and duplicitous, and Starling's ex “Lucky” Luske (Vanda Godsell) is anyone's, especially Martineau's, if he'd only let her. Lucky is a woman who knew Starling before and her obvious interest in Martineau is only partially reciprocated. The most sympathetic female character is Silver Steele (Sarah Branch) a deaf, mute girl, who is the daughter of one of Martineau's informants, played by Joseph Tomelty. Her role as a woman who can't hear and can't scream makes her into a clichéd, generic, woman-in-peril figure, and she is the least characterised of the female characters.

"Silver Steele" is one of several colourful character names in Hell is a City, together with Clogger Roach, Tawny Jakes, Laurie Lovett and Lucky Luske. Even the name Don Starling allows the film to indulge in a play on words. When Starling is hiding in the attic, Donald Pleasence as Gus Hawkins thinks he hears a noise coming from there. He suggests it may be a bird trapped in the attic and goes up to have a look, leading to a fateful encounter with a starling of a different kind.

John Crawford climbing over a rooftop and holding a gun
Don Starling (John Crawford) tries to evade Martineau on the rooftops of Manchester

With its tough edge, frankness about relationships and Northern English setting, it's tempting to see an association with the "kitchen sink" films of the British New Wave, including Hell is a City's contemporaries, Room at the Top (1958) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). While there are definitely elements of those films in Hell is a City, its chief influences are more American, with shades of The Naked City and 1940s and '50s film noir.

Bad guy Don Starling is actually played by an American actor, John Crawford, complete with an American accent. A little improbably, the script informs us that the obviously American Starling and the Manchester-Newcastle-via-South Wales accented Inspector Martineau knew each other as children and even went to school together. This detail is carried over from the novel, but should probably have been dropped with Crawford's casting, as it doesn't add much to the film. The film's attempts to draw parallels between Martineau and Starling are undermined completely by this odd casting choice.

Baker's casting is understandable as he was a considerable British box office draw by this time, but Crawford's was apparently at the insistence of the film's American distributor Columbia Pictures, who no doubt felt that an American name would make the film more saleable there. Crawford was busy in British films at this time, also appearing in Orders to KillThe Key, Blind SpotIntent to Kill, Floods of Fear and Piccadilly Third Stop between 1958 and 1960.

In the years immediately following Hell is a City, Val Guest would write and direct other professionally made, documentary-style thrillers, particularly the sci-fi drama The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and a more low-key crime film, the Brighton-set mystery Jigsaw (1962).

Stanley Baker was somewhere near the peak of his box office appeal when Hell is a City was released in 1960, and he also starred in another tough crime thriller, The Criminal, in the same year, this time back on the wrong side of the law. His star would wane in the late 1960s, but by the middle of the decade he had combined acting with producing, his most ambitious and probably now best remembered film being the 1964 war epic Zulu.

George A. Cooper and Stanley Baker at the bar in a pub
Doug Savage (George A. Cooper) tries not to be too helpful to Martineau in his enquiries ...

An alternative, lighter ending was shot for Hell is a City, apparently without Val Guest's knowledge, but it's unclear if this was ever used in any of the film's release versions. The film was trimmed by about ten minutes for its US release, including cutting Maxine Audley's domestic scenes as Martineau's wife.

Hell is a City was well received on its original release and was rewarded with two BAFTA nominations. One for Best British Screenplay for Val Guest, and another for Billie Whitelaw as Most Promising Newcomer.

The film won unusually good reviews for a Hammer production at this time. The critic for The Times said that: "It is the painstaking, unhurried assembly of facts accumulated with a pace that gradually accelerates to its violent climax that gives the film much of its quality. Mr. Val Guest directs with a powerful sense of tempo and climax."

The original review in Variety stated that: "Hell Is a City is an absorbing film of a conventional cops and robbers yarn. Val Guest’s taut screenplay, allied to his own deft direction, has resulted in a notable film in which the characters are all vividly alive, the action constantly gripping and the background of a provincial city put over with authenticity."

Despite the contemporary praise, Hell is a City is probably not as well known now as it should be, but it's one of the best of Hammer's non-horror films. It dates from a time when the studio could still make modestly budgeted crime films and find a decent audience for them. It's a brisk, punchy and vivid crime picture, an unusual but effective combination of contemporary British social realism, with distinctive location filming and an American crime and film noir influence.

Hell is a City 

Year: 1960
Genre: Crime Thriller
Country: UK
Director: Val Guest

Cast Stanley Baker (Inspector Harry Martineau), John Crawford (Don Starling), Donald Pleasence (Gus Hawkins), Maxine Audley (Julia Martineau), Geoffrey Frederick (Detective Devery), Vanda Godsell (Lucretia 'Lucky' Luske), Billie Whitelaw (Chloe Hawkins), Charles Morgan (Laurie Lovett), Joseph Tomelty (Furnisher Steele), George A. Cooper (Doug Savage), Charles Houston (Clogger Roach), Joby Blanshard (Tawny Jakes), Peter Madden (Bert Darwin), Dickie Owen (Bragg), Lois Daine (Cecily), Sarah Branch (Silver Steele), Warren Mitchell (Commercial traveller), Alastair Williamson (Sam), Russell Napier (Superintendent)

Screenplay Val Guest, based on the novel by Maurice Procter  Producer Michael Carreras  Cinematography Arthur Grant  Art director Robert Jones  Editor John Dunsford  Supervising editor James Needs  Music Stanley Black 

Running time 98 mins (black & white)  Widescreen Hammerscope

Production company Hammer Film Productions / Associated British Picture Corporation  Distributor Warner-Pathe Distributors (UK), Columbia Pictures (US)


  1. Ahh, thanks for that one. :) How do I love this film? Let me count the ways.
    Like you I love the location setting. The photography of post-War industrial Manchester is very evocative, an urban jungle that is just as gritty, brutal and bleak as its American cousin.
    In many ways great Brit Noir takes its cues from the other side of the Pond, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a knock-off. As you say it's a bit of The Naked City with plenty of distinctly British flavor (that would be flavour) in it.

    And then there's Stan the Man. I am just giddily and irrationally in love with Baker, definitively back then a new type of British leading man. We'd see much more of that type in the years to come. I'm fairly sure those "gentlemanly upper middle class RADA-accented types" as you so perfectly call them would have resented the rise of the new guard. Every time I see Baker's working-class he-man persona with oodles of testosterone it has the same effect on me. I need a shower.
    Obviously I hated his wife in this film. Stupid woman. He should have taken Lucky up on her many serious and well meant offers.
    I never really looked into this but I'd say Baker's cop may have been one of the models that Gene Hunt was based on, another "sheriff" of Manchester that I dearly love.

    Like you I didn't see the need for hiring John Crawford, a very minor American actor. He wasn't exactly a box office draw in the US, so why insist on him?

    This is definitively a film that shoul be better known, like so many of Baker's films.

    1. I forgot, Baker was in the running for James Bond, and he was really the only guy who could have given Connery a run for his money.

    2. I did read that Stanley Baker started to get starring roles mainly because he was receiving so much fan mail from women, even though (or maybe because) he was usually playing bad guys. They obviously weren't used to seeing someone like him on screen.

      A lot of his films are weirdly unknown, but that seems to be true of a lot of great British films of the '50s and '60s. I saw Jet Storm for the first time recently and that's pretty good too. I really like A Prize of Arms as well.

      I haven't read much about Baker as James Bond, but he seems like such an obvious choice, he even looks the part. He was also in some of Cubby Broccoli's Warwick films in the 1950s so it seems inevitable that he would be considered. It would certainly have reversed his 1960s career decline, but I don't think he was willing to commit to a series. I always wondered what he was doing in The Guns of Navarone as he seems too big a star for such a relatively small part. Did he hope it would get him noticed in the US?

      I always assumed the chief inspiration for Gene Hunt was John Thaw as Jack Regan in The Sweeney, a classic cops and robbers show from the 1970s.

    3. I haven't seen Jet Storm. A Prize of Arms is on youtube. I liked it too, the copy is not that good though. More favorites are Zulu (obviously), Chance Meeting and Hell Drivers. You're right about The Guns of Navarone but then it had an all-star cast.

      Yes, John Thaw was the chief inspiration for Gene Hunt but where did Thaw get his ideas from? After so many years of stolid good guy cops suddenly the "mean cop" was emerging. I have to look into this.

    4. It's definitely a trend in the seventies. I mentioned this when I wrote about Bullitt and The French Connection. Bullitt is a bit of a maverick but still obviously a good guy and someone we can look to as a cool role model. He breaks a few rules, but it's the sixties, rules are for squares.

      Then a couple of years later we get Popeye Doyle and Dirty Harry. Doyle is no kind of role model, he's almost as dangerous as the criminals he's pursuing and he's not someone you'd ever want to be like.

      With the American cops, I think there's a sense of them being turned into reactionary heroes in the 70s, along with the vigilante heroes of that time. There was an element of ambiguity about Popeye Doyle and even Dirty Harry to begin with. In the second Dirty Harry film vigilante cops are the bad guys!

      But pop culture doesn't always like ambiguity and so these characters get turned into something simpler and less challenging in sequels and knock offs and a famous character inevitably gets turned into a hero, because that's what happens culturally (even the Terminator got turned into a hero!).

      Someone like Jack Regan may never have been that far out there, he was more a figure of his time who fell out of fashion as we all got softer and more PC.

      Hell Drivers seems to be the best known of Bakers crime films now. Its probably partly the improbable cast (Stanley Baker! Patrick McGoohan! Sean Connery! Sid James!) and the incongruousness of its story and setting. Robbery is another classic cops and robbers one and Sands of the Kalahari is really interesting, with Baker back in full bad guy mode.

    5. Sorry for the late reply. I think it's a bit easier to trace the line of "mean cops" in the US but then I assume it was an international phenomenon. The cracks were beginning to show in every country.
      Another one I can think of is The Offense (1973). Truly shocking and nothing alleviates its bleakness.
      On a lighter note there's The Professionals. Still love that show but I remember even back then it drew some criticism.

      "we all got softer and more PC." Not all of us. :)

    6. Did The Sweeney and The Professionals ever get shown in the US?

    7. Don't know but I grew up in Europe and both were shown. I remember The Professionals was a big hit.

    8. Ah, that explains it. I did watch some episodes of The Professionals last year and quite liked it. Lewis Collins was another one touted as a future James Bond, but going into films seems like it was a wrong turn for him.

    9. Yes, Collins was considered for James Bond. There's actually one episode of the show where he goes to a casino in a tuxedo. The entire scene is obviously a dry run for Bond.

    10. I'm pretty sure I haven't seen that one.

      I usually have several posts on the go at once and there is a Lewis Collins film in among those. You can probably guess which one...

    11. Code Name: Wild Geese?

    12. No, Who Dares Wins! To me that's the only Lewis Collins film. I've got about 15-20 partly written posts though and quite a few of those are thrillers. I doubt many people are that interested in a 4000 word socio-political analysis of Who Dares Wins, so it isn't a priority.

    13. Of course, how could I make this mistake? Why not skip the socio-political analysis - I know that's hard :) - and go straight to the action? Because this is one good 80s action movie.

    14. I couldn't drop the socio-political analysis. I know that's your favourite bit. ;)

  2. Jay what a superb write up on a first rate film. It was so good. I gave it top marks. I loved the constant banter, Baker's swagger and feeling like the most American film I think I seen set in Manchester! Haha you picked up the Naked Gun style opening too. Hehe my opening lines where about that.
    I really rated all the Val Guest films I've seen. There's still a few I need to get to though. "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" is bonkers brill.
    If you fancy my take it's here.

    Tip top pick Jay. Brilliant stuff.

    1. Yes, I did read that one a while ago. After I watched it, I had a look on your blog, because I thought "I bet Wolfman has seen this!" The Naked Gun comparison is a bit hard to avoid now.

      I saw The Day the Earth Caught Fire years ago and would like to check it out again. The only bit I remember that well is a young Michael Caine as a policeman directing traffic. Like you, I'm increasingly impressed by Val Guest's thrillers and dramas from this period.

  3. Lean and mean, eh? It sounds like a dandy. I haven't seen this, but am certain to before long. I appreciated your placing the film in the context of its time and in the careers of its participants.

    1. It's definitely worth looking out for. I hope you enjoy it.

  4. Thank you so much for taking part in the blogathon! I not only consider Hell is a City one of the better movies put out by Hammer Films, but one of the best latter day noirs. It is just an incredible film all around, from the cinematography to the script to the performances.

    1. Yes, I think it is one of their best films. It certainly deserves to be much better known.


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