There was much more to Hammer than mere horror. Their most successful picture had not a hint of the gothic about it, but was terrifying all the same: the first big screen outing for the On the Buses team. Sitcom spin-offs were just one of the studio’s many side-projects over the years; they also indulged in science-fiction and swashbucklers at various times, not to mention radio adaptations, war movies and watered-down film noir. Particularly noteworthy was the string of thrillers that ran alongside the horror pics during the sixties. Some maintained the gothic trappings – or rather hints, as in the Les Diaboliques-alike plotting of Paranoiac and Taste of Fear – but a number were pleasingly down to earth. Cash on Demand inventively reconfigured Dickens’ A Christmas Carol into a bank heist movie. Never Take Sweets from a Stranger tackled paedophilia with a surprising lack of spuriousness. And Hell is a City offered up gritty police procedural on the streets of Manchester.
The Northern grit of Hell is a City gives it a certain affinity with the British New Wave of the time. Tony Richardson shot A Taste of Honey in neighbouring Salford shortly after the film’s release, whilst John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving made use of numerous Greater Manchester and Lancashire locations. Yet whereas the New Wave films had a tendency to find their origins in the plays and novels of the ‘angry young man’ generation, Hell is a City was derived from a crime fiction series. Maurice Procter churned out regular Chief Inspector Martineau Investigates instalments throughout the fifties and sixties, the very first being the inspiration here. Funnily enough they’ve rarely been exploited by filmmakers or television producers since with the IMDb listing just the one: Flucht aus London, a 1982 German TV effort sourced from the ninth in the series, Two Men in Twenty.
Stanley Baker portrays Harry Martineau for Hell is a City. Life at home is less than perfect (a childless marriage that’s heading towards loveless too) and his former childhood-pal-turned-career-criminal, Don Starling (John Crawford), has recently escaped from prison. Martineau was responsible for his ten-year sentence prompting some in the force to expect Starling to return to old patch and exact a little revenge. The reality is somewhat more complex, and violent, than this: Starling does return, stealing a bookie’s takings in order to get some ready cash and killing the 17-year-old girl who was chained to the money in the process. At first Martineau is unaware of the connection between the murder and the jailbreak, though it soon becomes apparent that they’ll be heading towards the inevitable showdown.
For all of its occasional shocks, the plotting is somewhat perfunctory. Yet what Hell is a City lacks in suspense it more than makes up for in character. For starters there are the Manchester locations, shot by Hammer regular Arthur Grant (also responsible for The Plague of the Zombies and The Devil Rides Out) in black and white Hammerscope and looking suitably cinematic, not to mention fresh given the crime thriller’s usual reluctance to leave the capital. Some studio work was carried at Elstree, but it’s the noir-ish cityscapes which strike a chord and they are ably abetted by a host of character turns from familiar faces. Donald Pleasence steals each and every one of his scenes as a bookmaker with the sniffles, whilst a young Billie Whitelaw makes an impact as his run-around wife. (The part would earn her a BAFTA nomination for ‘Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles’.) Also making an impact are George A. Cooper (later to play Grange Hill’s janitor, Mr. Griffiths) as a pub landlord, Hammer’s future Maid Marian Sarah Branch as a deaf-and-dumb girl and Joseph Tomelty as her father. Of course, Baxter is typically tough in the lead role with only visiting American Crawford (shoehorned into the part as a means of appeasing US distributors) coming across as miscast. Indeed, the entire backstory of Starling and Martineau being childhood friends is rendered ludicrous by the mismatched accents.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to let such things slide when faced with so many wonderful turns and that terrific sense of place. It is here where the nuance and the depth lies, not to mention the re-watch factor. In fact, it’s something of a shame that Hammer never continued with more Chief Inspector Martineau Investigates instalments so that we could get to see them more often. The studio was hardly averse to sequels and spin-offs (not just the various incarnations of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy, but also the Dick Barton adaptations and the Quatermass films; even On the Buses tried to recreate its box-office magic on two further occasions), but that never proved to be the case here. Still, we can comfort ourselves with this fine DVD release, presenting Hell is a City in digitally remastered form and looking just fine.
The previous British DVD of Hell is a City went out of print some time ago making this recent re-appearance a welcome one. That older release (issued by Cinema Club) came out in 2005 and was extras-free, failing to port over the theatrical trailer and audio commentary (by Ted Newsom and writer-director Val Guest) from the 2002 US disc. Unfortunately this latest edition fails to do the same, but does come with a six-minute alternative ending – which I won’t spoil – and a more-than-acceptable presentation. Hell is a City comes in its original 2.35:1 Hammerscope frame (anamorphically enhanced) with accompanying mono soundtrack. Digitally remastered, the film is near-spotless and does full justice to Arthur Grant’s black and white cinematography. Some edge enhancement is visible from time to time, but this is the only flaw worth mentioning. The soundtrack is similarly sharp and presents no problems. There are no optional subtitles, for the hard-of-hearing or otherwise.
Hammer head to Manchester for gritty crime thrills.