Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Hell is a City (1960)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK Ltd

Main image of Hell is a City (1960)
Hammerscope, black and white, 98 mins
DirectorVal Guest
Production CompanyHammer Films;
 Associated British
ProducerMichael Carreras
ScreenplayVal Guest
CinematographyArthur Grant

Cast: Stanley Baker (Inspector Harry Martineau); John Crawford (Don Starling); Donald Pleasence (Gus Hawkins); Maxine Audley (Julia Martinaeu); Geoffrey Frederick (Devery); Vanda Godsell ('Lucky' Luske); Billie Whitelaw (Chloe Hawkins); Charles Morgan (Laurie Lovett)

Show full cast and credits

DI Harry Martineau and his partner pursue a dangerous escaped convict at loose in Manchester.

Show full synopsis

In comparison with the films that comprise the 'kitchen sink' canon, Hell is a City is unaccountably overlooked. Critical snobbery towards its solidly commercial director, Val Guest, its genre status and the fact that it was a Hammer/ABPC co-production may have played their parts, but from a modern perspective Hell is a City is as important a film as Room at the Top (d. Jack Clayton, 1958). Some of its success derives from Guest's imaginative use of the Manchester cityscape and his taut script (from Maurice Proctor's novel). But above all, the film depends on the central performance of Stanley Baker, whose Harry Martineau is played as a world-weary and emotional man far removed from the gentlemanly senior CID Inspectors populating much postwar British cinema.

The film is further populated by a hand-picked selection of fine character actors, from Donald Pleasance's bookmaker, shrewd in business and gentle in private life, to George A. Cooper's cynical pub landlord and Warren Mitchell's nervous commercial traveller. Pressure from Hammer's US distributors apparently led to the miscasting of the American John Crawford as Starling, but even the film's insistence that an Irish-American criminal and a Mancunian police inspector (whose accent keeps veering towards Wales) apparently shared a childhood is not enough to detract from its overall impact.

Some of the picture was completed at Elstree Studios but much was shot on location. Arthur Grant's camerawork captures a changing landscape where the Victorian slums incongruously blend with the post-war concrete of the city centre and where the roads are now packed with recent model Austins and Hillmans. The air of seedy decrepitude is reinforced by Starling's battered pre-war getaway car, for his is not a smoothly professional gang with a Jaguar Mk. VII and a tame lawyer but rather an assortment of brutal men who have apparently acquired their transport from Manchester's answer to Sydney Tafler. Most British films of this era use rural England as a form of escape from urban life. By contrast in Hell is a City, the utterly bleak and windswept moors serve as an open territory where criminals are able to virtually operate at will. As a detective film, Hell is a City may contain its fair share of melodrama, but the final shots of the newly promoted Harry Martineau wandering through the neon-lit streets of a newly re-built Manchester are as evocative as any in British cinema.

Andrew Roberts

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Domestic problems (2:48)
2. The heist (4:00)
3. The gambling school (5:00)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Audley, Maxine (1923-1992)
Baker, Sir Stanley (1928-76)
Carreras, Michael (1927-1994)
Guest, Val (1911-2006)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Whitelaw, Billie (1932-)