Britain’s Hammer film studio didn’t just make gothic horrors and dodgy sitcom spin-offs. In 1960 Val Guest directed his own adaptation of Maurice Proctor’s crime novel HELL IS A CITY, a fast-paced and gritty noir set on the streets of 1950s Manchester. Its lead detective may be a cop rather than a private eye, but this is a lean and mean yarn nonetheless, with two men on either side of the law battling it out ‘up north’.
Stanley Baker stars as Harry Martineau, a tough working class detective who knows his patch well – perhaps too well, preferring to spend his time out and about rather than at home with his wife Julia (Maxine Audley). Local criminal lynchpin Don Starling (John Crawford), whom Martineau helped put away, has just escaped from prison and the copper instinctively knows he will head back to the city to reclaim his spoils before fleeing abroad. After a bookmaker’s cash delivery is stolen in broad daylight and a girl is killed, Martineau races to track down Starling before he can escape justice once again.
HELL IS A CITY arrived at an interesting point in cinema history, on the cusp of the New Wave movement. It’s not just in the jaunty jazz soundtrack that accompanies events: there’s a level of realism at play in its kitchen sink domestic drama between Martineau and his wife, the divide between his working class life and her middle class aspirations painfully obvious at times. Her lack of enthusiasm for starting a family also highlights the social mobility that was beginning to take root in post-war Britain.
…sooner or later, everyone is drawn back to the metropolis, whether they like it or not.
The atmospheric photography of Manchester vividly evokes a sense of time and place too; views across the city from the barren surrounding moorland suggest that sooner or later, everyone is drawn back to the metropolis, whether they like it or not. Traditional views of terraced houses and cobbled streets are juxtaposed with night-time shots of a neon-lit bustling city, drawing comparisons with the Hollywood L.A. set noirs that came before it. And if the opening and closing credits vaguely recall those of THE NAKED GUN, then that only serves to highlight the long and illustrious line from which the film takes its inspiration.
Guest’s BAFTA-nominated screenplay succinctly delivers a complex plot and a range of intriguing characters with astonishing speed. Noir tends to be a man’s world, and HELL IS A CITY is no different. The women are either cold and frigid (Julia), kind-hearted floozies (Vanda Godsell’s barmaid Lucky makes no attempt to hide her love for Harry) or innocents doomed to die (Sarah Branch’s saintly deaf and mute girl). Baker himself is of course the morally upstanding centre of the story, as dogged as they come, and his presence alone gives Martineau an instant magnetism. As his nemesis, John Crawford does a nice line in nasty ruthlessness, and their final rooftop showdown – again on location – delivers a satisfying degree of suspense. It’s a film that really does deserve to be better known among its contemporaries, and offers a fresh twist on the traditional noir formula.