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DVD SAVANT

Hell is a City
&
The Frightened City

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Anchor Bay quietly released three vintage English crime films early in December. The first, Joseph Losey's The Criminal, I've already covered on its own. In this review, we'll look at Val Guest's impressive Hell is a City, and the less noteworthy The Frightened City, which has apparently ridden into DVD on Sean Connery's coattails.

The good word for both shows is that the transfers are terrific. Crisp black and white, with sharp 16:9 enhancement. Anchor Bay is releasing many Studio Canal shows from England, and their quality is consistenly high, as good or better than older DVDs from the big studios.



Hell is a City
1960 / b&w / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 96 min. / The Hammer Collection / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Stanley Baker, Maxine Audley, John Crawford, Vanda Godsell, Charles Houston, Peter Madden, Warren Mitchell, Donald Pleasence, Joseph Tomelty, Billie Whitelaw
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Editor James Needs
Original Music Stanley Black
Written by Val Guest from a novel by Maurice Procter
Produced by Michael Carreras
Directed by Val Guest

Synopsis:

Stuck in an unhappy marriage, Inspector Martineau (Stanley Baker) concentrates on nabbing an escaped criminal who may be returning to Birmingham to settle an old score. Don Starlin (John Crawford) arranges a robbery almost immediately, but accidentally kills a young clerk. Businessman Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasance) regrets the loss of his money, but doesn't realize that his wife Chloe (Billie Whitelaw) has been compromised by Starlin, and that she's hiding him in their house! But even more threatened is the daughter of the furniture dealer (Joseph Tomelty) whose shop Starlin has chosen to hide his loot.

So good as a hood in The Criminal, Stanley Baker makes an equally convincing and appealing cop in this stylish, suspenseful police procedural picture. After seeing Baker play so many villains, it's interesting to watch him embody a high set of ethics, turning down the local barmaid's offer of an affair, etc.

Abetting Baker is the pro direction of Val Guest, who wrings a lot of tension from his screenplay. It's a much straighter story than we're used to from Guest (both Expresso Bongo and The Day the Earth Caught Fire are much more sophisticated), but it's a higher than average policier. The robbery is simple and brutal, with the crooks inadvertently killing their hostage by hitting her with a cosh on the throat. They swap vehicles out in the sticks, where Guest stages a large-scale illegal betting gathering. Hundreds of men, most presumably out-of-work lower middle class laborers, bet on coin tosses. It has the ring of something Guest discovered was real, and worked into his screenplay.

The photography is great, with large city intersections lit to perfection, and a good, dangerous-looking finale staged on a rooftop. Guest the director almost overcomes the few snags in his script, as when the bad guy Starlin hides his swag in a used-furniture showroom. Everything gets rearranged so often in a place like that, he should be surprised that it's still there when he returns. Starlin threatens a lot of people, but for the most part is rather ineffectual - as the hero's nemesis, he never takes on the appropriate stature. But the overall honesty about police work - even 'good' cop Baker intimidates and threatens witnesses to get information - overrides small considerations.

Baker is solid, and Donald Pleasance is okay as a scheming sharpie. John Crawford plays his 'American' bad guy with a distracting mid-Atlantic accent. Maxine Audley is cold as Baker's wife, and Vanda Godsell is his (rather overage) temptress. Joseph Tomelty is loveable as the furniture dealer, and Billie Whitelaw The Flesh and the Fiends has a substantial part as an unfaithful wife. After staying fully clothed in that fleshy horror film, Whitelaw here flashes a bit of unexpected nudity. Also poking his balding head in for a scene or two is Warren Mitchell, looking like he just came down off the Trollenberg in The Crawling Eye.

Speaking of Horror films, this is a Hammer film (and technically part of Anchor Bay's Hammer Collection. All the familiar Bray Studio names are in the credits. Hell is a City is a title that kept this film off many an American television station, but it's actually one of the superior Michael Carreras-produced b&w HammerScope films from the period.


Anchor Bay's DVD of Hell is a City looks great spread across the screen in its proper proportions. The emphatic score and dialogue are all rendered very clearly by the track - Anchor Bay doesn't provide subtitles, but the accents aren't so thick that they're needed. For extras, there are Guest and Baker bios by Avie Hern, and a commentary with Guest prompted by a suitably amiable Ted Newsom, who did such a good job with Guest on the earlier The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

Especially interesting is an alternate ending, which drops Guest's preferred downbeat finale for an unconvincing reunion between now-Chief Inspector Baker, and his wife. It's pretty sappy, and Guest offers that he hasn't a clue as to where it came from, or if it was ever shown.



The Frightened City
Anchor Bay
1961 / b&w / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 98 min. / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Herbert Lom, John Gregson, Sean Connery, Alfred Marks, Yvonne Romain, Olive McFarland, George Pastell, Patrick Holt, Sheena Marshe, Vanda Godsell, Kenneth J. Warren
Cinematography Desmond Dickinson
Editor Bernard Gribble
Original Music Norrie Paramor
Written by Leigh Vance
Produced by John Lemont, Leigh Vance
Directed by John Lemont

Synopsis:

Shady accountant Waldo Zhernikov (Herbert Lom) wheedles smalltime racketeer Harry Foulcher (Alfred Marks) into organizing the warring mobs of London into a syndicate, with himself as the silent mastermind behind its affairs. He's also fond of songstress Anya (Yvonne Romain), but apparently only enough to pair her up with his newly-hired enforcer, Paddy Damion (Sean Connery), as a way of keeping tabs on him. The new syndicate and its extortion 'insurance' racket prey upon small shopkeepers and restaurateurs such as immigrant Sanchetti (George Pastell). All goes well until Zhernikov tries to push the crimes into a higher realm.

A lacklustre mob picture, with a shaky script (lots of clunker lines) and by-the-numbers direction, The Frightened City is as uninspired as its title. The key attraction, and the obvious reason it's here in the company of Val Guest and Joseph Losey films, is the participation of Sean Connery, just one or two films before his smashing debut as 007.

Watching old interviews with Terence Young, I had a hard time picturing Sean Connery as a semi-uncouth young man who needed to be taught table manners, fine clothing, and suave deportment to become a credible James Bond. After this show, it makes sense. Connery is supposed to be an Irish cat burglar - turned arm twister for the rackets, and he's well cast. But when he wears fancier dress as the representative of the syndicate's insurance company, he looks very awkward. The script even plays up his earthiness as contrasted with Herbert Lom's oily suavity ... one can imagine possible Bond evaluators not being 100% convinced of his suitability for the role. He doesn't command the screen yet, as does Stanley Baker (a much less handsome man) in the other two films.

Most of the rest of The Frightened City is just second-rate filmmaking, replaying familiar American mob conventions without much in the way of anything convincing or relevant in either situation or conception of character. It often looks cheap, in ways that The Criminal and Hell is a City never do. Connery's character turns stoolie near the end of the show, but we never share the moral outrage of the dull cops who take his tips, including John Gregson (Battle of the River Plate).

Top-billed Herbert Lom hasn't great material to work with. Alfred Marks is amusing as the main racketeer, until his poorly-choreographed fight with Connery at the end. Yvonne Romain is less appealing than usual as the White Russian immigrant singer ... the first dress we see her in is so radically designed to accent her bust, it makes her look deformed. Vanda Gosell is back as a mob dame. You know something's wrong when stalwart George Pastell (From Russia with Love, The Mummy, The Stranglers of Bombay) doesn't make a good impression. A master of ethnic characters, his Italian restaurant proprietor just isn't very Italian.

Maybe it will interest odd music fans, (or, better, fans of odd music), but the tracks in this film is simply awful, a collection of strange guitar riffs, cha-chas, and overstated drum and percussion scoring. This one is for Sean Connery fans looking to see him just before superstardom struck.


Anchor Bay's The Frightened City is as sparkling-perfect as the other films in the series. The 1:78 image shows off Desmond Dickinson's okay camerawork in the best possible way. Besides a short still section, this one has no extras or Bios.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hell is a City rates:
Movie: Very good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, bios, alternate ending, photos and art
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: December 12, 2002

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Frightened City rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: stills and ad art
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: December 12, 2002



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