As more of Val Guest's work becomes widely available on DVD, it becomes clear this English director was among a top group of craftsmen who invested a great deal of care in every film - regardless of budgetary restrictions. At the time of principal photography, star Stanley Baker described Guest's film as "The psychology of a battle between two powerful individuals on the streets of a recognizable city."
Michael Carreras, on a personal quest for quality, brought Maurice Procter's novel to the attention of director Guest, and the story was transposed from Canada (!) to Manchester, England. Guest stayed true to the novel's characters while focusing on the exciting heist and police dragnet, and added more production value on an already constrained budget by shooting on location. 90% of the film involves the eerie Manchester moors, and Guest exploits the gritty aspects of the city's industrial core at night and during murky daylight, using endless row housing and perilous rooftops for a chase where his lead actors leap and hang from precarious angles.
One of the best British crime films ever made, Guest brought out excellent performances from John Crawford - an American who spent much of his career in B-level fodder - and Welshman Stanley Baker. Already a major star in England, Baker later achieved international fame by co-producing and co-starring in "Zulu" in 1964, and he appeared in numerous high profile projects before being knighted by the Queen in 1976. Less than a week after receiving the honor, Baker died at the age of 49, yet he left a substantial body of work that spans nearly 70 films and television productions; so far "The Criminal," "Accident," and "Eve" are among the latest crop to appear on DVD.
Sporting a gorgeous transfer, "Hell Is A City" shows off Arthur Grant's beautiful Hammersccope cinematography, with exceptional compositions and naturalistic lighting for the dingy atmosphere of pool halls; the ritzy urban home of sniffling Donald Pleasance and fetching, two-timing wife Billie Whitelaw; and the diverse Manchester locations, including the Moors, where the locals enjoy some illegal gambling amid the sharp hills and weather-beaten houses. As Guest states in his commentary (recorded Nov. 4th, 2000), "When you worked for Hammer, you had to come on the set every morning, and they expected instant genius from you" - something Grant came pretty close to achieving on a very tight budget.
The film's mono mix shows off Stanley Black's stylish jazz score, which propels the film and offers added menace to Crawford's understated performance.
As an added bonus, the DVD includes an unused alternate ending. Re-shuffling a few scenes and tacking on a new finale, the contrived sequence went against Guest's careful adaptation, and it's easy to see why it never saw the light of day until now. Guest himself didn't shoot the scene, and offers some lucid comments via an optional commentary, with Ted Newsom.
Much like his commentary for "The Day The Earth Caught Fire," writer/director Guest contributes a feature-length track, and Newsom is well prepared to keep the conversation going. Between production aspects, Newsom produces vintage reviews, and both discuss the film's release history, including cuts demanded by American censors. ("Hell Is A City" contains a great deal of police and local argot, and viewers will be surprised at the some frank exchanges between busy cop Baker and his neglected wife. The source print also contains suggestive scenes with a youthful Whitelaw, including some brief nudity which was dutifully snipped by U.S. censors at the time.)
A rather shopworn trailer blows some exciting sequences and payoffs, so keep your finger away from that selection and just play the movie first!
Previously available in Canada as part of a TV package from Thorn EMI, "Hell Is A City" is finally available in a decent DVD package. Hopefully this disc will result in the release of Baker's other work, including "The Cruel Sea," "A Hill In Korea," "The Man Who Finally Died," and the superb caper, "A Prize Of Arms."
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan