Hell Is a City (1960)
Mike’s Take on Stanley Baker Movies …….. Day 8
Easily one of the grittiest crime dramas of it’s era and one of the more enjoyable films of Baker’s career, I’d also include this title as perhaps the best non-horror/fantasy title to come out of Hammer Studios. I’m still that impressed after multiple viewings.
It’s a black and white thriller that features Baker as a weary cop looking to take down a killer at all costs scripted and directed by Hammer regular Val Guest and produced by the studio’s Michael Carreras. I’ll make the obvious comparison now before I go any further. Hell Is a City predates the seventies cop thrillers when the genre exploded with Dirty Harry, The French Connection, Shaft etc. and easily fits in minus the more gratuitous violence that became standard procedure with the evolution of the cop film.
It’s a jazzy score to open the film when Baker is put on alert as news filters down that criminal John Crawford has escaped from prison and may be headed to the streets of Manchester. Baker did of course put Crawford away and there’s a score to settle between the two of them. Crawford’s already in town and has a heist in mind involving a money shipment being quietly moved from Donald Pleasence’s bank. Crawford and three others kidnap a young woman in Pleasence’s employ who is transporting the cash and in the process Crawford kills her escalating the seriousness of the situation.
While Baker wants the case involving Crawford’s break out, he winds up assigned to the heist never realizing that both cases are going to collide in a violent twist of fate. The money trail is going to lead Baker to Crawford’s mates and the grilling begins at the police station. Baker I might add is in fine form throughout the process as he narrows the field and realizes Crawford is behind the heist.
There’s a parallel story going on here involving Pleasence and his wife played by Billie Whitelaw. It turns out that she’s a former lover of Crawford and he seeks refuge in the attic above their home. This turns into quite a violent episode for movies of the day resulting in an obvious rape of Whitelaw. I’m sure the sensors had a hard look at this part of the film. The fact that Whitelaw knows Crawford helps lead Baker in the right direction to bring his man to justice.
More than just a hardened cop, Baker’s role is broadened by allowing him an unhappy home life with a wife who he has fallen out of love with. Mainly due to her refusal to have a family which only opens the door for a flirtatious affection for a local barmaid. It’s a nice touch that brings a reality to the performance of Baker and keeps it from being one dimensional.
The eventual clash between Baker and Crawford is a thriller that begins with the gangster hiding out above a home of a former acquaintance who has a daughter without the power of speech. How far will Crawford go in terrorizing her surely had viewers on edge at the time. Thankfully Baker turns up for a harrowing battle upon rooftops that is only enhanced by location filming above the city streets.
This was the second non horror title from Hammer films that Baker had starred in, the other being the 1959 war effort Yesterday’s Enemy. It’s the type of role that really fits Baker on screen and truthfully, the character begs for a sequel at the fade out. Alas, it’s not a Hammer Horror so nothing doing. Actor John Crawford is a bit of a surprise here as the only film I can instantly recall him from is as the meek mayor of San Francisco who needs Dirty Harry Callahan to save him in 1976’s The Enforcer. As far as Hammer films go, one would think that Donald Pleasence would be right at home at the studio and their various horror themed releases. Shockingly, this is Donald’s only film role for the studio.
I recall when Anchor Bay was making many of the Hammer titles available to home video here in North America in clam shell VHS cases (I’ve since upgraded to DVD or blu) and that was a time of rejoice for all us fans of the studio that dripped blood. I kind of laugh now because I had no interest in buying this title and did so more out of wanting all the films in the set as opposed to not completing it. I guess that means I’ll have to purchase this gangster tale though I really just wanted The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies and the other flicks that were so rare here in Canada. I didn’t get a Hammer Horror but I did get a solid cop film worth repeated viewings with Baker playing the kind of role I’ve always leaned to from seventies cinema with Eastwood, Bronson and Hackman among so many others. Baker as inspector Harry Martineau fits right in with the rest of those 70’s icons.