IS A CITY
DVD. Studio Canal.
interesting to look at the Hammer filmography and see just how
varied their film slate was between their first batch of gothic
horrors in the second half of the 1950s and the point where the
company more or less committed itself to horror and fantasy a
decade later. The end of the Fifties and early Sixties saw them
working on various types of films alongside horror movies, possibly
edging their bets in case the boom ended. And several of these
films were surprisingly daring and edgy, black and white dramas
that were a million miles away from the Kensington Gore drenched
full colour shockers they remain best known for.
One of the best of the films from this time is Hell is
a City, and its good to see Studio Canal re-releasing
this one amongst their Hammer remasters – even if this is
only on DVD and not subject to the same level of high definition
restoration. As gritty a British crime film as you’ll see
in any decade, this remains something of a forgotten classic,
so any chance for people to see it should be taken.
Set in Manchester, this 1960 film from the ever-reliable Val Guest
sees Stanley Baker as hard-bitten cop Harry Martineau, on the
trail of escaped con Don Starling (John Crawford), who he’s
previously put away for fourteen years. Starling, who has killed
a warden in his escape, has returned to the city to recover the
jewellery stolen in a previous job, as well as carry out a new
hold-up to finance his escape from the country. But the robbery
goes badly wrong with a young girl killed by Starling, and as
Martineau puts the pieces together, the increasingly desperate
villain tries to find somewhere to hide out, leading to more violence.
This is cynical, hard-boiled stuff at its best. Watching this
a week or so after The Sweeney,
it’s easy to see Martineau as a template for Jack Regan
– trapped in a failing marriage, obsessive, single-minded
and not above bending the law if he has to, this is a cop who
is as comfortable socialising with criminals as with his own colleagues
and who is, ultimately, a tragic figure (an alternative ending,
featured here, restructures the film’s final moments and
adds an extra scene to suggest a happier future for him –
this was, sensible, reworked for the final version).
Baker, a master at playing hard but decent characters, is on top
form here, and is ably backed up by Donald Pleasence, Billie Whitelaw
(seen in a surprisingly frank moment of semi-nudity and implied
sexual violence at one point) and a cast of familiar faces. The
locations – be it a now unrecognisable Manchester city centre
or the wastelands of the Pennines – are extraordinarily
evocative, and show just how effective British crime films could
be if they left their cosy London bases. The only let down here
is Stanley Black’ score, which is deliriously bombastic
– not a bad thing in itself, but far too much for a film
that is, in the end, a restrained character study more that the
action movie the music suggests.
Gritty 1960s black and white British crime films – we can
also include Baker’s Hell Drivers, The
Violent Playground, The Hijackers, Calcuated
Risk and others amongst them – remain a sadly
neglected genre, both in terms of DVD release and film criticism.
A pity, as they are among the most interesting films of the time.
If you are a fan of the genre, you’ll already know that
Hell is a City is an essential purchase. If you’re
not, this is a great place to start and find out what you’ve
IT NOW (UK)