Cult Movies: Val Guest one of the greatest directors of his generation

Director Val Guest at work behind the camera
Ralph McLean

Val Guest

TO MANY, Val Guest was the definition of a journeyman director. However, such a label, while understandable given his prolific cinematic output, feels like he's being damned with faint praise. For me, Val Guest was one of the greatest film directors of his generation.

He started out working on Will Hay comedies in the 1930s and was still grafting away 50 years later, turning in low-rent Brit comedies like The Boys In Blue with Cannon and Ball, a film actually based on an old Will Hay Crazy Gang flick he'd worked on five decades previously.

I interviewed Guest, who passed away in 2006, towards the end of his life. His memories of those earliest days in the cutting rooms of Soho, playing practical jokes on a young Alfred Hitchcock and chopping out the so-called 'quota quickies' of the post-war era were a reminder of how much cinema history was running through the man's veins.

While even I would struggle to reassess The Boys In Blue as a lost cult classic, however, some of the films the versatile director delivered within his time behind the camera are still well worth revisiting.

There's the Quatermass adaptations he made in the 1950s that brought Nigel Kneale's science fiction TV game-changer to the big screen for a start. The gritty, almost documentary feel he brought to those productions can also be seen in the brilliant, and strangely prescient, global warming epic The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) and the mighty Hell Is A City which arrived on British cinema screens in 1960.

A ground-breaking police procedural thriller set on the mean streets of Manchester, it feels like an English film noir, all moody black and white and grim gangland shadows.

It stars the great Stanley Baker, perhaps the toughest of all British movie tough guys, as a straight but troubled cop on the trail of a murderous escaped convict. If that sounds like an overly familiar brew, just remember that Z Cars didn't debut on TV screens until a full year later and tough, no-nonsense thrillers like this were rare.

Guest shoots it all like a grimy documentary, showing the stark streets of Manchester in all their crumbling glory and his dialogue spits and crackles like a regional Raymond Carver.

There's a seediness on show in the illegal gambling games and shady little back street snooker halls that still impresses and the director gets the best out of a fine cast that includes Donald Pleasence as a tetchy bookmaker, Billie Whitelaw as an unfaithful wife and Warren Mitchell as a commercial traveller who witnesses a murder.

There are echoes of the northern realist movement that would spawn such gems as This Sporting Life and A Taste Of Honey of course, but the cool jazzy score and the relentless way Guest pursues the escaped convict on camera recalls classic Hollywood noir better than just about any British director before or since.

Made for Hammer films, taking a well earned diversion from the world of Gothic horror, Hell Is A City is a mean and moody masterpiece from a true cinema original.

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