DVD Review: It's Grim Up North In HELL IS A CITY

The UK doesn't really do noir, do we? Okay, we had a brief flirtation with the idea around the 70s when Donald Cammell was still directing, but those were psycho-thrillers and grimy character studies more than bleak, existential detective stories. Decades later and it's inner city miserablism for the most part or the collected works of Danny Dyer, where for all the hand-wringing over broken Britain and the state of our troubled youth the violence is still framed in the language of comic books and the bass on the soundtrack gonna rattle ya spine, blud, innit.

Seen in that light, Val Guest's Hell is a City (1960) is all the more fascinating; a bluff, imperturbable little police procedural with a tortured copper married to the job, a callous, desperate sociopath on the loose, a femme fatale fit to have all the boys watch her go by and a grim industrial backdrop windswept and wreathed in night and fog. From Hammer, too, of all studios. It's not a great film - it's too much of its time and unintentionally comical with it for that - but some solid acting and direction with one or two terrific set pieces mean it stands up surprisingly well even today.

Like many a procedural, the film centres around a cat-and-mouse tussle betwixt a policeman and his nemesis. The odd couple are Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker), a hard-bitten, no nonsense police inspector and Don Starling (Jon Crawford), a career criminal who's just broken out of prison having sworn to get even with Martineau for putting him away in the first place. Starling needs money to get himself out of the country, but his attempts to lift the cash from bookie Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasance) go horribly wrong, and soon a manhunt is closing in on Starling and his crew.

Michael Mann this is not: Hell is a City is about as straightforward as it gets. Every attempt Starling makes to wriggle out of the tightening noose just sees something else conspire to choke him all the more viciously, and there's never really any question where things are headed overall. Credit to Guest (who adapted Maurice Procter's original novel) for never stooping to a pat morality tale, but this is still a story where for all the copper might wring his hands over what his personal sense of duty is doing to his social life, he still makes it perfectly clear the most important thing at the end of the day is bringing the criminal to justice.

But for all Martineau, Starling and the rest of the cast are dancing a very old dance, there's still a sort of pragmatic elegance to the steps. Baker and Crawford had long careers in film and TV by this point and both men prove more than capable of bringing their roles to life. Hell is a City is a tad too straight-laced to really touch on what drives either protagonist, but there's still a weary, hangdog pathos to the way they clash. One of them has to be the cop, and the other the crook because that's how it works, damn it, and for all it dates poorly Guest's screenplay still evokes a little of the sense of myth-making in something like Heat.

Arthur Grant's cinematography is also much more timeless than one might expect - the man worked on a string of more conventional Hammer productions (Quatermass and the Pit, Taste the Blood of Dracula), but Hell is a City is a quiet, muted film (despite the rattling jazz intro), far more about the bleak surroundings in the Peak District than the usual cheap and cheerful fanservice. An early sequence where the police discover the body of one of Starling's victims is memorably eerie, almost painterly - Lowry meets Rockwell plus corpse.

And the final showdown, inevitable or otherwise, is still genuinely gripping. Yet another accidental screwup on Starling's part, a frantic chase across the rooftops of Manchester, a final, desperate struggle - none of this is new, but Guest and Grant frame the city as something vast and epic, with their protagonists struggling to the bitter end because that's the way it goes. There's an animal ferocity to these last scenes that's all the more startling coming after the bloodless pontificating of much of the rest of the film.

Hell is a City is no great piece of cinema; it's very much the product of an era where men were men and women knew their place. There's little of the subversiveness or real edge you see in the classics of the genre, and much of the story exists solely to speed the audience towards that final head-to-head. But it's still a solid thriller, beautifully shot, that makes for compelling viewing despite all the treading water and myriad anachronisms, and it hints at a cinematic tradition that could have been ours in Britain in the way a film like The Red Circle is the product of both trenchcoat noir and the French New Wave.

THE DISC:

hell is a city_uk dvd_cover.jpgStudio Canal's UK DVD of Hell is a City (available to buy now) gives the film a decent, if unspectacular presentation on home video. The DVD loads straight from the Studio Canal logo and copyright warning into a simple static menu using the original poster artwork - it looks somewhat tacky, but it's readable and easy enough to navigate. The film is divided into eight chapter stops, and the only extra is an alternate ending.

VIDEO:

The picture is a digital remaster, but although Studio Canal have evidently put some work in at times it seems like more a case of making the best of a bad job. The image varies wildly in quality - some scenes, like the discovery of the body out in the Peaks, are beautifully detailed for a film of this vintage, but others like the opening sequence descend into a mess of deeper blacks running together and lack any real definition. It's still a great-looking film, but the disc could well suffer on larger screens.

AUDIO:

The original mono 2.0 track still holds up pretty well. It sounds much like you'd expect, with the bass breaking up into fuzz at the edge of hearing and the higher end a little too shrill and tinny, but it's only really jarring when the score kicks in, which is largely confined to the intro and the climactic chase. Dialogue is clear and audible - none of the regional accents are particularly thick and so unlikely to cause anyone with any degree of fluency in English much trouble. Removable subtitles are large, perfectly readable and free from virtually any mistakes, though they do abbreviate a lot of the more verbose pieces of dialogue.

EXTRAS:

The sole extra is the original alternate ending, though this is even more a product of its time and (almost) hysterically funny as a result. Mild spoilers: where the film as it stands leaves Martineau's relationship with his wife somewhat ambiguous, here he returns after the action to all but demand she take up the role of domestic goddess he sees as her logical choice (and abandon her pretensions to anything better). It was probably cut for pacing in the first place - it does deflate the bittersweet little finale we get - but to be honest Maxine Audley's terrified reaction to Stanley Baker's overtures makes it look more as if he's about to rape her into submission, and for all it raises a laugh there's a nastiness to it that's better left well alone.

Hell is a City is not that well known for fairly obvious reasons; it's a blunt and fairly simplistic piece of storytelling that got lost in Hammer's back catalogue, and it panders to audience impulses that don't do anything to help the movie. At the same time, the brusque, unpretentious sense of style on display here feels very much deserving of a second chance at life - neither the noir elements or the dramatic are particularly new, but there's something about the bluff and very British spin on tortured copper versus fatalistic career criminal that proves oddly distinctive and consistently gripping despite the film's shortcomings. Studio Canal UK's DVD of Hell is a City is fairly bare bones, and doesn't work miracles with the source, but it's still a good way to watch the film. Pour out a cold one, tip your battered fedora and settle in.

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  • fergus1948

    Thanks for that review. I was 12 years old and living in Manchester when it was made and remember watching the filming of a car chase. I don't really understand why old British movies like this never seem to get shown on UK TV.

  • Glad you liked it. I'm not that closely connected - but half my family are from up North, I have friends living over that way, and I've been covering Grimmfest for Twitch so I've spend a fair bit of time in Manchester recently which was one reason I wanted to give the film a shot - see what a British noir shot in a region I'm at least partly familiar with felt like.

    I guess the Beeb doesn't think there's that many people who'd care? Either way it's a shame stuff like this isn't more widely known, no argument there.

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