It’s interesting to look at the Hammer filmography and see just how varied their film slate was between their first batch of gothic horrors in the second half of the 1950s and the point where the company more or less committed itself to horror and fantasy a decade later. The end of the Fifties and early Sixties saw them working on various types of films alongside horror movies, possibly edging their bets in case the boom ended. And several of these films were surprisingly daring and edgy, black and white dramas that were a million miles away from the Kensington Gore drenched full colour shockers they remain best known for.
One of the best of the films from this time is Hell is a City -as gritty a British crime film as you’ll see in any decade, this remains something of a forgotten classic, so any chance for people to see it should be taken.
Set in Manchester, this 1960 film from the ever-reliable Val Guest sees Stanley Baker as hard-bitten cop Harry Martineau, on the trail of escaped con Don Starling (John Crawford), who he’s previously put away for fourteen years. Starling, who has killed a warden in his escape, has returned to the city to recover the jewellery stolen in a previous job, as well as carry out a new hold-up to finance his escape from the country. But the robbery goes badly wrong with a young girl killed by Starling, and as Martineau puts the pieces together, the increasingly desperate villain tries to find somewhere to hide out, leading to more violence.
This is cynical, hard-boiled stuff at its best. Watching this a week or so afterI’d waded through the first series of The Sweeney, it’s easy to see Martineau as a template for Jack Regan – trapped in a failing marriage, obsessive, single-minded and not above bending the law if he has to, this is a cop who is as comfortable socialising with criminals as with his own colleagues and who is, ultimately, a tragic figure (an alternative ending, featured here, restructures the film’s final moments and adds an extra scene to suggest a happier future for him – this was, sensible, reworked for the final version).
Baker, a master at playing hard but inherently decent characters, is on top form here, and is ably backed up by Donald Pleasence, Billie Whitelaw (seen in a surprisingly frank moment of semi-nudity and implied sexual violence at one point) and a cast of familiar faces. The locations – be it a now unrecognisable Manchester city centre or the wastelands of the Pennines – are extraordinarily evocative, and show just how effective British crime films could be if they left their cosy London bases. The only let down here is Stanley Black’s score, which is deliriously bombastic – not a bad thing in itself, but far too much for a film that is, in the end, a restrained character study more that the action movie the music suggests.
Gritty 1960s black and white British crime films – we can also include Baker’s Hell Drivers, The Violent Playground, The Hijackers, Calculated Risk and others amongst them – remain a sadly neglected genre, both in terms of DVD release and film criticism. A pity, as they are among the most interesting films of the time. If you are a fan of the genre, you’ll already know that Hell is a City is an essential purchase. If you’re not, this is a great place to start and find out what you’ve been missing.