Hell is a City (1960)

Though Hammer films is best known for its horror movies, this 1960 urban crime procedural from that studio is a fantastic picture that any noir fan will enjoy. Think Naked City transplanted to Manchester City, and thanks to a compelling lead detective, a large and great cast, and richly photographed and varied settings it’s much more than just a UK recycling of the American noir look and style.

Stanley Baker plays Detective Martineau, productive, tough and determined at work, but frustrated at home. His nemesis and a schoolmate from his youth, criminal Don Starling, played by American actor John Crawford (The Poseidon Adventure, The Enforcer, tons of TV shows), makes a jailbreak, killing a guard. Seeing as Baker’s the one who put Crawford in jail, it’s not much of a stretch for him to suspect Crawford’s coming back to Manchester, partly for payback, and partly to pick up a stash of stolen jewelry that remains hidden somewhere in the city. Crawford does come back, assembles a gang made up of local garage and billiard hall owners, masterminds a heist of Donald Pleasance’s betting operation, murders a young woman who’s Pleasance’s clerk, then makes the rounds of his old flames and cronies, trying to get to his loot, evade Baker and get out of Manchester. John Crawford deals in unrestrained and pretty shocking (for that time) violence, lashing out at everyone who gets in his way, and attempting to have his way with all the women he can get his hands on. Nobody wants anything to do with him; he has to resort to threats and violence to get any cooperation. Given those limited character qualities Crawford is still interesting to watch and plays the role of Starling well enough, and just barely avoids being a one-note thug by displaying a flash of horror (maybe even regret?) when he realizes he’s inadvertently killed Pleasence’s clerk. There’s also the added and slightly amusing mystery of Crawford having that American accent (close your eyes and you’d swear it was John Payne’s voice); it’s never explained but somehow adds interest and further marks Crawford as a misfit in the setting.

Director Val Guest (The Quatermass Experiment), who makes a Hitchcock-style cameo in a pub scene (Guest had an office next door to Hitch when he was a writer at Gainsborough films) wrote the screenplay based on the novel Somewhere in this City by Maurice Procter. It was the first of a 15 book series, and as suggested by the film’s ending, Hammer had intended sequels, even a spinoff TV series. However Baker reportedly didn’t want to commit to a multi-picture deal, and also the Manchester police considered the movie’s grit too gritty and rather unflattering, and declined to cooperate with any further portrayals of their department. I don’t really understand their unease, as Baker gets his job done with just the right amount of cajoling, trickery, negotiation and force. Sure he’s imperfect, argues (cruelly too) with his overly demanding and nagging wife, and drinks, but if those were the objectionable parts, they’re balanced out not only by his dogged pursuit of the criminal but the numerous times he turns down the other women throwing themselves at him. His rough edges not only go with his working class city and background and with his job, but also help to set Baker up as the good twin of Crawford; they’re just similar enough that Baker can understand and anticipate the killer’s next move. Stanley Baker is grim, steely, and impatient, mostly scowling, sometimes seething, at times wistful, and always believably flawed. I found him also to be cast in the more sympathetic, usual female role of asking “is that all there is” when all he has is work, and finds himself empty and at odds with his wife over starting a family. When Lucky the bartender propositions him saying it doesn’t count as adultery if there are no kids in the equation, you feel Baker’s desire and his pang of sadness. Still, no matter how dissatisfied he is at home, he still respects the marriage, doesn’t forget little niceties like phoning home when late, even when his partner makes fun of him for it.

The scope of Hell is a City is pretty amazing, in terms of nonstop activity packed into a short run time as well as being packed into just a day of story time. The action is spread across numerous fascinating Manchester locations and involves many distinctly memorable and interesting characters. The investigation is deceptively basic: all shoe leather, persistence, gut feelings, seemingly never-ending visits and questions, with no clever clues or surprising twists. In fact one of the main “clues”, fingers stained by the money identification powdered chemicals, is just too easy and obvious, but in this movie it hardly matters. Instead of the puzzle or the prize being the main attraction, you get something far better and more memorable– the likes of Baker and Crawford, as well as Donald Pleasance with his sniffles, his wife Billie Whitelaw (who was also worth mention in my review of Payroll), Vanda Godsell, Charles Morgan and so many others doing great work in relatively short appearances. There are so many characters here you have to marvel not only how they all fit in but manage to distinguish themselves and try their best to steal each other’s scenes. The closest the movie comes to using cute devices is unusual names—Don Starling, Lucky Lusk, Furnisher Steele, Silver Steele, Doug Savage, Clogger Roach—some are almost Dickensian in the images they create and the way they stick in your mind, and they sound comic strip snappy coming out of Baker’s mouth reading from files or during interrogations.

I watched this movie in bits over a few days, loving every minute of it so much as it went along, that the instant it was over I started over and rewatched it, this time appreciating even more the great cinematography. From the seedy alleys to the creepy desolate moors where the clerk’s body is dumped, to the tossing grounds (as in coin tossing, illegal gambling) to the neon city at night, the scenery is, to resort to a cliché, a character all its own, and adds so much to the movie. On second viewing I also really enjoyed the ways the story lays in connections that pay off later with almost every major character. Pleasance complaining about his selfish wife seems at first to play into Baker’s domestic problems but later turns out to also be related to Crawford, who nearly rapes Pleasance’s wife, hides in his attic and cracks him across the head when he climbs a ladder to see if that noise up there is a trapped “starling.” There’s a deaf and mute woman (Sarah Branch) who’s set up as the prospective romantic interest for Baker’s young partner (Geoffrey Frederick), is oblivious when Crawford phones to threaten her guardian and then ends up figuring prominently in the climactic scenes, engaging in a brief chase by Crawford around the top floor of a furniture store, and throwing items out the window to get attention, which ends up badly for her. Her actions kick off a great rooftop chase and struggle that rivals anything seen in the most essential American procedurals. By the end you’re sorry there were no sequels or spinoffs, since this little world, gritty, hard, bleak and hardboiled as it is, was so much fun to get into, as was this gem of a noir.

 

There’s a fantastic look at all the Manchester locations and the people involved, assembled by a self-professed obsessed fan of the movie HERE which is where I got the photo used in this post.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Hell is a City (1960)”

  1. Top notch film proves Hammer Films could do more than just cast Lee and Cushing in fantasy films although I do love them as well. Stanley Baker is in his prime here and captivates the viewer. Seek out more of his films if you can. Zulu is an obvious title but many others are out there as well. The Criminal, Hell Drivers, Sands of the Kalahari etc.
    Nice review and I like the fact that you rewatched it, always a sign of a good flick.
    Mike

    1. Thanks, I am really trying to eat up all the Stanley Baker movies I can find, love him. Saw Zulu years ago, and actually have a Hell Drivers review coming up soon (want to rewatch that one too before writing it, what a cool movie that is). Really enjoying working my way through these UK crime flicks and finding lots of gems and new people to discover.

Comments are closed.