It was filmed, mainly on location in Manchester and in part at Elstree Studios, between September and November of 1959. Writer-director Val Guest used his spare, economic documentary style, clearly one of the most successful elements of his work on Hammer's The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955, to capture the city and its suburbs as a backdrop to his adaptation of Maurice Procter's detective noir novel of the same name.
Born in Nelson, Maurice Procter became a police constable and served in the Halifax area for nearly 20 years. His writing career began in 1947, with the publication of his first novel No Proud Chivalry, and soon after he left the police force.
Most of his novels were the police procedurals of their day and his experience as a former policeman provided insight into the methodologies of both the criminal and police force fraternities. One of his major characters, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Martineau, made his debut in Hell is a City, published in 1954, and he would reappear in a further 14 novels from Procter between 1957 and 1969. His 1952 novel, Rich is the Treasure, had already been made into a film by United Artists in 1954 and was released as The Diamond. (1)
The film essentially becomes a race against time as Starling attempts to flee the country. His intention to rob bookmaker Gus Hawkins goes awry and Martineau continues to hunt down Starling and his gang across Manchester and Yorkshire, variously tracking him and his associates to illegal coin-tossing gangs on the outskirts of Oldham and via his violent affair with Hawkins' wife.
To this end Guest uses Manchester city centre locations, the old Central Station, Oxford Road, Mosley Street and Piccadilly Gardens among others, and brings the film to a gripping climax atop the old Refuge Assurance Building, now the Palace Hotel. He also ventures out into the streets of Levenshulme, Moss Side, Oldham and further afield to Marsden in West Yorkshire.
Guest later cited Jules Dassin's innovative The Naked City (1948) as one of his major influences for the film and Hell is a City certainly follows in the tradition of Dassin's British noir Night and the City (1950). He mixes violent criminality and amoral characters with intimate scenes that catalogue Martineau's troubled home life and disintegrating marriage.
Riding on the crest of the British New Wave, Hell is a City features a sensational British ensemble cast, including Stanley Baker, Donald Pleasence, Billie Whitelaw, Warren Mitchell, Maxine Audley, George A. Cooper and the uncredited Philip Bond, John Comer and Doris Speed, as well as American actor John Crawford who was cast (or miscast if you being particularly critical) as villain Starling because of pressure from Columbia or Warner, the studios with which Hammer had financing and distribution deals at the time. Even though it emerged at the same time as Look Back in Anger (1959), Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), the film is often neglected in the assessment of the cinema of that era.
As Andrew Spicer notes, Baker offers 'a tense, irritable touchiness' as Martineau, a character who understands how his opponent Starling thinks because they grew up together on the streets of Manchester. Spicer sees the film as ahead of its time in depicting the 'blurring of moral boundaries, the disturbing mirroring of policeman and villain.' (2)
Hell is a City had a gala premier at the Apollo, Ardwick in Manchester on 10 April 1960 and was a major success for Hammer. Guest's script was nominated for Best British Screenplay and Billie Whitelaw received a Most Promising Newcomer nod at the 1961 BAFTAs.
Hammer were delighted with the film to such a degree that they attempted to mount a television series featuring the character of Martineau. As George Nixon elaborates, Carreras put together a pitch document in 1967 for a television series to be made in colour and with the intention of Baker reprising the role.
From an initial reading, it was clearly being pitched as a UK/US co-production as Carreras mentions James Goldstone as a prospective director for the series, well known for his work across all television genres in the US. It also suggests a draft script was in existence as Procter comments on this in a letter from his Gibraltar home in April 1967.
What became of the project is not entirely known but Michael Carreras was still hoping to get the series off the ground in 1972 and had pitched it to Lloyd Shirley of Thames Television who rejected it but suggested 'a series as much of the North as this one' might interest his colleagues at Granada. (3)
However, its legacy remains intact and Hell is a City is still one of the finest British noir thrillers to emerge from the era, showcasing Val Guest's skills as a fine, versatile director and Stanley Baker's reputation as one of the period's great actors.
The DVD is digitally remastered for this release but this sadly neither includes the excellent Val Guest and Ted Newsom commentary from the Anchor Bay edition of 2002 nor the original trailer. However, the alternate ending, which was prepared but never used, is presented and would have replaced the original downbeat conclusion to the film.
(1) George Nixon, Hell is a City File, Levenshulme History - Then and Now
(2) Andrew Spicer, Typical Men, The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema
(3) George Nixon, Hell is a City File, Levenshulme History - Then and Now
Hell is a City
A Hammer Film Production
Associated British - Warner Pathe 1960
StudioCanal DVD OPTD2376 / Released 8 October 2012 / Cert PG / 92 mins / Region 2 / Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 / Black and white / PAL / Audio: Mono 2.0
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