Noir Nook: YouTube Noir – Private Hell 36 (1954)
This month’s Noir Nook offers another entry in my series on film noir features that can be found on YouTube. This time, I’m focusing on Private Hell 36, released in 1954 and featuring a first-rate cast that included Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran, Howard Duff, Dean Jagger, and Dorothy Malone.
The film opens with an unsolved crime — a murder and theft of $300,000 from the night depository of a New York bank. A year later, when a bill from the robbery surfaces across the country in Los Angeles, detectives Cal Bruner (Cochran) and Jack Farnham (Duff) are assigned to the case. They learn that the bill was given as a tip to local nightclub singer Lili Marlowe (Lupino) – don’t you love that name? – and when more of the cash turns up at a racetrack, Lili works with the cops to try to find the man who gave her the bill. After several days of surveillance at the track, Lili spots the guy, but he dies after crashing his car when the cops give chase – leaving behind a steel box filled with more than $200,000. Before the stolen cash is turned in, a cool eighty grand finds its way into Bruner’s pocket, which he promptly stashes in a nearby trailer park – in trailer number 36.
The rest of the film centers on Bruner’s burgeoning relationship with Lili, his drive to use his ill-gotten gains to keep her happy, and the increasing guilt of Farnham – who’s married with a young child – over his involvement with the crime. In typical noir fashion, Private Hell 36 serves up a violently unexpected end, prompting the film’s narrator to us that a policeman can, “like all men, make his own private hell.”
Private Hell 36 was produced by Filmmakers, an independent company owned by Ida Lupino and her second husband, Collier Young (who also co-wrote the film). At the time, however, Lupino was in the midst of her volatile third marriage – to Howard Duff. The film was originally called The Story of a Cop, and Lupino was set to direct – it would have been her eighth feature film behind the camera. Shortly before shooting began, Duff announced that he and Lupino were separating, but a short time later, they reconciled – and to steer clear of potential conflicts with her husband, Lupino decided not to direct.
In her stead, Lupino chose director Don Siegel, who’d previously helmed a handful of films, including The Big Steal (1951) with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. Years after the shoot, though, Siegel said that the experience was far from pleasant: “There was too much alcohol in the air and I though the people I was working for were pretentious – talented but pretentious. They’d talk, talk, talk, but they wouldn’t sit down and give me enough time. They wouldn’t rehearse.”
Despite this assessment, Private Hell 36 was a well-paced feature with a number of memorable scenes, including an awesome knock-down, drag-out fight near the start of the film. It also does a good job early on to establish the personas of the three main characters – Farnham is a devoted family man but is completed devoted to his job, in spite of his concerned wife’s (Malone) pleas for him to quit the force. Bruner is equally committed to chasing down bad guys, but he’s less honorable; early in the film, he’s nonchalant – even callous – about the death of a fellow officer: “Stop taking it so hard,” he tells Farnham. “He wasn’t your brother.” And Private Hell 36 also has the kind of dialogue that you expect from noir – while being questioned by Bruner about the bill she’d received, Lili quips, “You know, I’ve seen this all on Dragnet.”
Tune in to YouTube to catch Private Hell 36. You’ll be glad you did.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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