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|
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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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 Kill, The Key, Blind Spot, Intent to Kill, Floods of Fear and Piccadilly Third Stop between 1958 and 1960.
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.
|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."
Hell is a CityYear: 1960
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Drama
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)
This post is part of the sixth annual Rule Britannia Film Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.