Hell is a City / The Criminal / The Frightened City (DVD)

Stiff upper lip no longer.

British cinema of the late 1950s was very much in a state of transition. The widespread closing of theatres reflected television’s continued inroads into the whole entertainment industry in Britain just as it was doing in North America. Many of the directors who had come of age in Britain had moved across the Atlantic — people such as David Lean, Ronald Neame, and Carol Reed — and many of the best-known actors such as Alec Guinness and Trevor Howard were increasingly appearing in international productions. British box-office success was assured if the films were new entries in the “Doctor” films (e.g. Doctor’s Dilemma [1958] with Dirk Bogarde) or the “Carry On” series which began in 1958 with Carry On Sergeant. The preoccupation of youth with rock ‘n roll also meant that films with such British teen idols as Tommy Steele and later Cliff Richard had a built-in audience. A new cycle of horror films, mainly from Hammer Films, also enjoyed success, but anything else seemed a gamble.

Certainly British crime films would have been considered a gamble by the late 1950s. Long steeped in the myth of Scotland Yard invincibility and its legion of unassuming yet dogged police inspectors or the courage of the local “bobby” on the beat, British crime films had offered little new since the success of Green for Danger (1946) or The Blue Lamp (1950). The grittiness of the American film noir of the late 1940s and early 1950s had never really seen a British counterpart arise during the same period. The year 1959 marked a turning point, however, with the appearance of gritty social dramas such as Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger. Taking their cue from the success of these films, new British crime films began to step outside the old mold, presenting a more realistic picture of both the police and the criminals.

Anchor Bay has now released DVDs of three films from the 1959-1961 period that provide an excellent opportunity to examine the effectiveness of this newfound realism. The films in question are The Criminal, The Frightened City, and Hell Is a City.

The Criminal — Tough underworld leader John Bannion maintains a position of power even while in prison. Then he is sprung from prison by close associate Mike Carter so that Bannion can lead a daring racetrack heist. The actual robbery is pulled off successfully and Bannion manages to hide the loot, but the scheme soon starts to unravel and the police manage to connect Bannion to the robbery. Bannion ends up back in jail where he no longer enjoys quite the same level of respect as before. The cost of his escape this time will be the respect of his fellow inmates and the loot he had managed to hide away after the racetrack heist.

The Frightened City — London is a city where small gangs run their own local protection rackets until accountant Waldo Zhernikov organizes the gangs into one ruling syndicate. The syndicate’s major enforcer is Paddy Damion. When the syndicate decides to branch out into larger-scale and more lucrative protection rackets, one of the old gang leaders refuses to remain part of the syndicate. When Damion is then tricked into arranging a meeting that leads to the old gang leader’s murder, the police seize on Damion’s desire for revenge to get him to help them bring down the syndicate.

Hell Is a City — Police Inspector Harry Martineau believes that an escaped gangster named Don Starling is going to return to Manchester for a final job before fleeing abroad. When a young woman is murdered as a consequence of a payroll robbery, Martineau manages to connect Starling with the crime. A slow but steady police investigation of Starling’s known past-associates and persons previously victimized by him manages to force Starling into the open, leading to a dangerous pursuit over the rooftops of the city.

The three films offer interesting contrasts between each of the main criminals in their stories and the effectiveness of their police pursuers. In The Criminal, John Bannion is a confident criminal leader, sure of his infallibility and contemptuous of the police. Almost unbelievingly he finds himself arrested for the racetrack heist, mainly due to his own arrogance rather than any clever police work. The police are seen here as little more than opportunists rather than intelligent in their own right. In fact, one of their associates in the person of chief prison guard Barrows is little better than a criminal himself. Paddy Banion of The Frightened City is more follower than leader in his role of criminal muscle for the syndicate. He is a man of honor who expects loyalty from his employer. When he doesn’t get it, his unhappiness is the lever that the police can use to smash the syndicate. The police are still a rather dogged lot in this film, but at least some thoughtful work is on display. In Hell Is a City, finally it is the police who are in command and who always seem likely to solve the case in the end. Solid police technique and evidence of willingness to do whatever’s necessary are both features of their efforts. Starling never seems to be more than a confirmed criminal with few redeeming qualities, so any police excesses seem justified. After all, who doesn’t want to see someone who would shoot a deaf and dumb woman in the back brought to justice by whatever means possible?

The Criminal (1960) features a very fine performance by Stanley Baker as John Bannion. Baker was 32 at the time of filming and was just starting to make his mark in films. (He would die when only 49, soon after being knighted in 1976.) Baker looked fairly tough in real life and most of his films successfully fed off that image, as does The Criminal. Direction was by Joseph Losey, who did two other films of interest during this period (Blind Date [1958] and The Damned [not released until 1962]). Much of the film’s impact is due to Losey’s ability to create tension even when dealing with a mediocre script, as was the case here. The prison riot sequence is a good example. Despite Losey’s and Baker’s best efforts, though, the film does fail to impart a real sense of grittiness in the prison life or in some of the fight scenes. Yes, there are some brutal beatings, but too many of the prison inmates come off as simple guys unfairly jailed rather than malicious felons, and it’s obvious that punches are being pulled during several of the punch-ups. Although still a reasonable piece of entertainment, the film’s reputation as “The Toughest Film Ever Made in Britain,” as it was originally advertised, now seems overblown. Anchor Bay’s DVD treatment is not a problem, however. The film sports a fairly crisp black and white 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer. There is the odd speckle and scratch, but blacks are deep and shadow detail is quite good. The mono sound track is very serviceable. Extras include the theatrical trailer and thorough biographies of Joseph Losey and Stanley Baker.

The Terrified City is of interest for a couple of fine performances. Sean Connery plays Paddy Damion in what would be his last film before undertaking the first of his James Bond portrayals in Dr. No. A number of the Bond mannerisms are clearly foreshadowed in Connery’s work here — the occasional throw-away quip and the self-confident air of superiority. Herbert Lom does a nice job with the familiar role of syndicate boss Zhernikov. Most active in the 1950s and 1960s, Lom often seemed to be an actor whose talents were underutilized. The result was he usually made his roles seem much better than they were written. The film’s story line is quite conventional, and although the film is billed as benefiting from the cooperation of Scotland Yard’s “Flying Squad,” the police sequences are lacking in any sense of excitement — staying very much in the traditional mold of the dogged police inspector (played here by familiar British actor John Gregson). Still, the film moves along crisply and the familiar ground is covered in an entertaining fashion. Once again, Anchor Bay’s DVD treatment is supportive. The transfer (1.77:1 anamorphic) is again crisp and clear with minimal debris evident. The mono sound track (available in both English and French) is satisfactory although the music selections in it are rather jarring. Extras are limited to the theatrical trailer and a gallery of 18 stills and posters.

Hell Is a City is essentially a police procedural and is the best of the three films. Anchored by another strong performance by Stanley Baker as Martineau, the film is rich in detail and is packed with fine supporting actors. It achieves a real sense of grittiness that the other two films only hint at. The police here seem like real people with concerns outside their jobs, and the result is a film that presages the many fine British police films and television series of more recent decades. American actor John Crawford plays Starling as a ruthless thug who provides both a clear contrast to his British associates, but also justifies the borderline-legal tactics that Martineau must employ to capture him. Scene-stealing Donald Pleasance is a welcome addition as a fence. Director Val Guest — a Hammer Films veteran — maintains tension throughout and makes excellent use of extensive location work in Manchester (including a fine rooftop chase for the film’s finale) and its surroundings. Anchor Bay has released Hell Is a City as part of its Hammer Collection. The 2.35:1 Hammerscope anamorphic transfer does the film full justice. It’s another almost-pristine, crisp, black-and-white transfer. Deep blacks, glossy whites, and fine shadow detail all help to show off the Manchester location work to advantage. The mono sound track is fine, delivering a pleasing jazz score adequately though without any great dynamic range, as one might expect. Anchor Bay has also delivered a fine set of supplements. The main item is a scene-specific audio commentary by Val Guest along with journalist Ted Newsom. The two work well together (they previously did a similar effort for Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire), and the result is both informative and entertaining. Also included is an alternate ending (with optional commentary by Guest and Newsom) that would have given an entirely different (and inappropriate) feel to the film’s ending. It was apparently never used, fortunately, and Guest reveals that he never filmed it so the studio must have employed someone else to shoot it. The disc concludes with the film’s theatrical trailer and thorough biographies of Val Guest and Stanley Baker.

Three interesting British crime films from 40 years ago have been given welcome DVD releases by Anchor Bay. All of them wrap up in little more than an hour and a half and provide good-to-very-good entertainment value. Solid direction and fine acting more than compensate for scripts that are workmanlike at best. Hell Is a City is the best of the three, followed closely by The Criminal, and both are recommended purchases. The Frightened City is the least of the bunch, but while an entertaining time-passer, is probably for completists only.


The defendants are free to go and co-conspirator Anchor Bay is cited for very fine work on all three films.

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