Hammer Film Productions will of course forever be primarily remembered for its long-standing association with the horror genre, but even as the British production company’s earliest period colour Gothics “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and “Dracula” (1958) were becoming huge commercial successes on both sides of the Atlantic and making household names of their stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Hammer’s producers Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds were each doing their bit in an attempt to broaden public perceptions of their studio’s output. Although their efforts historically made little impact on how people today remember the company (for most people, Hammer Films is and will forever be synonymous with Hammer Horror), for connoisseurs of the Hammer brand, many classic films unrelated to the genre emerged out of the studio at around the same time as Cushing and Lee were unwittingly forging the Hammer image under the stewardship of director Terence Fisher. The writer-director who, more than any other, can be identified with this alternative studio vision, was Val Guest -- who, by the time of his first association with the Company in 1954, had already been making and directing films for ten years. Ironically, of course, it was Guest who directed “The Quatermass Xperiment” in 1954 -- from his own rewrite of an adaptation of the Nigel Kneale BBC TV series by Richard Landau -- thereby kick-starting the whole horror business for Hammer to start with!
Guest first broke into the film business in the mid-thirties when he was employed as a screenwriter for Michael Balkan’s Gainsborough Pictures. His office was next door to Alfred Hitchcock’s, and Guest was mainly involved at the time in writing for the popular English comedian and comic actor Will Hay, alongside Marriott Edgar. This was the most popular period of the star’s screen career and, in 1942, it enabled Guest to demand the opportunity to direct his first film – a wartime public information short, commissioned by the Ministry of Information, which Guest was asked to write as a vehicle for popular comedian Arthur Askey to provide a warning to the public about the dangers of taking their colds and sneezes to the workplace. The good notices earned for his efforts allowed Guest to ask and to get more directing jobs outside Gainsborough, during which time he was instrumental in discovering Jean Simmons and launching Frankie Howard, Peter Sellers and Cliff Richard in their first big screen roles. His first work for Hammer came in 1954 when he directed the film version of popular radio comedy “Life with the Lyons”. He also had the distinction of directing Hammer’s first two colour features, “Men of Sherwood Forest” and “Break in the Circle”, and introducing Phillip Martell into the Hammer fold after being the first to employ him as a musical supervisor. Guest built on the success of “The Quatermass Xperiment”, following up with two more Nigel Kneale adaptations, “Quatermass 2” and “The Abominable Snowman”, by which time “The Curse of Frankenstein” was already transforming the landscape of the British film industry and Hammer’s role in it.
Even as the company sought to capitalise on its first colour horror hit with a follow-up, “Dracula”, Guest was writing and directing what would prove to be an equally controversial piece of work for the Hammer stable, the wartime thriller “The Camp on Blood Island”. Set in a Japanese POW camp in Malay, the 1958 film tells the story of some British prisoners at the end of the war who try to keep the news of Japan’s surrender a secret from their captors for fear of reprisals, but was widely condemned upon release for exploiting wartime atrocities for the sake of entertainment. Hammer’s reaction to such accusations, and those which came as a result of the revulsion expressed by many critics in response to the lurid horrors unleashed by “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Dracula”, was to produce a parallel series of more ‘serious’, hard-hitting dramas, often with an intended social message at their core. Guest directed and co-wrote “Yesterday’s Enemy”, another wartime thriller, this time set in Burma and based on a true incident which dealt with the difficult subject of British wartime atrocities. Guest’s approach this time was serious and adult, aiming for realism by spurning all frills including incidental music. Meanwhile, Anthony Hinds put Cyril Frankel’s even more difficult and disturbing “Never Take Sweets from Strangers” into production -- a thriller dealing head on with the taboo subject of predatory paedophilia, and a town’s unwillingness to confront the issue. Guest’s next film for Hammer should be seen against this backdrop -- a gritty black and white urban crime drama which came sandwiched between the lurid thrills of Terrence Fisher’s “The Mummy” and “The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll”.
“Hell is a City” reunited Val Guest with the lead of “Yesterday’s Enemy”, Welsh actor Stanley Baker. Baker is best remembered for playing a number of tough guy villain roles in the fifties, which heralded the sort of working class characters who predominated in the New Wave cinema and ‘kitchen Sink’ British dramas of the early sixties, after he came to prominence in the 1953 film “The Cruel Sea”. Here he’s a tenacious police Inspector with a troubled home life, working the bustling cobbles of Greater Manchester and pursuing a vicious escaped criminal he put away for his part in a jewel robbery five years previously. The film was based on a 1954 novel by ex-Halifax constable Maurice Proctor – part of a book series which Michael Carreras was originally planning to use as the basis for a TV show, although ill health prevented Proctor from collaborating further on any such project. Nevertheless, in its depiction of a hard-drinking, angry policeman who hangs out in the same low pubs as the crooks he chases and who’s personal life is a mess, the film prefigures later cop shows such as “The Sweeney” and showcases a much tougher and violent film noir aesthetic than anything else Hammer was producing at the time.
Guest was inspired by the work of American director Jules Dassin, who’d also made use of real-life London locations to produce a grim noir aesthetic in the 1950 film “Night in the City”, before being blacklisted by Hollywood and escaping to France to make a series of influential crime thrillers such as the proto heist film “Rififi”. The windy Northern backdrops against which the events of “Hell is a City” play out, provide it with its sense of grim authenticity, underpinning a dark tale of obsession and violence. The crowded streets and brooding skyline of the redbrick, tenement-dominated city of Manchester and the surrounding lonely, winding, hillocky stretches of the Yorkshire Moors portrayed by the film, bring with them a characterful but desolate atmosphere of documentary realism; when Baker enters the crowded city centre pub, The Lacy Arms, for instance, you can still see real pedestrians and shoppers passing by outside because the crew filmed many such scenes in a real pub location, Manchester’s Fatted Calf. The bleak slum housing estates shown edging onto the outskirts of the desolate moors provide a suitably forlorn location for the working class form of illegal gambling prominently featured in them, the ‘tossing games’ (in which large sums are bet on the toss of a coin), and the climax was shot on the rooftops of the city against a panoramic view of the surrounding cityscape and the streets below, given added depth by the widescreen ‘Hammerscope’ used by director of photography Arthur Grant.
The film is pitched as character study set against the backdrop of the police investigation into a violent crime, contrasting the investigating officer, Inspector Martineau (Baker) with the escaped criminal Don Starling (John Crawford). The two grew up together and shared the same tough background; consequently, Martineau feels he knows Starling inside-out and can guess which moves the convict will make when he learns of his escape from prison five years into a fourteen-year sentence, leaving a dead prison warden in his wake. Starling is painted as the most wantonly vicious thug imaginable, having previously committed assault, murder and rape during his life of crime. Martineau put him away for his part in a jewellery heist, but expects him to return to Manchester to pick up the hidden hoard of loot that was never recovered, and manages to get himself assigned the case despite opposition from his Superintendent. Starling blackmails his old gang into helping him carry out a raid on bookmaker Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence), planning to use the money to obtain a false passport and flee the country after he picks up the hidden stash of jewels from their hidden location in the city. The Hawkins job turns violent though, and becomes a murder hunt after an innocent shop clerk is coshed and dies from her injuries; the stolen money turns out to have been marked with malachite green dye which leaves a stain on the fingers of all the members of the gang it’s been divided between. The film then cuts between Martineau’s pursuit of Starling through his investigation of the murder, as he tracks down Starling’s gang one by one, and Starling’s attempts to menace various former contacts (even former victims) into helping him hide from the authorities.
The film also aims to draw parallels between the different paths taken by Martineau and Starling as working class men from similar backgrounds who have previously known each other most of their lives, giving them a mutual web of connections to certain figures in the city of Manchester involved in Starling’s criminal underworld, which has at its centre the same pub the detective drinks at in the evenings in order to evade having to go home to his flinty, socially ambitious wife Julia (Maxine Audley). The landlord Doug Savage (George A. Cooper) organises the illegal gambling meets out on wasteland near the moors, and comes into contact with the stained blood money from the ill-fated robbery; while barmaid ‘Lucky’ Luske (Vanda Godsell) has the hots for the married-but-still-tempted Inspector, but is also a former girlfriend of the killer, and thus gets tapped for a favour by the desperate escapee under threat of having her face’ carved up’ if she refuses. This parity in the character and background of Martineau and Starling is somewhat undermined by Crawford’s casting, since he never attempts to hide the unexplained North American accent he uses throughout in contrast to the Yorkshire dialects essayed by most of the rest of the cast. The intention to highlight Baker’s character as a flawed cop never quite persuades either; in part this is the price paid for Guest’s insistence on filming most of the scenes on the streets of Manchester in real-life, authentically urban locations: this intent required the cooperation of the Manchester, Oldham and Huddersfield Police Forces and the Chief Constable of Manchester Police was in consequence allowed a viewing of a rough cut of the movie and insisted on the removal of a scene in which Martineau kisses the barmaid, Lucky. In the film as it stands, the Inspector is tempted by the lonely widow’s advances (‘you’ve got no children … all’s fair when there are no children.’), but never succumbs despite the discord between himself and his unsympathetic wife, who plays the now clichéd role of neglected spouse who can’t understand her husband’s all-consuming devotion to his job. In the American version, released by Columbia Pictures, the whole of the sub-plot involving the detective’s failing marriage was cut out of the film, with the result that Maxine Audley doesn’t even appear in the original US prints.
Starling comes across as so hyperbolically violent and sadistic that Martineau’s dubious blackmailing methods for wringing information out of the killer’s former gang don’t really feel too unreasonable in the circumstances (interesting that the Chief Constable didn’t object to Martineau threatening to involve an innocent brother of one of the gang members in the robbery charge in order to get the hardened professional to betray his co-thieves!) and even if Crawford’s accent is a black spot he certainly gives his performance everything in terms of his on-screen ruthlessness towards other supporting characters he tries to manipulate during the course of the film. Thus the narrative is stuffed with enjoyable performances from the likes of Donald Pleasence as the victim of the robbery (himself involved in dubious criminal betting activity) and his man-eater of a wife Cloe, played by a baby-talking Billie Whitelaw who became the first actress in a Hammer film to go topless (albeit fleetingly) when her nightdress is torn off by rampaging Starling who forces her to provide him sanctuary in her husband’s attic! Irish actor Joseph Tomelty plays Steele, the manager of a furnishings shop who grassed up Starling in the former jewel theft case, and thus earns his place in the criminal’s ‘little black book’. The film earns its pulp noir credentials by routinely featuring pretty women being roughed up or threatened, shot or murdered, and Sarah Branch fulfils that function as Steele’s glamorous deaf and dumb daughter, who finds her-self becoming Starling’s means of prevailing upon her father to give him a place to sleep for the night. Other notable character actors who make appearances here include Hammer stalwart Peter Madden as Bert, the caretaker of the pool joint Starling’s gang frequent and Warren Mitchell as a commercial traveller who finds the mangled body of young store clerk Cecily Wainwright (Lois Daine) dumped on the Yorkshire Moors. Arthur Grant’s evocative widescreen photography is showcased against a fully orchestrated upbeat jazz score courtesy of Stanley Black and Guest’s direction is always dynamic, never more so than in the striking rooftop chase scene at the end.
This DVD release from Studiocanal unfortunately doesn’t include the commentary track Val Guest recorded for the US Anchor Bay release, but it does feature the alternative ending. The transfer and mono audio are good though, and the film is an essential addition to any Hammer fan’s library.