Set in a seedier Manchester than one may (or may not) expect, Hell is a City is a gritty tale of cops and robbers, and the damage the two can cause to not only each other, but everyone around.
Experienced and painfully committed policeman Martineau (played effortlessly by Stanley Baxter) is a man who knows his city, with friends at every door and a knowledge that marks his many years on the force. When a violent jailbreak occurs, Martineau suspects that a criminal from his past is coming home to reclaim the spoils of his last job. When a robbery, which becomes a murder, leads back to the same criminal, Martineau must balance his deteriorating personal life with catching his man.
The plot itself is straightforward and effective, moving forward with good pace and keeping interest. To find his nemesis, Martineau follows a money trail thanks to the dyed notes that the criminals have stolen. Whilst this is an intelligent concept for the 1960 film (one that is stilled used today in films, now calling them “marked bills”), the method of using the dye on the hands of those who have touched the money does get slightly preposterous. None of the criminals seem to notice they are walking around with green hands.
The film adopts a shady noir aesthetic, made popular in the 1950’s, particularly in American cinema with classics such as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958). Hell is a City tries extremely hard to live up to the past of this once great genre, with its dark title, moody and investigative lead and shady moral values. However, it tries just a little to hard to accomplish this. Its use of light and shade is too harsh, with the effective yet subtle contrasts of film noir used too severely, and merely as a parlor trick to show the director’s knowledge of the form. Therefore, the film fails to live up to the high British standard set by The Third Man in 1949.
The two leads, however, are very much an accurate account of light and shade, effective and overwrought. The former of these refers to Stanley Baxter, who strikes a prolific figure on screen. His performance as Martineau effectively mixes both good intentions with a world-weary outlook; cynical but honest. Sadly, John Crawford’s Don Starling is an extremely one-dimensional villain, threatening, beating and killing any who get in his way. There is no redeeming feature to him, and so despite easily portraying a man on the edge, John Crawford’s frantic performance inspires nothing.
Thanks to Starling’s violent ways, the film itself is much tougher than expected, with deaths, shootings and dominating sexual politics at work. The violence against women in particular is quite grueling and perhaps even unnecessary at times.
Despite these setbacks however, Hell is a City still manages a turn at being a convincing crime thriller. Aided immensely by its strong lead, the film uses its effective locations, good supporting cast, and clever narrative to build a solid piece. However, due to the over-egged performance of Crawford, as well as the sometimes forced effort to construct a film noir aesthetic, Hell is a City fails to satisfy on all levels.