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Anchor Bay presents
Hell is a City (1960)

"That's crime book stuff. A man doesn't break out of jail to kill a cop. He breaks out of jail to get away."
- Inspector Martineau (Stanley Baker)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: January 12, 2003

Stars: Stanley Baker, John Crawford
Other Stars: Donald Pleasence, Maxine Audley, Sarah Branch, George Cooper, Vanda Godsell, Billie Whitelaw, Joseph Tomelty, Dickie Owen
Director: Val Guest

Manufacturer: Grace & DeWild
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:35m:52s
Release Date: December 03, 2002
UPC: 013131168099
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- C+BB B-

DVD Review

Here's a 1960 film released under the Hammer Films banner that doesn't feature a single vampire or mad scientist, though it does ironically feature a small, completely human role for Dickie Owen (he played the mummy in Hammer's The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb). Hell is a City is director Val Guest's (The Day the Earth Caught Fire) downbeat story of a dedicated police inspector named Martineau (Stanley Baker) in Manchester, working desperately around the clock to catch dangerous escaped criminal Don Starling (John Crawford). Call it British film noir, if you must.

Hell is a City is really all about Martineau, despite the absence of his image on the DVD cover art, or the original poster art, for that matter. Martineau's marriage to Julia (Maxine Audley) is strained due to his long hours, and the increasing pressure on the stability of his homefront adds to work-related stress. The escape of Starling, an American jewel thief, has put the town of Manchester on edge, as it is suspected that he will attempt to make contact with his old gang in order to retrieve a stash of hidden jewels.

This is not light and fluffy cops and robbers stuff, with Guest instead presenting the unfolding story with a believable level of implied violence and just plain edgy noir gruffness. Even Martineau is not without moral flaws, but he is really the film's identifiable center and focal point when all is said and done. In addition to Baker's Martineau, there are a number of strong B-movie performances to be found here. Donald Pleasence is especially fun as the mealy-mouthed Gus Hawkins and Billie Whitelaw is smoldering as his sultry, unfaithful wife Chloe. For good dramatic measure, we even get an angelic deaf mute named Silver Steele (Sarah Branch) who gets her fair share of abuse during the course of the film.

If you fancy stylish crime noir you might find Guest's oddly paced film a treat. The location shots and scenes staged in and around Manchester give the film a larger, more gritty feel, and the story's narrative seems broader and more chaotic because of it. There are truly weird moments, like the "tossing school" sequence held on the moors, where large gambling crowd places bets on coin tossing. The story of the criminal Starling is, for me, overshadowed by the personal life of Martineau, and I was less concerned whether he would catch the bad guy than if his marriage would survive the ordeal.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Anchor Bay continues their streak of impressive image transfers on older, considerably smaller films with the release of Hell is a City. Presented in a clean, black & white 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the print is free of any major blemishes or defects. Blacks and grays are crisply contrasted, and the overall image reveals a good amount of detail.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The English mono track is hiss-free, with the hip and jazzy Stanley Black score never overpowering the dialogue. The only real beef is the absence of English subtitles. The film is populated with North Country English, and the accents get pretty thick and gnarly at times.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Alternate Endings
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Val Guest, Ted Newsom
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: As they did on The Day the Earth Caught Fire, director Val Guest is teamed up with journalist Ted Newsom on the full-length scene-specific commentary track. Newsom serves as the track's organizer, prompting Guest to elaborate on various elements, from the scripts novel origins to the rigors of location filming. Guest is talkative in his reminiscences, and Newsom seems quite knowledgeable himself on the film, and the two together make for a pretty enjoyable commentary.

Also included is an Alternate Ending (06m:01s), available with or without an optional commentary from Guest and Newsom. This footage was never used, at least according to Guest, and was shot to give the film a more upbeat climax, much to his protests. The scene, which centers on Martineau and his wife Julia, wasn't even directed by Guest, and was done long after the original filming was completed. It's a tacky attempt at a feel good ending, and it was shot so sloppily that a camera shadow is clearly seen on Martineau's back.

Bios and filmographies on Guest and Baker are included, as well a theatrical trailer. The disc is cut into 25 chapters, and does not feature any subtitles.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Hell is a City is an intentionally gloomy 1960s police procedural from the great Val Guest. Not as much a crime saga as the story of a troubled police inspector, the film is filled with colorful criminal English eccentrics and to its credit, it does not always move in the direction you might expect it to.


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