The Hero’s Journey in “Hell is a City”

Set in Manchester, heartland of England’s industrial north, Don Starling escapes from jail becoming England’s most wanted man. Ruthless villain Starling together with his cronies engineered a robbery that resulted in the violent death of a young girl. Detective Inspector Martineau has been assigned to hunt him down and bring him in. From seedy barrooms, through gambling dens the trail leads to an explosive climax high on the rooftops of the city.

The formidable star is the toughest British actor of the day, Stanley Baker. He’s a no-nonsense cop, anticipating TV’s Z-Cars, which started the following year, and he’s pursuing a vicious escaped convict. The violence is unusually convincing for a British movie and fresh observations include an illegal gambling school involved in pitch and toss on the edge of the city. Guest’s direction gives the movie a splendidly wrought realism, capturing a nasty underworld Britain rarely envisioned since.

Guest’s dialogue is abrasive and unsentimental, the editing (to a modern jazz score) rapid without being self-consciously smart, the accents mostly convincing. The supporting cast includes actors on their way to fame, among them Donald Pleasence (shifty bookmaker), Billie Whitelaw (his unfaithful wife), Vanda Godsell correct (bruised barmaid) and Warren Mitchell (unnamed commercial traveller). It captures an uncertain nation in the trough between austerity and affluence.