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Hell is a City (Val Guest, 1960)

This piece was originally presented as an introduction to a screening of Hell is a City at the Mitchell and Kenyon Cinema, University of Central Lancashire as part of a series on British crime films organised by Susan Sydney-Smith. I originally saw Hell is a City as a first year undergraduate at Cinema 3 at the University of Kent in 1996 – there were only six people in the audience and I was the youngest by some distance. At the end of the film, an elderly gentleman seated in front of turned to his son and said “Now that’s a proper film.” I couldn’t agree more …


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Image from Hammer Horror Posters

Hell is a City is thriller that takes us into the world of Harry Martineau, a tough police inspector (played by Stanley Baker) tracking down an escaped prisoner-turned murderer Don Starling (John Crawford), whilst coping with a frigid, nagging wife (Maxine Audley) who resents the time he spends on his work. Directed by Val Guest, who had established a reputation as a maker of taught, low-budget thrillers such as They Can’t Hang Me (1955) and science-fiction classics such as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Hell is a City has been unjustly overlooked by many critics and historians of British cinema [1].

[You can access the trailer for Hell is a City at the Hammer Archive here]

Along with Basil Dearden’s Violent Playground (1958), Hell is a City has defined the development of post-war hardboiled detective fiction in the United Kingdom. Hell is a City marks a deliberate break with the literary tradition of the amateur detective that had been so popular before the Second World War to project an image of the professional detective that is more recognizable to us from American pulp fiction of Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler. Filmmakers such as Jules Dassin and Cy Endfield had come to Britain from Hollywood to escape the blacklists of the McCarthy era, and brought with them the style and moral ambiguity of the film noir. Hell is a city, and the city in question is Manchester. Depicted as ‘a dangerous, dark, and insecure place,’ the city is ‘characterised by paranoia, menace, violence, personal betrayal, greed, lust, and the corrosive effects of a society based on the pursuit of money’ [2]. The robbery that sets the story in motion is of the takings of a local bookmaker. The innermost conflicts and desires of the characters are rooted in the claustrophobia and stasis of the city; and, like many noirs, the dénouement of the film involves a precarious chase across a rooftop at what is now the Cornerhouse cinema at the corner of Oxford Road and Whitworth Street. The use of noir style to depict the city is supplemented by the traditions of British social realist cinema; only in Guest’s direction this realism becomes harsh and brutal. Hell is a City was released in the same year as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960), and bears comparison to the films of the British new wave. This film shares with its contemporaries a concern for the social lives of ordinary working class people in the north, with a particular emphasis on time spent at leisure. The film documents the traditional gambling games of the northern working class and the camaraderie of the public house. Unlike the films of the British new wave, however, it interprets this working class culture within the generic limits of the crime thriller, and resists some of the typical stylistic markers of the period. The film lacks ‘that long shot of our town from that hill’ that was so prevalent in British filmmaking in the early 1960s, and until the finale, the camera remains unflinchingly at street level amidst the shadows and back streets of the northern industrial city.

This new, British hardboiled fiction also marks a rejection of the cosy post-war vision of the police in England evident in The Blue Lamp and its television revival, Dixon of Dock Green. In the figure of George Dixon, the British ‘Bobby’ was represented as a kind, caring, friendly father-figure, but even contemporary audiences found Dixon ‘too good to be true,’ too comfortable, too safe in the post-war world [3]. In the modern world, the niceties of Dixon are unsuited to dealing with criminals like the desperate and brutal Don Starling. In Hell is a City the police officer is not so far removed from the criminal he pursues. Chief Inspector Martineau is the mirror image of Starling: as he tells his wife: ‘I know how his [Starling’s] mind works. I grew up with him. We went to the same school together, fought in the same war.’ Martineau is a man torn between two places; the city he must defend at all costs, and the safe suburban home his wife has created. He cannot reconcile himself to his wife’s lifestyle because he understands the criminal world so well. It is the scenes between Martineau and his wife that are perhaps the greatest source of tension in the film, and like many films of the British new wave marriage is depicted as a suffocating feminine environment where an obsession with propriety and property create a trap for the male for the virile hero. Where Dixon is homely and articulates a ‘home-spun’ wisdom, Martineau is – indeed, he must be – rooted in the city, but at the same time adrift on its rain-soaked streets. He belongs in the city, but is homeless within it; his day-to-day life is one of temporary allegiances formed in the public spaces of the pub, and his tentative relationship with the barmaid, Lucky. In Andrew Spicer’s view, the film ‘destroys the paternalist paradigm where crooks are evil and the policeman can return safely to his family, replacing it with alienated modern man, a detached unstable loner who can only feel at home on the night-time city streets’ [4]. Martineau is a fascinating character wonderfully played by Stanley Baker. It is Baker who, in the post-war period, came to embody the modern British tough guy. Anthony Carthew, writing in 1960 for the Daily Herald, noted Baker’s ‘violent, modern, unheroic personality … This man intrigues me because he is so utterly against the run of leading men. His big boxer’s body, crag of a chin, his flat voice and assertive masculinity – all make him the odd man out of British films’ [5]. Baker’s urgent, desperate performances of the 1950s and early-1960s are unheroic, and at the same time tragic. He has seen too much to be hopeful; and in Hell is a City, when Julia tells Martineau that Starling deserves to die, he replies, ‘None of us are perfect.’

Guest’s exploration of the noir city through British social realism made the world of The Blue Lamp look dated and unrealistic; and, though it did not produce the television equivalent of Dixon of Dock Green, it is Hell is a City that has proved to be the more influential film. The alienated, disaffected detective unable to find a place in professional suburban middle-England has become the defining feature of the British crime literature, cinema, and television drama. It is Martineau rather than Dixon that Ian Rankin’s Rebus or Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennyson or Waking the Dead’s Boyd refers to in their depiction of the British police officer.

Credits

Hell is a City (Associated British Picture Corporation/Hammer Film Productions, 1960) prod. Michael Carreras dir. Val Guest wr. Val Guest, novel Maurice Proctor ph. Arthur Grant ed. John Dunsford, James Needs m. Stanley Black. Cast: Stanley Baker (Inspector Harry Martineau), John Crawford (Don Starling), Donald Pleasance (Gus Hawkins), Maxine Audley (Julia Martineau), Billy Whitelaw (Chloe Hawkins), Joseph Tomelty (Furnisher Steele), George A. Cooper (Doug Savage), Geoffrey Frederick (Detective Devery), Vanda Godsell (Lucretia ‘Lucky’ Luske), Charles Houston (Clogger Roach), Joby Blanshard (Tawny Jakes), Charles Morgan (Laurie Lovett), Peter Madden (Bert Darwin), Dickie Owen (Bragg), Lois Daine (Cecily Wainwright).

Notes

  1. This has again become apparent recently, as the film is not mentioned in the sections on British film noir in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
  2. Ray Pratt, Projecting Paranoia: Conspiratorial Visions in American Film. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2001: 48.
  3. Susan Sydney-Smith, Beyond Dixon of Dock Green: Early British Police Series. London: I.B. Tauris, 2002: 106.
  4. Andrew Spicer, Typical Men: The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema. London: I.B. Tauris, 2001: 54.
  5. Quoted in Andrew Spicer, ‘The Emergence of the British Tough Guy: Stanley Baker, Masculinity, and the Crime Thriller,’ in Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy (eds.) British Crime Cinema. London: Routledge, 1999: 88.
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