Maurice Procter (1906 – 1973) was a well regarded crime writer who created a popular police procedural series based on the cases of Harry Martineau, a Manchester police officer. Many of Procter’s books are still in print and modern writers such as Nick Triplow (Frank’s Wild Years, Getting Carter:Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir) and Nick Oldham (The Henry Christie novels) regard him highly and cite him as an early influence.
Hell Is A City was published in 1954 and was the first of the Harry Martineau series. Set in a Manchester disguised only by its name, Martineau goes head to head with a man he knew when they were both schoolboys, but he and Don Starling have little else in common. Starling, a violent career criminal has escaped from prison, fatally injuring a guard in the process, and stages a cash heist from a bookmaker in order to fund his plans for freedom. A girl cashier dies, and so Starling is now a double murderer and faces the hangman’s noose if caught.
The full history of Hammer Films is far too complex for this feature, but suffice it to say the British company was founded in 1934, and is best known for – and synonymous with – its series of horror films in the 1950s and 60s. One of its best known directors was Val Guest, and it was he who brought Hell Is A City to the big screen in 1960.
The cast, if not stellar by international standards, was solid, with key roles for Stanley Baker as Martineau, Donald Pleasance as the bookmaker Gus Hawkins, and Billie Whitelaw as Mrs Hawkins (left). Strangely, the key role of Don Starling was given to John Crawford, (below) a journeyman American actor whose stock in trade was tough guys and villains. His American accent is obvious throughout and, although he puts in a good performance, it stretches credibility to believe he is the same man who fought with Martineau in their school playground. Regarding the oddity of his accent, it has to be said that the rest of the cast went for Stage Northerner rather than attempt the distinctive Mancunian twang.
Remember the opening titles in the Police Squad/Naked Gun spoofs? The view from the driver’s seat as the squad car careens through the neon jungle on its way to the latest murder? This is precisely how Hell Is A City opens, complete with the sleazy night club jazz music. Clearly, viewers in the 1960s would not have sniggered as we might do today and, thankfully, the film itself doesn’t disappoint.
Moody monochrome is the order of the day. We might regard that as reverential, but it was probably just economics. There are some good Manchester locations for those older folks who can remember the city back then, and the moors to the east of the city, where Starling’s gang dumps the murdered bookie’s cashier are, of course, changeless. Incidentally, when a passing motorist discovers the girl’s body, I said to myself, “Surely, that looks like …..” And so it was – a drive on, drive off role for Warren Mitchell, well before his Alf Garnett heyday. (below)
The film sticks pretty closely to the book in plot, dialogue and nuances. It is a tribute to Procter’s finely tuned ear for dialogue (he was himself a serving police officer for many years) that Val Guest’s screenplay and script remain faithful to the original. We meet Martineau’s neglected but rather prissy wife Julia (Maxine Audley) but whereas their relationship takes on a happier turn by the last pages of the novel, Val Guest leaves us wondering.
Martineau’s faithful dogsbody Deverey is rather smarter in the film than he is print, and his romance with the beautiful deaf mute Silver Steele is well-established in the book, whereas he meets her for the first time on screen. Silver’s encounter with the cornered Starling ends more happily on the screen than it does in the book.
As ever, with British films of this era, those with sharp eyes will spot a few faces who would go on to be familiar to television viewers, including a brief appearance by Doris Speed as a nurse, no doubt taking time away from her evening job of serving pints in The Rovers Return in Wetherfield.
A teaser for film buffs. There are two connections between this film and the cult Australian thriller Wake In Fright (1971). One is Donald Pleasence, but the other …. ? I have provided a pictorial clue (below)
The film is, in short, excellent. It is available as a DVD, and if you want to read about the novel – also first class – then it just so happens that I can help …….