Ain't It Cool News (
Movie News

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
comments powered by Disqus