The British production company Hammer Films is
primarily famous for its series of horror films, beginning in the 1950s and through the 1960s; what might be said to be one of two prevailing trends in British cinema of the
time. The second trend would be kitchen sink realism, the films about "angry
young men" in a working-class environment. But one of the best British
films of that time is a cross between the two, namely Hell is a City (1960).
Although produced by Hammer, and filmed in the widescreen format Hammerscope,
it is not a horror film but a realistic police film, in a working-class
environment, and there is plenty of anger. It was written and directed by
Val Guest, one of the real workhorses of English film. Guest wrote and directed
around 50 films, and he also produced some. He considered Hell is a City as one
of his “top four” and although I have not seen that many of his films, I can believe that.
Hell is a City is set in Manchester and the lead role is played by Stanley Baker, who had his heyday during those years, when he often played rough men who grew up far from the high and mighty. A small gang robs a cash-in-transit, but the police is quickly on the trail, led by Baker’s police inspector Harry Martineau. The film has its share of some usual clichés, such as Martineau being so focussed on his work that he neglects his wife, but it is much more than that. The milieu, rarely seen in films, is vividly captured by the cinematographer Arthur Grant. There is no pretty scenery here, instead it is Manchester's industrial environment with a heavy scent of spilled beer, dirty clothes, and bulging chimneys. The pacing is excellent, and the film has a relentless energy, exhausting at times, which becomes an extension of Martineau’s personality. He cannot stay still for very long because then his anxieties and dark thoughts risk consuming him.
Harry's problem with his wife is not only that he prioritises his job, but that there is another woman. Not some young, casual, beautiful flirt, but an older woman who works at the pub he usually visits. Their relationship gives the film an unexpectedly sad dimension, along with Harry's disillusioned outlook on life. After the case is solved, Harry does not go home to his wife, nor does he celebrate with his colleagues. Instead, he embarks on a lonely, nocturnal walk on the gloomy streets of Manchester. The film's last line is "You do not have to be on your own to be alone."
Crime and punishment, and the policeman's everyday life, is what you would expect from such a film, but the forceful storytelling and direction, vivid characterizations, together with the tensions and general malaise, are what give Hell is a City its edge. The ending is more like the ending of something by Antonioni than just another police thriller.
I have seen Hell is a City several times, and each time I am shocked by its brutality and impressed by its style and confidence. It is a superior film. But I also want to watch more of Guest’s films, for example Expresso Bongo (1959), Yesterday’s Enemy (1959), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), and Jigsaw (1962), and I should re-watch The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). But that is for another day.