Directed by Val Guest

Starring Stanley Baker, John Crawford, Donald Pleasence

* Published specifically for The Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasence Blogathon hosted by Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry at Cinematic Catharsis *


Film Noir has always intrigued me, especially when characteristics from other genres are incorporated into stories. I am a particularly big fan of Erotic Thrillers which I realise may sound, to some, a bit perverse on the surface. However, films like Basic Instinct and Sliver positively contributed to my cinematic awakening right at a pivotal point in my adolescent maturity. Both these pictures had a great balance of mystery, (unconventional) romance, and crime whilst maintaining substantial character development. The “shock” value from generous nudity/sexual content and detailed violence, to me, does not heighten the intrigue. These freedoms were not afforded to classic and contemporary Noirs due to heavily controlled censorship. Even so, there are times when the power of suggestion is more efficient than any other medium.

Hell Is a City was released in 1960 during the period of British New Wave films and after the technical end of classic American Film Noir. The filming style outwardly looks like a typical black and white Noir although the subject matter is more revealing, with some at the time believing the film to be hyperviolent and shocking. Indeed, moments of overt violence are mixed with heavy-handed implications and not-so-subtle propositions. The most shocking part about this is not their inclusion but the fact that they are so realistic and true-to-life. All of these elements enhance the overall unique feel of the film.

The story starts out and primarily takes place in the northern city of Manchester, UK. Police Inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker) has taken a keen interest in the case of at large prisoner Don Starling (John Crawford) who took the life of a prison warder during his recent escape. Sentenced to a 14-year confinement, Starling only served five years before breaking out and is thought to be on his way to Manchester to settle some scores including retrieving valuable stolen jewellery. Martineau believes himself to be a target since he helped convict Starling, who he has known since childhood. When Starling arrives back in Manchester, he seeks aid from his former mob chumps in securing a passport so that he can leave the country for good.

Naturally, a big payday is needed to finance this venture and Starling has had plenty of time to think about a foolproof plan. Since asking for favours is not an option, Starling has decided to rob turf accountant Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence), a successful bookie with whom he did past business. On the morning of the robbery, Hawkins is stricken for time getting ready to drive to the Doncaster horse races. He leaves the previous days’ earnings in the hands of two young clerks who make their way to the bank after Hawkins’ departure. The two do not get very far before they are usurped by Starling and his gang who, in addition to taking the money, decide to kidnap the female clerk, Cecily, to later use as leverage against the police. The getaway is successful and the £4000 bundle, equivalent to nearly £72,000 in 2022, very generous.  One thing they did not count on was 19-year-old Cecily Wainwright being uncooperative. She fights Starling in the backseat of the getaway car, unnerving him enough to assault her with a cosh (nightstick). A single blow is all that it takes to silence her… for good.

Just a few short days prior, Don Starling was a run-of-the-mill inmate serving time for larceny and now he is a two-time murderer on top of everything else. The chase is on to recapture Starling as he hops around Manchester desperate to find shelter and to buy a bit of time.


As one can gather from reading my synopsis, the main focuses of the film revolve around the characters of Inspector Martineau & Starling. Their shared background and subsequent lifestyle differences pave the way for an ultimate, dramatic showdown. Along this path we meet many different characters who are somehow linked to Starling.

There is a lively barmaid named “Lucky” (Vanda Godsell) who had briefly been his lover but who dropped Starling like a hot cake when she found out that he was a criminal. Unlike her distinctive moniker, Lucky is divorced and has had a tough time with a string of unsatisfactory flings. She has had her sights set on Inspector Martineau for some time, even though she knows that he is taken and seemingly not interested in her blatant advances. Never deterred, Lucky continues pursuing him due to her belief that “a married man is fair game if he doesn’t have any children”.  On a side note, I found Lucky to have a colourful, vivacious persona that added zest to the narrative. It is a role that would have fit Shelley Winters wonderfully and I could not stop imagining her in it. 😊 The evolution of Lucky and Martineau’s relationship is a highlight of the film, adding an oddly placed glimmer of hope to the entire story.

I use the word “odd” because, after all, Martineau is a happily married man. Or is he? Harry and his wife, Julia (Maxine Audley), have been married for a fair amount of time, evidenced by their routine and quite separate existences. Things were fine for them in those beginning years as Julia established a home as Harry provided in the hopes of one day having a family. What Harry did not count on was Julia’s displeasure at his hectic, unpredictable work schedule that often leaves her alone. Even when he could come home earlier, Harry often chooses to stop off at the pub or even find an excuse to go back to work. One evening they have an intense row that reveals their crossroad, with the following exchange:

JULIA: “That’s all I ever do – wait. It’s a pretty empty life for me, you know.”
HARRY: “It would look alright if you justified your existence by having a baby or two.”

Hearing such harsh words is difficult from any vantage point. In 1960, it was the status quo for married women to forfeit working and to stay at home to take care of their children. Men would work and come home to expect a tidy house, a hot dinner, and well-behaved children ready to hop off to bed. If anything went awry with this equation, something was certainly wrong. Harry accuses Julia of being obsessed with appearances but by his own words, he too was keen to satisfy the norm. Sadly, the two are seen only briefly together again on-screen for the duration of the film so we are left to wonder how their relationship will evolve. It is also a pity that this subplot was not further developed. Instead, leaving the situation between the Martineaus as it is makes Julia look like a bad person and somehow gives Harry a reason to start an extramarital liaison with Lucky.

At last, there is the man of the hour, our honouree Donald Pleasence. His Gus Hawkins outwardly appears feeble and somewhat nerdy. When we first see him on-screen, he does seem like a convenient target for Starling’s gang. He is rather nonchalant about leaving a large sum of money in the hands of his unguarded clerks. To boot, Hawkins appears eager to gamble away even more of his monetary stash at the races. Underneath it all he is a very intelligent, shrewd businessman who is heads above the competition. His personal life does not quite match up to this polished professional image. Hawkins’ much younger wife Chloe is an irretrievable adulterer and, as it would happen, another one of Starling’s ex-lovers. Martineau harshly coins her a “man-eater”.  Gus is the only person around whose suspicions are not aroused by his wife’s behaviour, even though Chloe routinely emotionally and physically neglects him. It would have been interesting to see how the dynamics of their marriage changed after Starling re-entered their lives.

Donald Pleasence’s cinematic acting career was gaining lots of momentum in the late 1950’s. It is hard for me to pinpoint a breakout role of his both from his filmography and from my memory of his work that I have seen. I have the impression that Donald was everywhere even if the majority of his roles were supporting rather than leading ones. There was no better addition to an ensemble cast than he, such as in The Great Escape and The Night of the Generals. On another side note, it always blows my mind to see Donald alongside fellow English thespian Charles Gray in Generals since they both brilliantly incarnated James Bond villain Ernest Blofeld.

Of the eight films in which Donald appeared in 1960, Hell Is a City is solidly memorable and retains a deep appreciation from dedicated fans. It will satisfy those seeking a good Noir flick as well as those who are interested in classic British cinema. In addition, since much of the filming took place on-location in Manchester, we are afforded the unique perspective of seeing how the city and its surroundings looked back in the day. It would have been great had the film lasted more than 96 minutes. With the character setup and vagueness surrounding their destinies, a follow-up film could certainly have been conceivable.