Hell is a City (1960)

7.0 out of 10
Hell is a City is a British entry into the noir cycle. Noir, after all, would become a truly international form and, beyond The United States, would find favour in France, where it would influence the French New Wave, Japan which would produce a number of later noir titles such as the phenomenal spaghetti western meets noir classic Koruto wa ore no pasupooto and in Britain too, where Hammer would turn out a number of noir-like B features. Here Hammer, a studio perhaps better known for their gothic horrors and particularly their vampire films, retain many of the signature stylistic approaches of the noir. Except, Hammer transplants these genre tropes, and noir aesthetics, to the already visibly declining industrial region of Greater Manchester. Hell is a City is British noir at is best. Though , it must be said, it was just one of a number of Hammer noirs. Hammer also brough the world the likes of the mildly enjoyable, though far from remarkable, Montgomery Tully noir, 36 Hours. This one, however, is directed by Confessions of a Window Cleaner and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth helmsman Val Guest. Guest, a Hammer regular, lends the film a certain extra something that was not universally present among the lesser Hammer titles. The story here, which is based on a novel by Maurice Procter, concerns the robbery of a bookmaker. In the execution of this crime the band of baddies accidentally kill a girl, thus making their crime a murder rather than a robbery for investigation, while an indelible invisible ink mark out the desperados as handlers of the haul. The bookie here is played by Death Line and Phantom of Death star, and cinema's favourite oddball, Donald Pleasence. By this point, Pleasance was already something of a film veteran. However, here he delivers something of a low key performance compared to his later work. That would be, occasionally, far more intense and altogether more captivating. Here, the future beetle wanking entomologist, with his communion of insects in Phenomena, seems content with his nondescript, back-seat role. Pleasance simply, and appropriately, eschews limelight stealing. On the case is hard boiled Inspector Harry Martineau. He is played by Welsh Zulu and Guns of Navarone star Stanley Baker. Baker is great as a hard nosed, married to the job, copper. Throughout the feature, with subtle use of expressions that accompany his exchanges with female supporting characters, we get the sense of the midlife crisis of this man who's career driven impetus masks a failing marriage and an inner void. We understand, to a point, why he is such a jobsworth. Indeed this aspect is acknowledged in concluding remarks by his colleagues who recognise how one does not have to be alone to be lonely. The investigation is procedure driven but, as with the best of the American noir, it does this while making use of some incredibly well chosen locations that give an excellent feel for time and place. This, in practice, is realised here with Lowry-esque smokestacks that are contrasted with neon lit night-time streets. In this, there is a feel of the conflicting worlds of a prototype for the British social realism and the more edgy, but at the same time glamourous, worlds of the American-style urban crimer. Also, in common with the American noir, there is the presence of the femme fatale stock character, albeit one that is batted away with stuffy, do-the right-thing, Martineau and his stiff upper lip. There is also, for the aficionado, the genre familiar use of back projection for car interior scenes. It all leads up to a real gear-shift in pacing when this dialogue driven thriller decides to break out the stunts for an excellent rooftop chase that could have been straight out of French crime thriller Peur sur la ville. It all ends up in a place that is a far-cry from a world in which desperate villains say things like "crikey!" that the rest of the feature inhabits. Henri Verneuil, by the way, was the director of the paranoid political thriller I as in Icarus and Eurcrime heist favourite The Burglars. He brought the world Peur sur la ville in 1975. Known in English as Fear Over the City, or sometimes The Night Caller, this gialloesque crime thiller, with occasional noirish flourishes, was, in truth, a showcase for the excellent Jean-Paul Belmondo of Pierrot le Fou fame. It is said that, in Fear Over the City, Jean-Paul Belmondo would perform his own stunts under the coaching of the prolific Rémy Julienne. And what stunts they are too! Some of the work on Fear Over the City is borderline suicidal and make for one of the most exhilirating experiences in the whole Eurocrime canon. The highlight is, by far, one of the greatest extended rooftop chases in the history of film. It may be coincidental, but there is a great deal of similarity between the rooftop chase in Fear Over the City and one in the concluding scenes of the 1960 English film-noir, Hell is a City. There is even a similar feel to the scoring for these stunts-led segments. Even for the conclusion alone, Hell is a City is worth the price of admission. But, beyond that, the film really will appeal to those who like their noir as dark and urban as possible. After all Guest, here, has really embraced the genre to the max. Sure, there are no rain soaked nocturnal streets, but there are fedoras and there is plenty of smoking going on. After all, everyone smokes, all the time, in the world of film noir. So, this is proper noir, for proper noir fans. It deserves a far wider audience. Spread the word!


  1. Really excellent write up. I love this movie and am a huge Stanley Baker fan - a shame he left us much too early. HELL DRIVERS and THE CRIMINAL are also excellent. Thanks again for the review. I'm going to pull out my DVD and watch HELL IS A CITY tonight. Great stuff !

  2. Thanks for the kind comments and glad that I could be of inspiration there. Thats what its all about after all. I don't write this thing to badmouth movies but to share a passion. Noir is one of those passions. As is Hammer :)

    If you haven't seen it - Fear Over the City is worth a look too. Great roof chase in that. Trailer here: link