Hell Is A City

2 Jan

HellIsaCity1960The recent, sad death of the great Billie Whitelaw prompted me to divert from the nuclear norm and reflect on a film in which she played a small – but significant – part. Hell Is A City is a frequently overlooked gem of post-war British cinema. An unabashedly commercial crime movie that, nonetheless, contains much to recommend it. It also happens to be one of my favourite pieces of post-war British cinema.

Hell Is A City very much follows the traditional pattern for its type: hardened criminal commits robbery and accidental murder, hard-bitten cop with a terrible home life is determined to track him down, cop trawls through the seedier elements of society to get his man. Yet, there are several things which make the film something apart from the norm.

For me, the most significant of these is the setting. Rather than London, the film takes place in the northern industrial powerhouse of Manchester. And this offers a great opportunity to see at first hand the changing nature of the British city in the late 50s and early 60s. Gaping holes are everywhere, Victorian brickwork butts up against new concrete and flashing neon, and the teeming sprawl is contrasted with the lonely, windswept Saddleworth Moor.[1] Hell Is A City shares its northern setting and concern with working-class culture with the films of the contemporaneous British New Wave (for example, Room At The Top).[2]

The film also links to another cinematic tradition, that of the (predominantly) American film noir output of the 1940s and 50s (which includes another of my favourite films, the marvellous Kiss Me Deadly). As film studies scholar Nick Redfern notes, Hell Is A City – with its consciously noir style and approach – “marks a rejection of the cosy post-war vision of the police in England evident in The Blue Lamp and its television revival, Dixon of Dock Green.”[3]. Redfern also points out that, rather sadly, Hell Is A City is often ignored in histories of British cinema, even those that focus on crime and noir.

It’s not just the environment and cinematic connections that are of interest. Hell Is A City – for all the stylisation – captures many of the changes and contradictions in British society. The plot revolves around the murder of a bookmaker’s young assistant, her body unceremoniously dumped on the moors. The police – mainly in the form of Detective Inspector Harry Martineau (an as usual excellent Stanley Baker) – are sympathetic to the plight of the girl’s boss, seedy-but-good-hearted bookie Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasance, in fine form). Yet, a key sequence in the film revolves around a huge police raid on a working-class ‘coin-tossing’ ring. So, on one hand we have the establishment supporting a nouveau-riche businessman who enables gambling, yet coming down hard on much smaller scale betting by the working class coin tossers.

There’s also much that can be said about the role and portrayal of women in the film. The four main female characters are all broad stereotypes of one form or another: the buxom barmaid with a heart of gold (Vanda Godsell); the duplicitous bookmaker’s wife (played with aplomb by Whitelaw); Silver, the glamorous love interest (Sarah Branch); and the frustrated, bored policeman’s wife Julia (Maxine Audley). All of these characters are portrayed as subordinate to a variety of men throughout the film, whether it be the tough but decent Martineau, the flustered Hawkins, or the villainous Don Starling.[4] The roles these women play reflect what the filmmakers – and to an extent society at large – saw as women’s place in the grand scheme of things.

However, one of the things about Hell Is A City is the way in which – despite these very traditional stereotypes – these characters are individualised. Silver, the glamourous niece of low-level crook ‘Furnisher’ Steele, is deaf and mute. Yet, young Detective Constable Devery is instantly fascinated by her. Vanda Godsell – not an actress noted for her range – plays barmaid ‘Lucky’ Lusk with effective subtlety.

However, one of the most jarring moments for the modern viewer is the first interaction between Harry and Julia. A minor domestic dispute escalates into an argument that ends with Harry blaming Julia for all that has gone wrong, their lack of success in having children laid squarely at her door and the home positioned as a “suffocating feminine environment.”[5] Julia then gives up on her side of the argument and tries to mollify Harry. Thus, rather than the husband who hardly communicates with his wife, goes out drinking after work, and prioritises his life as a policeman (and, in many ways, his connection with the urban rather than the suburban environment), being part of the problem, it’s Julia whose (apparent) infertility is to blame and is blamed.

It’s perhaps because of this encapsulation of the social attitudes and mores of the time that I like Hell Is A City so much. It takes a snapshot of an era of accelerating change, combines it with the non-metropolitan setting of the British New Wave , mixes it with the toughness of American noir, and produces something that – while obviously commercial – is a minor classic of UK cinema.


[1] And in the mid-60s, Saddleworth Moor would be permanently seared into the British consciousness because of the horrific killings carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.

[2] For a though-provoking analysis of the British New Wave and its position within the cultural landscape of the 1950s and 60s, see Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958-1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 118-143. Marwick characterises the ‘long 1960s’ (1958 to 1974) as genuinely ‘revolutionary’ and his analysis of the British New Wave fits with his overall thesis. Marwick’s view is challenged by – amongst others – Dominic Sandbrook, who argues that those historians who ‘fetishise’ the British New Wave consistently ignore the wide range of ‘social problem’ films that addressed similar issues prior to the New Wave’s appearance. He argues that “the obvious explanation for the neglect of these films is that, unlike the New Wave efforts, they had no lofty artistic aspirations, and were not dressed up with didactic pseudo-intellectual rhetoric.” See Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (London: Abacus, 2006), 211.

[3] Nick Redfern, ‘Hell Is A City’, Research into Film: An empirical approach to film studies (accessed January 1, 2015)

[4] One of the few off notes in the film, Starling is played by American actor John Crawford, woefully miscast and with an accent at odds with every other character.

[5] Redfern, ‘Hell Is A City’




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