Hell is a City (1960) is somewhat of a novelty – a Hammer production which isn’t a horror film and features none of the studio’s regulars in major roles. Developed from Maurice Procter’s novel by legendary director Val Guest, the film stars 1960s household names Stanley Baker, Donald Pleasance and Billie Whitelaw. Inspector Harry Martineau (Baker) is a hardened Manchester cop who has seen and done it all. Little worries him anymore except when he hears that his old adversary, career criminal Don Starling (John Crawford) – who Martineau was responsible for getting put away – is out of prison and back in town.
When a local bookmakers is robbed Martineau knows there can only be one man responsible, and sets out to catch Starling and stop his reign of petty terror once and for all. Though Hell is a City clearly sets out to emulate the hard-boiled gangster films popularised by America at the time, what you actually have is the kind of mix between gritty police thriller and kitchen sink melodrama which encapsulated Britain in the grey decades following the Second World War.
Not quite reaching the edge of the seat tension it was clearly aiming for, Hell is a City does manage to sustain your interest throughout, particularly during the final rooftop showdown between Martineau and Starling. The real beauty of films like this, and what makes this one so watchable, is its air of grimy realism. Like Coronation Street, the popular soap set in the same area, Hell is a City’s depiction of the harsh life of inner-city England, though perhaps not enticing, certainly gives the viewer a window onto what was and is reality for many.
The film’s depiction of Martineau’s relationship with his wife, a powerful display of thwarted frustration by the marvellous Maxine Audley, is equally hard hitting, and bristles with electric intensity. Their portrayal of a couple whose relationship is in jeopardy as a result of missed opportunities and the passing of time, will ring true to anyone who has ever had to deal with the day to day reality of juggling their lives both privately and professionally.
Guest’s Hell is a City is a film whose solid placement within a particular era for once plays in its favour. As a treatise on the police and society it should be made compulsory viewing for anyone interested in community or human relationships.