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HELL IS A CITY (director/writer: Val Guest; screenwriter: from the novel by Maurice Procter; cinematographer: Arthur Grant; editor: James Needs; music: Stanley Black; cast: Stanley Baker (Inspector Harry Martineau), John Crawford (Don Starling), Donald Pleasence (Gus Hawkins), Maxine Audley (Julia Martineau), Billie Whitelaw (Chloe Hawkins), Joseph Tomelty (Furnisher Steele), Sarah Branch (Silver Steele), George A. Cooper (Doug Savage) Geoffrey Frederick (Devery), Vanda Godsell (Lucky Lusk), Lois Daine (Cecily), Charles Morgan (Laurie Lovett), Joby Blanshard (Tawny Jakes), Charles Houston (Clogger Roach), Peter Madden (Bert), Warren Mitchell (Traveller Witness); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Michael Carreras; Columbis Pictures/Hammer Pictures; 1960-UK)
“It’s a gritty Hammer story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Val Guest (“The Quatermass Xperiment“/”The Day the Earth Caught Fire“) is the director and award-winning screenwriter (British Academy Awards) for this highly charged suspense yarn from Great Britain that is based on the novel by Maurice Procter. A dangerous American-born but raised in England career criminal, Don Starling (John Crawford), escapes from prison after serving 5 years of his 14 year prison sentence for a jewelry robbery, and kills a warden in the process. Manchester Inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker) was the arresting officer and knew the troubled Starling from his youth. Martineau was threatened by Starling after he was convicted, but the detective is not worried about that threat. He reasons that Starling is coming back to Manchester to recover the stolen jewels he stashed away which were never recovered.

Starling returns undetected to Manchester and goes to see Laurie Lovett (Charles Morgan), who runs a taxi service and was in on the jewelry heist. He’s not happy to see his old mate, especially as he’s greeted with a gun pointed at his back, but is grateful that Starling never dropped a dime on him and reluctantly finds a place for him to hide at night. Starling reveals his plans to get a phony passport and flee the country, but not until he gets all the money he needs to execute his escape. He plans tomorrow to rob the bookmaker Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence) of his gambling take with the help of Lovett’s gang.

The robbery takes place on the day of the races, as the gang intercepts in an alleyway the man and woman acting as the bookies’ couriers. The woman, Cecily (Daine ), has the money bag chained to her wrist, so she’s kidnapped and taken for a ride to the outskirts of town. Starling fatally clubs her when she yells for help, so they dump her body on the side of the road and take off with the money bag containing £4,000. But a traveler passing them on the road spots the dead body and calls the police. The workaholic, unhappily married Martineau and his impressionable young bachelor assistant, Devery (Geoffrey Frederick), notice a green dye on Cecily’s hands, something the banks use to catch thieves as the dye can’t be washed off except with a special solvent. They use this clue to pick up those in the city who have the dye on their hands, as they put the heat on the underworld characters who might have had contact with Starling. Meanwhile, the gang consisting of Starling, Lovett, Clogger Roach (Houston), and Tawny Jakes (Blanshard), disappear by dispersing in different directions. While the three go to the races and blend in with the crowd, Starling seeks shelter from his former acquaintances until he can get the jewels and flee the country.

The remainder of this thriller turns into a taut man-on-the-run escapade. Starling contacts his bartender ex-girlfriend Lucky Lusk (Godsell), but she wants nothing to do with him. She’s in love with the no-nonsense, tough guy, married to his job, Martineau, who is tempted but fails to bite at the Rubenesque woman’s offer of an affair with no strings attached. Martineau’s marriage to Julia (Audley) is ice cold, as he wants kids but she doesn’t. As a result they are going through a marriage of convenience without love or sex, exchanging icy comments but in a non-violent manner that shows there might be a glimmer of hope for them.

Starling contacts Gus’s wife Chloe (Billie Whitelaw), with whom he previously had an affair with. She’s too frightened to rebuff him and hides him in the attic located in the bedroom. When Gus takes a peek in the attic thinking he heard a noise, he’s conked on the head and hospitalized with a concussion as the police take note that Starling has been spotted for the first time in Manchester and thereby connect him to the robbery. Starling also contacts the elderly Steele (Tomelty), who runs a furniture warehouse out of his house. He was the one who tipped the cops off about Starling which led to his arrest. He lives alone with his beautiful deaf and dumb granddaughter Silver Steele (Branch), of whom he’s protective of.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

The manhunt leads them from the back streets of London to the moors, where an illegal coin tossing gambling ring is operating. When the cops raid that activity, they grill the one who runs the illegal gambling (Cooper) and uncover that Lovett’s boys were there. From all the clues gathered, they figure out who the 4 men were who knocked of Cecily. When they pick 3 of them up on their taxi jobs, they locate the bookies’ stolen money hidden in one of the taxi’s bonnet. While searching now only for Starling, they receive a call from Steele’s place that shots have been fired. The killer came back to get the jewels he hid in the chimney and when spotted by Silver, he shoots her. Martineau chases him across the rooftops, and even though severely wounded still gets his collar.

It’s a gritty Hammer story. It humanizes Martineau’s painful loneliness and sympathetically weaves the criminal chase story around that, while showing him to be an honest person displaying a sense of integrity in everything he does. Stanley Baker does a superb job as the stoic cop, someone who only gets satisfaction from his work. The London underground is shaded with dark edges and the city’s coldness is comparable to the inspector’s personal life, giving the B & W film an extraordinary noir look.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”