Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Hell is a City - 1960 film review

Of all the black and white British cop films of the 50s and early 60s, Hell is a City stands out. There were some other good police movies, certainly, but this one, directed by Val Guest, is excellent from start to finish. There are two reasons for this.

First, the source material. The film was based on Somewhere in the City, a novel by Maurice Procter, who had been a serving police officer before his writing career took off. Procter's books were authentic, and this authenticity is, thankfully, preserved in the movie version. I've been a Procter fan for a long time, and about twenty years ago, I wrote an intro for another of his books, The Midnight Plumber, which features Harry Martineau, as this story does. The late Peter Walker, another cop who became a crime writer, told me that Procter encouraged him to join the CWA back in the 60s. They never actually met, but Peter took the advice and went on to become Chair of the CWA.

Second, the acting. The cast is excellent, and the brilliant Stanley Baker is ideally suited to the role of Martineau, who is married, but not very happily, to the equally discontented Maxine Audley. Billie Whitelaw makes a brief but telling contribution as an ex girlfriend of the killer on the run whom Martineau is hunting, and her husband is played by Donald Pleasence, taking a meek rather than sinister role for once. Joby Blanchard, who starred in Doomwatch, is one of the bad guys, and George A. Cooper, Warren Mitchell, Russell Napier, and even John Comer and Doris ("Annie Walker") Speed in very small parts, all contribute.

The story is a simple one. It's a manhunt, and we're never in doubt that Martineau will get his man. But Val Guest's screenplay compels interest from start to finish, and although Stanley Black's jazzy soundtrack is occasionally intrusive, overall it adds to the atmosphere. The scenes on the moors north east of Manchester, which a few years later would become associated with Brady and Hindley, also make an atmospheric background to key parts of the film. Recommended.

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