Hell is a City. Film Review


Director: Val Guest

Script: Val Guest (from a novel by Maurice Proctor)

Staring: Stanley Baker, John Crawford, Donald Pleasance, Billie Whitelaw

Running Time: 92 mins

Certificate: PG

Reviewed by Guy Adams

Bloody hell, what’s Adams up to now? Reviewing a sixties crime movie? Has the lad lost his head? Well, provenance is everything and while Hell is a City may not seem to fall within my purview, it’s a movie from Hammer Films written and directed by the legendary Val Guest (adapting the novel by Maurice Proctor) so I’m reviewing it and you can all just lump it.

Justifiably lauded as a surprisingly gritty affair, Hell is a City features Stanley Baker as Mancunian detective Harry Martineau, determined to put his bête noire, Don Starling (John Crawford, an American accent in a sea of variable Northern turns) behind bars after the latter escapes from prison killing a warder in the process.

The film is peppered with an array of sixties acting talent, not least of all Billie Whitelaw and Donald Pleasance (proving as always what a great actor he was, inhabiting his role of bookie, Gus Hawkins with every, perfectly-placed cough and sniff). It is also shot to perfection, hardly a surprise given Val Guest’s undeniable talent, and a wonderfully evocative look at Manchester half a century ago.

A critical success at the time, nominated for two British Academy Awards (Best Screenplay and Most Promising Newcomer for Billie Whitelaw) it’s lost little of its edge in the intervening years. Yes, some of the Northern accents are variable and it has to make an effort to avoid contravening the censor of the time both in the colourfulness of its dialogue and depiction of on screen violence. Still it punches hard and the climax still soars. A genuinely great film.

The DVD, from Studio Canal, looks lovely and crisp though is lacking in special features beyond an alternative ending (justifiably ‘alternative’ as it attempts to tack on a vaguely positive note that feels contrived and unnecessary). No doubt there are viable budgetary concerns at play here (though Val Guest recorded a commentary for the Region One, Anchor Bay release some years ago). It’s a sad, commercial fact that the audience — and therefore budget — for this is unlikely to come anywhere near Hammer’s horror output. We’re never likely to see the movie receive the lavish treatment currently found on the same label’s Blu-ray releases of Hammer’s back catalogue. This is a shame, as it’s more than worthy, but the film’s the thing and it demands a place on any discerning shelf. An undeniable classic that still thrills so many years later.

(By way of a postscript, there is a charming gallery of behind the scenes photos taken during filming which can be viewed on The Guardian website here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/gallery/2012/oct/08/hell-is-a-city-in-pictures)