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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke


The Limey Side of Noir:
A look at Anchor Bay's British Noir Series


Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Hell is a City

Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

Hell is a City
1959 (2002) - Hammer/Studio Canal (Anchor Bay)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/C

Specs and Features:

96 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, keep case packaging, single-sided, single-layered, audio commentary (with writer/director Val Guest and journalist Ted Newsom), original theatrical trailer, alternate ending (with optional commentary by Guest and Newsom), talent bios, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (25 chapters), languages: English (DD mono), subtitles: none



The Criminal

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The Criminal
1960 (2002) - Studio Canal (Anchor Bay)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/D-

Specs and Features:

92 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1), 16x9 enhanced, keep case packaging, single-sided, single-layered, original theatrical trailer, talent bios, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (23 chapters), languages: English (DD mono), subtitles: none



The Frightened City

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The Frightened City
1961 (2002) - Zodiac/Studio Canal (Anchor Bay)

Film Rating: B-

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/D

Specs and Features:

98 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.77:1), 16x9 enhanced, keep case packaging, single-sided, single-layered, original theatrical trailer, poster & still gallery, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (25 chapters), languages: English & French (DD mono), subtitles: none


If there's anything the good people over at Anchor Bay enjoy more than re-releasing Evil Dead movies, it's grouping titles together as "collections". Directors are prime targets, with collections dedicated to everyone from Dario Argento to Wim Wenders. When a director won't do, an actor is just as good, as the recent Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers collections prove. And when neither of those fit the bill, Anchor Bay isn't above collecting genres, as with their Spaghetti Western and Giallo collections.

Recently, the Bay released a trio of movies that, while not officially branded together, are similar enough in tone, style, and subject matter to comprise an unofficial collection of their own: the Brit Noir Collection. Although it isn't often the first thing that pops into people's minds when they think of British cinema, the UK has a long, distinguished history with hard-boiled crime thrillers. From Carol Reed's The Third Man in the late 40's and John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday in the early 80's up to Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast, British crime movies often seem tougher and more serious than their American counterparts. Maybe it's the guttural, barking accents of actors like Bob Hoskins and Ben Kingsley. Maybe it's the fact that guns aren't as commonplace as they are over here, so when a pistol shows up in someone's hand in these movies, you know they're not to be trifled with. Whatever it is, British crime movies frequently become classics of the genre. And even when they don't join the pantheon of film classics, they remain enjoyable and unusual long after their American counterpart's shelf life has expired.

The earliest of these movies, Hell is a City, officially falls under the banner of Anchor Bay's ongoing Hammer Collection (see what I mean about AB's collection mania?). Directed by Val Guest, who earned a place in the science fiction hall of fame with Hammer's first two Quatermass pictures, Hell is a City tells a simple, straightforward story about a determined cop's pursuit of an escaped criminal. What sets it apart is the film's sense of place and character. The titular city is Manchester and I'm reasonably certain that the Manchester Chamber of Commerce did not brag "As seen in Hell is a City!" in their 1959 tourist brochures. It might not be Hell exactly but it's certainly a grim, isolated looking place, populated by people living lives of quiet desperation. Shot entirely on location, Guest makes terrific use of Manchester's sloping rooftops and surrounding moors.

Stanley Baker, a huge star in England at the time perhaps best known in America for his performances in The Guns of Navarone and Zulu, stars in Hell is a City as Inspector Harry Martineau. Baker's dogged, single-minded pursuit of American thief turned murderer Don Starling (John Crawford) sets the tone for hundreds of like-minded performances from Al Pacino in Heat to the cops seemingly unencumbered by personal lives on TV's Law & Order. The glimpses we get of Martineau's home life are brief but telling. Trapped in a marriage with a woman, whose love and affection for him evaporated long ago, Martineau can't wait to get out on the street and back on the job. Unlike other police dramas in which we can never really understand why the cop is so obsessed with cracking this one particular case, Baker shows us his rationale in very simple terms. In Martineau's case, his job is literally all he has.

Guest surrounds Baker with top-flight supporting actors, including a young Donald Pleasence as the man Starling robs and Billie Whitelaw as his unfaithful wife. Hell is a City may not be a crime classic but it is a consistently interesting and entertaining thriller with unexpected bursts of realistic violence and small character details that enrich the story.

Baker turned to the other side of the law with his performance as Johnny Bannion in The Criminal (also known in this country as The Concrete Jungle). The film opens on Bannion's last night in prison. With a few simple but chilling scenes, we quickly see Bannion's place at the top of the prison class system as he masterminds the retaliation against an ex-con turned rat that's now unlucky enough to be shoved back in the hole. Within hours of his release, Bannion is back on the job, taking part in a racetrack heist. And not long after the job is done, Bannion's back in police custody and returned to the very prison he just left behind.

The Criminal is certainly the best and most unusual of this trio of films. Director Joseph Losey (who went on to craft the pop art psychedelia of Modesty Blaise) is singularly uninterested in the details of the heist. The whole robbery sequence takes place in a single long shot. We see Bannion and his accomplices disappear into the betting parlor and emerge a minute later, several thousand pounds richer. Instead, The Criminal focuses on the relationships, power struggles, and betrayals among the convicts and underworld figures it depicts. Understandably, it's the prison sequences that are most compelling. The secret life of the prison is conveyed early on as an old trustee hops from prisoner to prisoner singing, "Knick knack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone," and whispering, "Kelly's back, Kelly's back," to spread the news that the stoolie has returned. Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange) is downright creepy as a sadistic, smooth-voiced guard. And Baker is again terrific, giving a tough, controlled performance as Bannion. If you seek out just one of these movies, it should be The Criminal.

The last of the bunch, The Frightened City, is the least among them, though it's still an above average drama. Herbert Lom stars as a sinister accountant, of all things, who organizes the warring gangs of London into one huge, more profitable racket. At first uncomfortable with the arrangement, the mob bosses put aside their differences when the money starts rolling in. Sean Connery, still a year away from his first outing as Bond, James Bond, turns up as an Irish enforcer set up to take the fall for a murder by Lom. As you can probably guess, Connery is not the right guy to choose as a patsy and he's soon gunning for Lom and his associates.

The Frightened City isn't a bad movie. It's just kind of an uninspired one, particularly in comparison to Hell is a City and The Criminal. John Lemont is more pedestrian in his direction than either Guest or Losey and the movie really sags in the middle, just when things ought to be heating up. Still, Lom makes for a suitably Machiavellian villain and it's interesting to see Connery in this early performance.

In addition to a similarity of tone and style, these three films share several points in common in their DVD presentation. First off, all three look about twenty times better than you might expect. For three relatively obscure, low-budget movies from the early 60's, the transfers positively sparkle. The black and white cinematography is crystal clear, marked by deep, rich shadows and effective use of light. I've seen major studio movies from the same era that look infinitely worse than these three on disc.

Secondly, extras are few and far between, relegated to trailers, Anchor Bay's usual verbose talent bios, and the occasional still gallery. Hell is a City boasts an audio commentary by director Val Guest, prompted by journalist and Hammer historian Ted Newsom. It's not a bad track but Guest's memories of the film are, by his own admission, not particularly clear. The commentary is marked by several stretches of silence, due in part to the fact that Guest hasn't seen the movie in decades. There are a few interesting moments but by and large, this is not a must-listen extra.

Finally, Anchor Bay has replaced each film's original poster art (reproduced on the discs' inserts) with some truly hideous covers that would never in a million years inspire me to pick up these discs. The original posters are lurid, pulp fiction explosions of color, guns, barely dressed dames and hyperbolic taglines like, "The toughest film ever made!" The new art is blurry, monochromatic and as dull as dishwater. Anchor Bay does a great job rescuing unusual cult films from the depths of obscurity but sometimes they really drop the ball on the packaging, particularly on movies that don't necessarily have built-in audiences.

Even so, the "Brit Noir Collection" is worth looking into. If you're a fan of movies like Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, it's fascinating to see noir's influence on the British film industry. The 50's and 60's were arguably the height of British filmmaking, with Ealing studios cornering the market on comedies and Hammer, of course, breaking new ground with horror and sci-fi. But film noir has always seemed a distinctly American genre, so it's eye opening to see another culture's take on the dark, shadowy, smoke-filled underworld of the criminal mind.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


Adam Jahnke - Main Page

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