Today: February 29, 2024

Hell Is A City

Through the city night a police car passes under the lights, its occupants there to protect and serve the bustling metropolis.

Through the
city night a police car passes under the lights, its occupants there to protect
and serve the bustling metropolis.
Hell Is A City – but is it Marlowe’s
LA, or Hammer’s New York?

Seen-it-all
Inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker) is a charismatic leading man
to rival either of those two. He’s got a nose for a villain, he’s got trouble
at home and he’s got a dame on his case. The giveaway is the accents: the city
of this hard-nosed, pulpy thriller is, in fact, Manchester, 1960.

The villain is John
Crawford’s
Don Starling: a ruthless piece of work handy with fists and
menaces. A monster, he squats in the same immoral place occupied by his
American contemporary, Cape Fear’s Max Cady.

Hell Is A City
grips from the get-go – Starling’s out of jail, midway through a stretch for
masterminding a diamond heist. Martineau’s got a hunch that he’ll come back to
Manchester to claim the lost rocks, and he’s right.

On the lam and
desperate, Starling needs a place to stay and cash, so he taps some old faces
for the former, and puts a gang together for the latter. Together they execute
a sting on a bookie – Donald Pleasence, with a Rusholme cadence – and
lose themselves in the Doncaster races.

But the bookies’
secretary dies in the melee and suddenly Don’s on a murder rap with every
copper between Halifax and Barnsley on his case.

Can Martineau
bust the gang before Starling kills again?

It’s noticeably
racy for its time – Martineau’s wife complains her husband is too busy being
good police to make her feel like a woman; Starling’s a psychopath.

The dialogue is
clipped, pared to the bone Mancunian backchat by way of Raymond Chandler.
The people are hardened by war and work.

Manchester has
a grimy glamour in black and white. This England is a foreign country, as close
to the Victorians as to now. In a great scene at a gambling meet, high on the
moor, crowds of men gather to bet on the toss of a coin. They spill from the
back-to-backs like Lowry’s matchstick men and flock up the hill to the sound of
church bells, only to scatter back down when the police show.

Quatermass director Val
Guest
, whose CV suggests he could turn his hand to most things, paces with
aplomb, the shadows lengthening as the tension mounts.

Although
Crawford can’t quite hide his US accent he’s a brooding, evil presence. Baker
is as upright as you’d expect –ramrod-straight police and army were keeping
bread on his table long before he stood foursquare against the Zulu.

Hell Is A City
sits snug between noir and the kitchen sink. Have a shufty, chuck, as they say
in Manchester.

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