Throughout Hollywood there are certain personalities who seem permanently associated with film noir. Of these performers, filmmakers and writers, Ida Lupino is a true noir legend. In an era where few people worked on both sides of the camera, Lupino was not only a sultry femme fatale, but she also made a name for herself as a writer, director and producer. In today’s Noirvember review, I’m taking a first-time-watch of another of Lupino’s many forays into film noir. This time, she’s working in front of, and behind the camera. Here’s everything you need to know about Private Hell 36.
Private Hell 36 follows the young, handsome and decidedly lone-wolfy Police Sgt. Bruner (Steve Cochran). One night, he stumbles onto a robbery at a local drug store. As the investigation deepens, Bruner along with his partner Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) find themselves hot on the trail of stolen money. The officers team with a nightclub singer Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino) and find themselves tested more than they accounted for, not only physically and mentally, but also morally. Dean Jagger and Dorothy Malone co-star in Private Hell 36. Don Siegel directs the movie from a script by Collier Young and Ida Lupino.
Diving right on in, Private Hell 36 seems far more interested developing its cast of fascinating characters than the plot. In fact, I would actually go as far as to say that the robbery investigation story is little more than a maguffin. The draw here, is in these people, and how they react to everything going on around them.
It probably isn’t a surprise to reveal that Ida Lupino is by far and away the MVP of this movie as the fabulously named Lilli Marlowe. She brings all the sultry sass of the best of film noir with lines like:
The strength and relatability Lupino brings to her roles is always an absolute thrill to watch, and it’s no different in Private Hell 36. Her performance feels very similar to her work in Road House (1948). In Lupino’s hands, Lilli isn’t truly a vamp or a femme fatale. Sure, she has some rough edges, but who doesn’t? Lilli is a woman who pulled herself up in a rough environment. She struggles and does what she can to put food on the table. Sure, she’s cyncial and jaded. She’s a torch singer in a smoky all-night bar. She’s allowed.
That being said, the unsung hero of this movie is Jack Farnham, played by Howard Duff. Farnham takes a narrative backseat to Bruner (Cochran). However, despite having less to do — and less screen time to do it in– Duff takes Farnham through a dramatic and powerful arc. Duff strikes much more of a chord than Cochran’s less likable and more one note performance. This becomes particularly true deep into the second act as the course of the story shifts– thanks to Bruner– sending the officers into unforseen territory. Duff tackles the character with a gentle hand. He hones into Farnham as a man who’s largely well meaning, but he’s fallen in over his head.
Duff’s take on Jack is certainly indicative of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a common caricature throughout 1950s culture. While there is a difference between The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and the Lone-Wolf noir lead– in this case portrayed by Cochran– both tap into a similarly lost, even wounded sense of masculinity common to this era of cinema. In the rush to normalcy in the years following World War II, society was changing faster than anyone could fathom. Not only were women chomping at the bit leading them towards Second Wave Feminism, but men had returned from service overseas and found themselves in jobs they didn’t always like and families they weren’t always ready to provide for.
From the early moments of this movie, Jack finds himself trapped between the reality of his job–symbolized in the death of fellow officer Charlie Bowman– and that of his life. When he discusses Bowman’s death with Bruner, Jack reflects on the mundane (Bowman had just paid off his car) and wonders what would happen to his wife and daughter if he were to meet the same fate. However, as he returns home to his anxious wife (Dorothy Malone), he resists her pleas to transfer to a safer department. At the same time, there’s a sense that he’s uneasy at the thought of so many people relying on him. It’s suddenly clear, he secretly wants to be Bruner. The idea single man courting danger and thriving on adrenaline is far easier than being responsible for the existence of actual human beings.
Meanwhile, Private Hell 36 does make one unforgivable error in judgement. In my classic film watching career, I have yet to see a movie waste Dorothy Malone. I didn’t know it was possible! Until now that is. Malone largely just occupies space as the film’s resident “good girl” Francey, Farnham’s wife and the mother to his child. She’s absolutely fine in the largely unchallenging role. However, in a movie which is far more reliant on the characters than the plot to tell the story, Francey functions largely as a symbol. She serves as a reminder for Farnham of everyone (and everything) relying on him. The presence of the external tension she injects is portrayed very well by Duff, who uses the layers it crafts to shine a light on why Jack takes a number of challenging actions throughout the second act. Ultimately though, this still leaves Malone with very little to do.
Unfortunately, Private Hell 36 struggles most mightily in the actual crime narrative. Much of the detail surrounding the robbery and the investigation often fades as exposition. In other instances, the “bad guys” are left either off-screen, or poorly developed to the point of being unmemorable. Now, is this a huge detractor? Not necessarily. As mentioned above, these main characters are interesting enough to propel the movie through a lot of these issues with the script.
All in all, Private Hell 36 has some struggles, particularly in the plot department. However, what this film manages with this cast of talented actors and rich characters makes it all worth it. This is a bit of a deeper cut, but for fans of the ultra-talented Ida Lupino, who not only stars in Private Hell 36, but also wrote the script, this movie is a must see this Noirvember.
Private Hell 36 is currently available to stream on YouTube.
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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