BRITISH CRIME: HELL IS A CITY (1960) by Fred Blosser
“Hell is a city much like London,” a poet wrote. I thought it was a line from William Blake. Actually, it’s by Shelley, not Blake, and in Val Guest’s 1960 film HELL IS A CITY, the city is Manchester, not London, captured in gritty widescreen black-and-white.
I like British crime films, whether old-school, post-war gangster noir like 1947’s NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH (which turned Slim Grissom’s drooling yokel from James Hadley Chase’s novel into a tuxedoed Bogart-type nightclub owner) or Guy Richie’s post-millennial bullet-fests. HELL IS A CITY, from the same era as U.S. products like Don Siegel’s THE LINEUP and TV’s THE NAKED CITY, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, and 87th PRECINCT, captured some of the same filmed-on-location realism and nighttime neon noir as its American cousins.
Inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker) cares more about his job than his marriage, and his work schedule intensifies even more when his nemesis Don Starling (John Crawford) breaks out of prison. Starling has two fresh murders on his record: a guard he clubbed to death while escaping, and a pretty 19-year old girl, a bookie’s courier whom Starling inadvertently killed in a holdup after returning home.
The murder of the girl especially enrages Martineau, and the script (based on a Maurice Proctor novel) convincingly documents his investigative routine as he pounds the pavement to turn up leads. In a couple of kitchen-sink domestic scenes, the movie also suggests that Martineau’s dedication is motivated as much by his reluctance to go home, where he’s bound to get into a fight with his wife, as by his passion for justice.
A few years ago, if you’d asked me who was the least remembered of the many talented, ferocious actors who emerged from the British cinema in the 1950s and early ‘60s, I’d have said Stanley Baker. Now, with Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Patrick McGoohan long gone, and Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, and Michael Caine known mostly by younger moviegoers as doddering old geezers, the question may be academic. But Baker was equally convincing in tough-guy mode as a cop and a crook (see Joseph Losey’s icy heist movie, THE CRIMINAL), and it would be nice to see him get some attention again. For that matter, he was also one of the great seething villains from the heyday of big-budget costume epics; in THE KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE and SODOM AND GOMORRA, he blows good guys Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger out of the water.
An American character actor who made a shitload of movies and TV shows and looked a bit like Sydney Chaplin, John Crawford is sturdy enough as ruthless escaped con Don Starling, but really, what kind of tough-guy name is “Starling”? Maybe Proctor was making a subtle joke, Starling busting out of jail like a bird getting out of its cage. Or maybe it was just part of an avian pattern to the names in the movie. Martineau sounds like “martin,” and the bookie whom Starling robbed, played by a relatively young Donald Pleasance, is named “Hawkins.” Intentional or coincidental, and if intentional, what was the point? Who knows?
Trivia fans will appreciate that HELL IS A CITY was a rare but not unique crime movie from Hammer Films, and that Val Guest also made the memorable QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT, QUATERMASS II, and THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (maybe the first global warming movie). All four films share a documentary-style attention to setting, character, and background detail; if Great Britain was as bleak in the post-war, pre-Beatles decade as Guest’s movies suggest, then the hysteria that attended the coming of the Beatles is easier to understand.
Another trivia note: I suspect that Jack Higgins, the thriller writer, was a fan of HELL IS A CITY. Three of his early paperback originals, reprinted a few years ago by Berkley Books, were gritty police procedurals, and a character named Harry Martineau has a lead role as a World War II spy in NIGHT OF THE FOX. In HELL IS A CITY, the script wrings suspense from a vulnerable young female character, a deaf mute whose inability to scream puts her in jeopardy when she unexpectedly confronts Starling hiding in her grandfather’s shop. In A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, Higgins places a blind girl in a similar cat-and-mouse situation with a depraved gangster. I now wish I had seen HELL IS A CITY when I talked to Higgins briefly at a book signing a few years ago, so that I could have asked him.
There’s a new DVD edition of HELL IS A CITY from Studio Canal in the U.K. The cover art, with a scratchy white illustration of Starling grabbing the bookie’s pretty courier against a black background, and the title splashed across in fat, shaky red letters, pretty obviously imitates the look of the poster for SIN CITY (2005). I don’t know if younger viewers will agree -- probably not -- but in my humble opinion, Stanley Baker and Val Guest leave Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, and their stupidly grisly live-action cartoon in the Manchester dust.
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