Hell is a City.


The original novel.
Detective Inspector Harry Martineau.
This British thriller from Val Guest was certainly influenced by  the British New Wave  film movement and I would also suggest by 1940’s, 50’s film noir from America. Guest was a very versatile film director a skillful craftsman that tackled all types of genre including comedy, science fiction, musicals, war films, costume drama’s, spy stories and of cause thrillers.  Hell is a City (1960) is British crime drama at its very best, made in the days when you could still be sentenced to hang for murder[1]which added an extra element of tension to already tense storyline.  Based on a book of the same name that was written by a man who knew his business, Maurice Procter was a policeman in the Manchester area for many years.

The gangster and the bookies wife.
The film stars Stanley Baker, who plays Detective Inspector Harry Martineau, the last time Baker would play a police officer in a feature film. Martineau is a rather cynical man in an unhappy marriage to Julia (Maxine Audley) who refuses to have children. When Don Starling (American actor John Crawford) escapes part way into a 14-year prison sentence killing a warden, the Inspector is quickly on his trail. Harry knows that Starling will return to Manchester to retrieve the hidden proceeds of a robbery, £5000 worth of stolen jewels and to take his revenge on the man that put him away in the first place, school friend and army buddy: Harry Martineau. Bookmakers assistant Cecily Wainwright is robbed on her way to depositing the days taking in the bank from local bookmaker Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence).   During the robbery Cecily is killed and her young body is dumped on the moors at Oldham. Martineau is beginning to think that Starlings escape and the robbery could be linked!


The barmaid who offers Harry some home comforts. 
I can’t emphasize more the worth of this film. Shot in Hammerscope by Arthur Grant who was at his best photographing urban landscape making them real and gritty and appear as tough, exciting and dangerous as any big American city like New York or Chicago. Stanley Black’s (West 11 (1963)) score fits like a glove. As does the casting that also includes, Billie Whitelaw, Warren Mitchell and a sensual Vanda Godsell who plays a barmaid that offers our unhappily married police inspector more than a whiskey.  This gem of a British noir is sharp and well directed by Guest with plenty of detail that makes it compliant with modern TV police procedural dramas giving us an uncomfortable view of the criminal underworld and a realistic view of the police scuppering their Dixon of Dock Green persona. Very highly recommended.[2]




[1] My very first school was very close to Pentonville Prison in London and on the mornings of the hangings it was a very surreal atmosphere in the classroom as the prison clock finished striking nine you knew, even as a young child, that a person had just fallen through the gallows trap door and had there neck broken!

[2] Images provided by Lavenshulm: Hell is a City File.