Inspector Harry Martineau, upon discovering that criminal Don Starling has made a daring jailbreak surmises that he'll return to Manchester to reclaim the unrecovered loot from a previous heist. Shortly thereafter a daring robbery takes place. Is this linked to Starling's escape? And can Martineau solve the case which quickly becomes more serious once a woman's body is found?
Director Val Guest worked in a variety of genres, most famously for Hammer but he was no jack of all trades, more a director who could turn his talents to most subject matter. Responsible for such diverse offerings as The Quatermass Xperiment and Confessions of a Window Cleaner with Hell Is A City he created a taught distinctly British crime thriller, making the most of real Manchester locations and a strong cast led by Stanley Baker.
Baker is one of British cinema's unsung heroes, although he remains a cult icon to a select few. The man who turned down the role of 007 brought a dynamic hard-edged realism to the screen in numerous classics of British cinema; the ex-con trying to go straight in Hell Drivers, a criminal mastermind in Peter Yates' Robbery. His Inspector Martineau is no clichéd bobby like Dixon of Dock Green. Not averse to using bullying tactics to get to the truth Martineau is a driven man who lives and breathes the cop lifestyle, to the detriment of his home life for behind closed doors marital bliss is not the order of the day.
The glimpses into domesticity are not confined to our hero, and the supporting cast (e.g. Donald Pleasence, Billie Whitelaw) encompass the various strata of city life – barmaids, bookmakers and bored housewives – adding a depth to the narrative. The villainous Starling infects it all, with the law a few steps behind and there's a hint of the influence of film noir here and there. But Guest's Manchester is a convincingly real one, a living breathing backdrop upon which this cat and mouse chase between crook and cop plays out.
Hell Is A City combines a warts and all docudrama directorial style with a tense thriller plot and fully rounded characters. It's a tough police procedural movie that evokes a city where the law-abiding rub shoulders with the criminal. A duplicitous urban landscape of pubs and clubs, illicit gambling and adulterous spouses and in Stanley Baker boasts a very human hero. A character that inhabits the moral hinterland, an embodiment of the city he is sworn to protect. Whatever way you look at it Hell Is A City is without question an essential British movie.