Friday, July 27, 2007

British Noir, 1: Hell is A City

Hell is a City, 1960, 96 minutes, Hammer Films, Starring Stanley Baker, Maxine Audley, John Crawford, Vanda Godsell, Charles Houston, Peter Madden, Warren Mitchell, Donald Pleasence, Joseph Tomelty, Billie Whitelaw. Cinematography Arthur Grant, Editor James Needs, Original Music Stanley Black, Written by Val Guest from a novel by Maurice Procter, Produced by Michael Carreras, Directed by Val Guest.

Recently I picked up the book Hardboiled Hollywood, by Max Décharné at the library for some easy reading on the subways. The book analyses the background of a dozen or so gangster movies, films noir, etc.. Per the title, most of the films were made in Hollywood, but there were 2 chapters on British Films (the author lives part of the time in London). The first was Hell Is a City, which I had really never heard of before. It is a hard-boiled British police procedural starring Stanley Baker, with Donald Pleasance and Billie Whitelaw in the cast, directed by Val Guest (best known for the science fiction films Quartermass and the Pit and The Day the Earth Caught Fire) and shot on location in Manchester. Made by Hammer Films, who are much more well known for their horror films from the same period, but who did quite a few crime films as well. Sounded like something worth checking out. As it turns out, there are copies of a DVD (with commentary by the Director) going for sale at Amazon resellers for under three dollars, which came out to about $5.50 with shipping. So who could say no to that?

I’m glad I did, it is a nice crime story, with very good performances by Baker, Pleasance, Whitelaw and John Crawford (an American living in England at the time) who plays an escaped convict who returns to Manchester to get some loot from the robbery that put him in prison in the first place. He has also said when arrested that he would have revenge on Baker for arresting him in the first place. Baker is a detective with a miserable home life; he constantly argues with his wife, at one point saying she should justify her existence by having a couple of kids! Whitelaw is an old girlfriend of Crawford’s, now married to Pleasance. Soon after escaping, Crawford leads a robbery of a payroll being delivered for Pleasance, and in the course of the robbery a woman working for Pleasance is killed Complications ensue, but I am not going to discuss the entire plot as it is worth discovering on your own.

This film is well shot, with lots of great atmospheric location work in Manchester, including some scenes in a local pub and a nice rooftop chase scene at the end. The film aside from whatever plot machinations are going on, gives you a nice feel for life in the times, and a very particular feel for the Manchester location.

The commentary track by Guest and Ted Newsom is entertaining, though Guest as writer-director, is a little self-serving, claiming ideas were his that came from the book. For example, he says the book was set in Canada, this despite author Maurice Procter’s history as a police inspector in Manchester before turning to writing. But overall, it was good to here from his point of view on the film, while he still had a chance to tell it. There is also an alternative ending to the movie, which was actually from the book, but was not used in the released film.

All in all, well worth checking out.

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