AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 83 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Inspector Martineau has seen it all as he polices Manchester, but is still totally committed to his job despite his marriage to Julia being on the rocks because he is constantly late home and she won’t have children. Then he hears that vicious thug Don Crawford has just escaped from prison. 14 years ago Martineau put him away for his part in a jewellery heist, but the loot was never recovered, and Martineau thinks that he will return to Manchester to pick it up. Crawford doesn’t waste much time, soon finding his former associates and forcing them to join in a raid on bookmaker Gus Hawins, planning to use the money to obtain a false passport and flee the country. However, he ends up killing a bank clerk, and Martineau soon picks up the trail….
Based on the first of a series of books which Hammer were originally going to turn into a TV series until the author Maurice Proctor fell ill, this fine crime drama, quite different from the more mechanical thrillers that Hammer churned out in the early 1950’s, remains surprisingly undated despite a few parts of the story requiring leaps of faith from the viewer, though I couldn’t help chuckling at the title sequence, the kind spoofed in The Naked Gun films, filmed from the viewpoint of someone driving a police car. Filmed in Val Guest’s usual semi-documentary style, it was shot largely on location in Manchester, really making the most out of the city’s gloomy locales and feeling very authentic, but is also superbly photographed in superb film noir fashion by Arthur Grant, generally cited as being a far inferior cameraman to the great Jack Asher but actually one who could do tremendous work when it was required, here very chiaroscuro in style. Paced fairly leisurely, with much of the action consisting of its hero and his partner searching the city trying to find their quarry, it maintains a certain grip and, despite John Crawford not really being too good as Stirling, becomes extremely tense and even uncomfortable whenever the character is around because you’re on edge as to what this killer and rapist will do next. It all ends with a fine rooftop climax which is so well put together that you honestly can’t see the joins, though even here the film avoids excess melodramatics.
Quite tough [one women gets an elbow in the face] and frank [Lucky Lusk the barmaid’s overtones to Martineau are amazingly blatant, and Billie Whitelaw’s slutty wife even gets a brief nude scene which was cut for the US release], Hell Is A City is also packed with interesting, well sketched characters [an early appearance by Donald Pleasance is especially memorable] which give the film a great flavour, while Stanley Baker’s usual tough, no-nonsense, slightly surly but also world weary screen persona has never been better put to good use [and I include Zulu]. For some reason Maxine Audley’s scenes were also cut from the American version, but her scenes with Baker are excellently performed. Their fraught husband and wife relationship was originally given some resolve, but the original last few minutes were re-edited and shortened to conclude the film more openly and in a darker fashion. It was the right decision. Guest’s script could have done with more detail here and there, and there are one or two coincidences too many, but, aided by Stanley Black’s score which comes across appropriately as very jazzed-up Miklos Rozsa, Hell Is A City remains a pretty good melding of the noir and the more realistic type of crime drama, and its last few minutes are amazingly evocative of its setting and its hero being constantly surrounded by people but also, at the same time, being constantly alone.