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A Movie A Day: Quint on HELL IS A CITY (1960)
A man doesn't break out of jail to kill a cop. He breaks out to get away

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day. [For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.] We follow the lovely Billie Whitelaw from yesterday’s START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME to today’s slightly more serious dark crime thriller from Hammer Pictures called HELL IS A CITY.

What a great title, huh? This was one of my purchases from my favorite used DVD store here in Austin, Buybacks. They have thousands of used (and cheap) DVDs… you have to weed through some crap, but it’s unusual that I walk out of that store empty-handed. This title jumped out at me. I believe it was one of the spine DVDs… The way they organize the DVDs at Buybacks is they have full shelves facing out, like a video store, and depending on how much space they need, there’ll usually be a dozen or so titles spine-out (like books on a bookshelf). What drew my attention was the awesome title first, then I saw the font didn’t look like a modern DTV crap-fest and finally I saw the Anchor Bay logo, which usually means good things, especially for older films. With a little further exploring I saw that it was Hammer production (known for their Horror films, as you should know) featuring Billie Whitelaw and Donald Pleasence. That and a sub-$6 price tag (and a quick assurance that it wasn’t pan & scan) meant I had a new movie to add to the pile. And what a great, dark twisted little movie it is. It’s movies like HELL IS A CITY that really keep my stamina up with this column. I had an okay week, with a few good movies, a few bad ones, but there’s a thrill you get when you watch a movie you didn’t know existed, that most people don’t know existed and find something special. What you have here is a noir Hammer Studios style. Set in Manchester, the storyline follows an escaped Con named Don Starling (played as a real mean bastard by John Crawford who had a big TV career and played minor characters in 70s disaster epics like POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFIRNO, but most interestingly seems to have played a black-faced dancing native in 1933’s KING KONG… uncredited, but he must have been very young) as he tries to raise enough money to get out of London. The inspector who put him away, Harry Martineau (played by the great Stanley Baker who came out with the awesome men-on-a-mission flick THE GUNS OF NAVARONE the year after this was released) knows in his gut that Starling is still in town and goes out to try to spook him out.

Starling’s plan is to steal a cash delivery from a businessman (Donald Pleasence). He uses thuggish threats and the last remaining loyalty from his old group (also the promise of digging up the loot that he stashed before he was nabbed) to organize this job, which goes very wrong, resulting in the death of a young girl. At this point Crawford pretty much disappears as a main character and we follow Baker as he pieces the murder together. He actually is looking for green fingers, believe or not. Everybody who touched the money has fingers stained green, thanks to a special powder applied. We also get a look at Baker’s family life. He’s constantly flirting with a barmaid (Vanda Godsell) who is homely, but kind of a perfect match for Baker. Too bad he’s married… to an argumentative and frigid woman, no less. But even that relationship has some heart to it. His wife (Maxine Audley) is scared. She’s scared to start a family, she’s scared of losing her husband to his job, so she ends up pushing him away, looking for a fight at every chance. That doesn’t make her much more likable, but it gives her another dimension to work with. But the real thrills come from Baker manipulating the seedy criminal element to work out the murder and place it on Crawford’s shoulders as Crawford gets more and more desperate. I love how the movie twists crime clichés around. Crawford is a mean fucker, but he is scared of getting caught again and actually finds people he can’t intimidate. There’s a subplot involving an old man and his gorgeous blonde deaf-mute granddaughter. Crawford calls up this guy and threatens harm against the old dude if he doesn’t help him out. When that doesn’t work, he threatens harm against his granddaughter and the old dude pretty much tells him to fucking try it. He’s got a gun and will be watching her like a hawk. The femme fatale element is brought by Billie Whitelaw, who plays Pleasence’s manipulating man-eating wife (why does Whitelaw always play sluts?) who has her husband wrapped around her finger, while toying with a dozen other men with her other hand. She and Crawford had a thing, so he shows up to hide-out. And he beats the fuck out of her, too. Starling really is a despicable character.

Val Guest’s direction has a visual flair, lots of moving camera. He really does tell the story visually, keeping every shot interesting. He has a lot of help from veteran Hammer cinematographer Arthur Grant whose widescreen (“HammerScope”) black and white photography is gorgeous.

Final Thoughts: While this film can’t really stand up to the greats of American produced noir, it’s a fascinating and fresh angle the crime thriller genre as told with British sensibilities. The characters are layered and wonderfully complex, but the story isn’t muddled. Everybody turns in a great performance (I especially like the mousy performance delivered by Pleasence). It’s a film that should be more well known and if this kind of movie sounds at all appealing to you, you should seek it out.

The schedule for the next 7 days is: Saturday, August 9th: THE PIED PIPER (1972) Sunday, August 10th: PARTNERS (1982) Monday, August 11th: BARRY LYNDON (1975) Tuesday, August 12th: THE SKULL (1965) Wednesday, August 13th: THE HELLFIRE CLUB (1961) Thursday, August 14th: BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1963) Friday, August 15th: TERROR OF THE TONGS (1961) Tomorrow we follow Pleasence over to a trippy-looking ‘70s flick called THE PIED PIPER. See you folks then! -Quint

Previous Movies: June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me

Readers Talkback
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  • Aug. 9, 2008, 1:37 a.m. CST

    Not that crazy

    by Napoleon Park

    about the paperback potboiler art on the DVD box, but I love the comic book style art on the posters. "Crime noir with British sensibilities" - this sounds terrific. I'd say that I wished there was a TB network carrying stuff like this, but hey, I only get basic cable so for all I know there probably is. Though, if not, there really should be.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 2:01 a.m. CST

    Baker would have made a great Bond

    by palimpsest

    Daniel Craig's got some of his acting chops, but not the charisma that Baker could exude. And ZULU is still an astonishing movie that works as both drama and a balls-to-the-wall action pic.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 2:39 a.m. CST

    The poster art work alone makes this worth checking out

    by Aloy

    Very cool.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 2:44 a.m. CST

    Where it does stand up to classic noir easily

    by elab49

    Is in the evocation of the city as a character - a strong theme and you have to think Dassin's UK trip influenced Guest to a degree. Manchester in all its variation is shown here and is virtually unrecognisable to the modern eye, even taking the changes post-bomb into consideration. My favourite parts are out near the mills and the lovely bits with the all the men arriving for the low rent version of gambling/craps and the camera moving brilliantly amongst the rooftops at the end. I do wish, though, that people would stop assuming every noir needs a femme fatale and shoehorning one in, however weak the attempt. Noir masterpieces could manage pretty well without them, unless your basic knowledge is the 1,2,3 tickboxing from Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. More pertinent in contemporary terms - and a more interesting move next if you hadn't seen it - is Guest's "Day The Earth Caught Fire" from the next year - both films top Quatermass (and even my fondness for Inspector Hornleigh and Alastair Sim). The natural quality to the world created lives in DTECF and it was a major release at the time. Still one of my favourites it is one of the only truly intelligent pieces of SF to stand up from the period. Kael had a rather foolish view of it as her criticism seemed centred on thinking Guest presented a mankind not worth saving. By that criteria she'd probably love the doe-eyed sadsacks in Deep Impact and the like.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 2:47 a.m. CST

    BTW Poster Art is Hammer

    by elab49

    The film really isn't.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 3:49 a.m. CST

    Great film

    by reni

    Great film, my Dad saw them filming this in Levenshulme. The Criminal is definitely worth a look too.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 4:07 a.m. CST

    Ever seen Blast of Silence Quint?

    by kungfuhustler84

    Another great noir film. One of the best in my opinion.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 4:24 a.m. CST

    Stanley Baker

    by Con Shonnery

    Another Stanley Baker film worth seening is Robbery which was directed by Peter Yates who went on to direct Bullitt. Baker was a great actor who died way too soon.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 5:51 a.m. CST


    by Primus

    Great film, great atmosphere. My dad lived in Manchester when they filmed this, he remembers them closing streets down for shooting. And Baker rules.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 5:59 a.m. CST

    If you watch Blast of Silence

    by elab49

    You probably want to start looking at the 50s French stuff - run through Melville, back to Dassin with Rififi, etc, to see what it seems to want to reference. Unfortunately, though, your better bet is Cassavettes - which I personally find tends to be tedious. Nice wind though.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 7:17 a.m. CST

    I'm really not trying to be a dick here but..

    by schnide

    ..why are these reviews listed under Latest News? Because if there's demand for these, can't they go in a separate section?

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 7:36 a.m. CST

    because believe it or not schnide

    by Bloo

    people do look forward to these reviews, myself included, just because they arne't the "latest" doesn't mean they aren't appciated. This whole site is about not just news but CELEBRATING film, past, present and future

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 7:47 a.m. CST

    Yeah Bloo, go OLEG on schnide

    by Grammaton Cleric Binks

    Quint you're going to catch a lot of grief in the next week because none of your films were made later than the seventies. You have to show these Bayified young geeks that classics exist, and they need to appreciate the past.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 7:58 a.m. CST

    Val Guest is underrated.

    by Knuckleduster

    This guy loved making movies and was damn good at it. Ever seen The Day The Earth Caught Fire? Great movie.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 8:01 a.m. CST

    The Big Clock is another noir classic

    by Grammaton Cleric Binks

    It had Ray Milland, Harry Morgan (Col. Potter), and I think it had Charles Laughton, but I could be wrong on that.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 10:12 a.m. CST

    This is not cool news. Goodbye America

    by Grammaton Cleric Binks

    I loved his show because he told it like it was, and didn't take crap from the kids like you see in so many sitcoms. RIP Bernie.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 10:15 a.m. CST

    Big Clock is a bit random?

    by elab49

    Excellent film but not remotely similar to this in theme or construct. Still - No Way Out evers turns up on this list it can link back to the film based on the same story.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 10:17 a.m. CST

    Goodbye Bernie Mac

    by Turd Furgeson

    One of the funniest comics in world, period, and by far the funniest black comic for the last decade. This is really sad stuff.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 10:36 a.m. CST


    by reni

    Shout out to your dad and mine mate! RIP Bernie.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 11:26 a.m. CST

    Love this film

    by fuldamobil

    One of the best British noirs. It really stands out for the great location cinematography and very interesting story. There's a key American character and it's neat how he's treated. I actually have the American poster hanging in my living room. Val Guest also directed the Quatermass films as well as the absolute classic, The Day The Earth Caught Fire.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 11:31 a.m. CST

    Farewell Bernie Mac

    by SpencerTrilby

    may he rest in peace.

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 1:46 p.m. CST

    To Bloo and Grammaton Cleric Binks..

    by schnide

    ..hey guys, I didn't just ask to fuck your mother's corpse. What I actually said was that the main purpose of this site is for the latest movie news. I appreciate a good classic as much as the next man, but if I want that kind of thing, I'll go to a site - or a section - for it. Fair enough, right?

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 2:15 p.m. CST

    The road not taken...

    by Raymond Shaw

    Here's how your viewing should've gone at this point: Hell Is a City -> Robbery (link Stanley Baker) -> Friends of Eddie Cyle (link Peter Yates) -> The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (link Dave Grusin did the music)

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 6:33 p.m. CST


    by Bloo

    actually, no, this site ISN'T aobut the latest news, like I said at the end of my post, this site is about celebrating film, weather that be upcoming film (news), present news (reviews) or the past (AMAD, etc)<P>I remember Harry reviewing Dr Zhavigo years ago because he caught it at a revival theatre or at the Alamo or something, samething with Butt-Numb-A-Thon or the like. that is what this site is about

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 9:24 p.m. CST


    by Quint

    Schnide, I do understand your point, but there isn't another section. As a few others have pointed out the site as a whole is about film, not just shit coming out this weekend or next summer, although that is the main thrust. If we were neglecting that news and only posting columns like AMAD, then you'd be completely in the right, but we have a good balance developing, I think.<BR><BR>Just watched The Pied Piper and am writing up today's column. It's a weird one...

  • Aug. 10, 2008, 6:09 a.m. CST

    Did I change my name to Uwe Boll..

    by schnide

    ..or just make a comment intentionally offending no-one? Cheers for the reasoned feedback Quint. I still fundementally disagree, and would be willing to bet you a week's worth of classic movies that the old reviews get far less traffic than the movie news. That's because this site is called Aint It Cool NEWS. I and many, many others come here specifically because this site is a great place to get that news. If I wanted old movie reviews, I'd go elsewhere - and if one of the knee-jerk reaction talkbackers want to suggest I do that.. don't bother. Nevertheless, this site doesn't belong to me, so if my suggestion is rejected then I appreciate you considering it and I've no doubt I'll continue to read this for many years to come. Now let's all play nice shall we? Come on, group hug!

  • Aug. 10, 2008, 7:33 a.m. CST

    We'll have to agree to disagree Schnide

    by Grammaton Cleric Binks

    I like this column in its current format, you don't, and want a separate box. Different opinions, fair enough. Although I find Tom Bodet's digs at your expense rather amusing.

  • Aug. 10, 2008, 8:48 a.m. CST


    by Shoegeezer

    Good call on Dassin, I watched this and Night And The City over one weekend and they really complimented each other well. Guest was a pretty good director, quite versatile. His espionage movies Assignment K and Where The Spies Are are well worth tracking down. His autobiography is fun too, he drops names at an incredible rate and volume but comes across as a swell guy. They don't make actors like Baker anymore. He could do proper working class tough roles and then be equally as convincing as a sophisticated toff. A real cultured gent in life according to those who met him, very humble and down to earth. That kind of manly presence is sadly out of style these days, current Brit actors like Clive Owen, Jude Law and Daniel Craig just can't cut it like Baker, they really don't compare. This feature of Quint's should stay exactly where it is, if only to provide a rare talkback that isn't full of temper tantrums.

  • Aug. 10, 2008, 9:49 a.m. CST


    by schnide

    You're entitled to bad taste in comedy.

  • Aug. 10, 2008, 6:05 p.m. CST


    by schnide

    "Get over the fact"?! I'm not the ones stressing out here. I'd certainly be interested to see the traffic for stats for news articles versus these reviews. But I'm not losing sleep over it either way. Pleasure talking with you all, see you on other news threads.. sorry, current and non-current movie related information threads.