Film noir fans need to momentarily stop running down those nocturnal rain-swept streets, catch their breath and rejoice for the Blu-Ray release of Don Siegel’s vastly underrated 1954 crime thriller PRIVATE HELL 36, now available through Olive Films/Paramount Home Video.
An Allied Artists special, HELL contains what is likely the perfect noir cast. In the four leads are Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran, Howard Duff and Dorothy Malone, with Dean Jagger, Dabbs Greer, James Anderson, Richard Deacon and King Donovan admirably shouldering their always-appreciated support.
The plot (by costar/producer Lupino and her then-husband Collier Young, for their Filmmaker’s Presentation company) is a peach. I’ve-got-your-back no-nonsense official City of L.A. gumshoes Cal Bruner and Jack Farnham (Cochran and Duff) genuinely enjoy their work, and its middle-class rewards (along with Scott Brady and Charles MacGraw, they are the perfect plainclothes candidates for a fantasy version of James McElroy’s Black Dahlia). This includes the violent part (a right-off-the-bat lethal skirmish in a convenience store is jaw-dropping and serves as splendid precursor to director Siegel’s “Do ya feel lucky, punk?!” sequence in Dirty Harry). The schism between them is that Farnham can shrug it off after-hours, enjoying suburban living with his curvy, loving spouse Francey (Malone). Bruner, on the other hand, when not barbecuing with the Farnhams, contemplates a larger-than-life existence – one he feels he truly deserves, being better than most everybody (he’d never admit it, but he’s kinda a perfect Nazi). Not surprisingly unmarried, Cal haunts watering holes, eventually hooking up with barfly/singer/whore Lilli Marlowe (Lupino), who, despite her circumstances, is a pretty decent person, striving for something better.
PRIVATE HELL 36 (the “36” being a secret locker) would never progress further than the interesting level, if it weren’t for the dark, talon-fingered hand of fate. A wild car chase with a mob figure on the run results in his demise. Calling in the fatality along a deserted, rural road, Bruner and Farnham discover a suitcase with $300,000.00 in stolen mob money. Jack is all for turning it in; Cal has other plans, and suggests an alternative. NOTE to all noiristas: NEVER take advice from Steve Cochran. Farnham is reluctantly convinced, and from here on their troubles escalate, notably when Bruner’s increasingly overt psychopathic tendencies, veering frighteningly toward paranoia, go full Fred C. Dobbs on Farnham’s ass. Plus, we have the police (led by narrator Jagger), already suspicious, and anxious to vanquish the force of dirty cops. PLUS, that pesky mob isn’t about to write off their losses either. Jack and Francey thus become the archetypical genre poster couple for the hopelessness walls-closing-in scenario that, as we all know, cannot completely EVER end well. And it doesn’t.
PRIVATE HELL 36 is one of my all-time favorite noirs, and, in my opinion, one of Don Siegel’s greatest pics. Siegel, as recounted in his superb 1993 autobiography, A Siegel Film, considered it a mess. The reason being that producer-writer Lupino tried to also become director Lupino; it additionally didn’t help that, aside from Dean Jagger and himself, the four leads were mostly drunk throughout the shoot. Ultimately Siegel, who called it a “family film” (Lupino and Collier Young had been husband and wife) concluded “I liked Ida personally, and admired her talent. We just couldn’t communicate.” Siegel’s “family” comment had on an ulterior, cynical meaning, as three years previously Lupino divorced husband Young (who still remained her business partner), marrying Duff.
Off-camera keg-party hijinks aside, I still love this movie. The snarky, gritty script is peppered with quotable lines, many reflecting the then-current mainstream culture (“I’ve seen all this on Dragnet,” spouts one cynical denizen about the daft, ferocious chain of events). Cochran takes the honors for the best lines, specifically when offering his personal exoneration to his far-more reputable-partner for their murderous deeds (“Stop taking it so hard. He wasn’t your brother.”). And watching all these scene stealers interact with one another is pure mean street joy.
All of the above is compounded by the downright brilliant black-and-white widescreen cinematography of Burnett Guffey. Ditto the ominous score by Leith Stevens.
The Olive Films Blu-Ray does this unfairly ignored freak show justice, with a spiffy-looking platter, that, apart from slight grain, is a monochrome winner.
Tough, rough and oozing with guilt, PRIVATE HELL 36 rates a key spot on your crazy-ass cop noir sidebar shelf, alongside On Dangerous Ground, The Prowler, Kansas City Confidential and the rest. Don’t miss it.
PRIVATE HELL 36. Black and white. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT# OF456. SRP: $29.95.