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.