Some of the best Hammer productions sit outside their signature genre of period horror. What Hammer did as well as – or perhaps even better than – colourful Gothic horror was stark, stripped back, black and white crime-thrillers. Cash on Demand (1962) is a great example, but the list of successful thrillers is surprisingly long. Hell Is a City – from the reliable Val Guest, director of Yesterday’s Enemy, my favourite Hammer producion (and also not a horror film) – sits somewhat outside the typical Hammer crime-thriller in that it takes its inspiration from a combination of film noir and British New Wave grime.
HELL IS A CITY
UK, 1960, Val Guest
Instead of laying low, Starling gets straight down to business. He forms a gang of petty criminals and robs the lackeys of bookmaker Gus Hawkins (the mighty Donald Pleasence), hoping to use the stolen cash to leave town. It all goes horribly wrong. An overenthusiastic blow to the throat from Starling leads to the death of an innocent girl (Lois Daine), and the panicking villains are seen dumping of the body.
Martineau knows in his guts that Starling is responsible for the robbery gone wrong, and he’s willing to put his miserable marriage on the line to catch him. Following up on leads, including a saucy barmaid, Lucky Lusk (Vanda Godsell), and the robbed bookmaker’s equally saucy wife, Chloe (Billie Whitelaw), Martineau sniffs out the trail left by Starling. He is helped by the dusted notes stolen by Starling, which leave anyone who comes into contact with them green fingered.
Hell Is a City delivers a tightly plotted story – based on a novel by an ex-Manchester cop, Maurice Procter – one that barely comes up for air. Martineau’s obsessive hunt for Starling is relentless, and Baker’s no-nonsense protagonist is likable from the opening scene. The cast is peppered with excellent actors in smaller roles. Of particular note is Billie Whitelaw who is fantastic as the baby-voiced seductress, and Donald Pleasence is, of course, always a welcome presence.
As enjoyable as its cast is Arthur Grant’s beautiful cinematography, which features a wonderful blend of style and grit. This film is often referred to as a film noir, and it does share its similarities with the genre, but where Hell Is a City sets itself apart is the real, and very grim, Manchester locations. Factories pumping smog, dirty buildings, and vacant eerie fields fill the screen; images perfectly complimented by Stanley Black’s wild, jazzy, and not very British musical score.
Hell Is a City also moves away from film noir in the attitude of its leading character. Martineau, while hard and serious, is not your typical cynical and broken noir cop. His morality is tested throughout the film, but he remains, to the end, incorruptible. And though the film is violent at times, Hell Is a City plays it safer than crime films of earlier decades did.
Hell Is a City is a thrilling addition to Hammer’s crime and thriller backlog. It is not quite as good as their very best of the genre, but it comes damn close. For those who find Hammer’s Gothic horror efforts a little weary, give their black and white thrillers a go. This is a great place to start.
Hell Is a City had an old release from Anchor Bay with excellent sound and picture. Unfortunately, it is out of print. It can still be found at a semi-reasonably price though. Hopefully this receives the re-release on blu-ray that it deserves. All fingers crossed.