“About as British as British can be” was the Times‘s assessment of Val Guest’s 1960 noir Hell Is a City, which plays today at Film Forum’s Brit Noir series. “Mild,” “modest,” and “workmanlike” are adjectives peppered throughout the review. In other words, “British” here means efficient, competent, and essentially unoriginal — bland but edible, to draw as well on the country’s long-standing culinary reputation. Hell Is a City isn’t a potent enough film — its title suggests something more incendiary than what’s actually on-screen — to challenge these mostly unflattering generalizations about British cinema, but I wouldn’t exactly call it mild. Guest’s film saw release the same year as the deeply unsettling Peeping Tom, but in terms of degrees of the national mildness another nuts-and-bolts pursuit picture in Film Forum’s Brit Noir-senal, John and Roy Boulting’s Seven Days to Noon, makes for a useful comparison. The Boultings’ film, about nuclear weapons and domestic terrorism, is amusingly blithe; in depicting mass evacuations it assumes a tone that could almost be called genial.
By contrast, Hell Is a City, shot on grimy location in Manchester, is eager to get its hands dirty.
Fingers stained from stolen bank notes marked with malachite green are key in tracking down an escaped convict (played by American John Crawford), an irredeemably nasty jewel thief who wends his way from London to Manchester, barking threats into telephones and holing up in cramped attics in order to recover the hidden spoils of the heist that landed him behind bars. On his tail is Stanley Baker’s poker-faced Inspector Martineau, unsettled by the cold hard criminal he’s pursuing but also the distinctly un-mild tenor of his domestic life. The go-it-alone detective has a wife at his throat. She refuses to bear his children and is generally a helplessly neurotic shrew. So he enters into an extended flirtation with a full-figured barmaid named Lucky Luske, who apparently better understands his needs and stakes her claim on him by declaring, “All’s fair when a man has no children.” The film’s female characterizations are troubling to say the least (there’s also an imperiled deaf-and-dumb blonde), but the unfortunate melodramatic element takes a backseat to the cops-and-robbers action, which works like crazy. Guest’s 2006 obituaries gave pride of place to The Day the Earth Caught Fire and The Quatermass Xperiment, but the still-sturdy Hell Is a City suggests there might be more left-of-the-mild near-gems in his considerable filmography.