Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the Ida Lupino Centenary Blogathon on May 12, 2018. Here's my entry.
Private Hell 36 is an early directing effort by Don Siegel. It was produced by The Filmakers, the independent production company founded by Ida Lupino - who also co-wrote the script for the movie - and husband No. 2 Collier Young. Lupino was one of the first female directors in American cinema who liked to direct socially conscious low-budget movies. The Filmakers were responsible for little gems such as The Hitch-Hiker, Outrage and The Bigamist. Young and Lupino had divorced by 1951, but were still working together professionally. In 1955 the company’s days were numbered and Private Hell was one of their last films.
Private Hell is a dirty cop Noir, the sub-genre that became so popular in the 50s.
Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) and Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) investigate a robbery with the reluctant help of Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), a nightclub singer who received a hot $50 bill as a tip from a customer. Lilli goes straight to Bruner’s head but it’s clear to him a cop’s salary can’t keep her in style. When Farnham and Bruner finally find their suspect, he tries to run but is killed in the ensuing car chase. Convenient for the cops, he had the stolen money with him and Bruner decides there and then to keep a good portion of it. Farnham is shocked but reluctantly looks the other way. The two stash the money in a trailer park, unit No. 36.
From then it’s all downhill. Bruner wants to take the money and run to Mexico with Lilli. Farnham is tormented with self-disgust. Distrust starts to erode their relationship and the former friends and partners start circling each other like wild cats. On top of that their Captain is getting suspicious and it seems the thief’s partner wants his share of the dough too. It’s just a matter of time until they turn on each other.
The plot is barely more than routine and the picture has a bit of a ramshackle structure. The movie starts and ends with a bang - Bruner foiling a drug store burglary and a shootout in the trailer park respectively - but it drags considerably in the middle, especially during the racetrack scenes when the cops and Lilli are looking for the robbery suspect. Private Hell could maybe be called negligible were it not for the sizzling chemistry between Lupino and Cochran that could easily set a house on fire. Lupino was actually married to co-star Howard Duff at the time. Not that you’d notice. Lupino’s and Cochran’s scenes together are electric and their verbal sparring makes the movie.
Ida Lupino was an actress who simply and naturally belonged to the world of Noir. Though an extremely versatile actress who played everything from emotionally fragile innocents, waifs, women in jeopardy and damsels in distress, it is her hard-luck dames I remember the most and she was never better than when she was playing bad girls. Sexy, sultry, world-weary, looking for a guy with money and a way out, Lilli is a tad shopworn.
Her dialogue drips with tough-gal sarcasm. She works in a low-class gin joint where the veneer of class is thin at best. Neither Lilli nor the joint have any Vegas aspirations. There she sings for her supper, and maybe does something more. A cheap dame whose tastes run to the expensive and who likes her men to be big spenders. Lilli’s eyes become as big as saucers when she notices a shiny diamond bracelet on the arm of another woman.
She’s good at separating men from their hard-earned money. She takes $50 tips from strangers and we wonder for what? So does Bruner. “I have a lovely voice. I sang Smoke Gets in Your Eyes five times. He was loaded”, says she. It’s as good an explanation as any.
When Bruner can finally throw some money around, she doesn’t ask too many prying questions where this sudden windfall comes from. She really doesn’t want to know. To preserve the niceties she decides that it’s from a rich uncle who just died.
Lilli changes her mind about her money-grasping ways in the end and has a few seconds of mushy remorse. She tells Bruner in their last scene together that she doesn't need the money to be happy, but it’s doubtful if she’s sincere or not. Her denial isn’t too convincing and Cochran doesn't seem to buy it either. So he goes to get the money.
I have to take a little detour here and talk about Lupino the singer. She played songbirds three times in her career and should have played them more often.
With startling regularity nightclub singers pop up in Noir. There’s just something about them. Tough dames with bruised hearts and dearly paid-for wisdom who’ve seen and heard it all, but still hang on to their hopes. Something in their demeanor suggests a kindred spirit to the Noir hero. Not always a clear-headed assessment on the part of the guy. So often be loses is head…and sometimes his life.
Lilli - just like most of her sisters - isn’t the best singer and she knows it. Her voice is like a cheap shot of bourbon with another bourbon chaser. It tells of years of lonely nights, desire, regret, heartbreak…or maybe just three packs a day and the aforementioned cheap booze straight up on a nightly basis.
But that’s not what’s drawing the crowd anyway. She’s got something else that all the boys want. She sings for the lonely and sells dreams. And the boys can always fool themselves into believing that the shantoozy on the stage is singing just for them.
Lupino’s rendition of One For My Baby in Road House is spectacular. In a haze of nicotine she mesmerizes everybody. It never ceases to amaze me how someone whose voice could charitably be describe as limited could be such an effective singer. "She does more without a voice than anybody I've ever heard", says Celeste Holm about her singing in Road House and it's true here too. She speaks her lines more than she sings them and it is quite astonishing what she could do with a strapless dress and a few shrugs of her bare shoulders.
As Petey Brown in The Man I Love she was dubbed by Peg La Centra, but there’s no doubt - though Lupino doesn’t sing herself - she’s lived and breathed every line of her songs of heartbreak and late night regret.
Steve Cochran has enough screen presence for several actors. Bruner starts out as an honest cop, though he clearly always had a propensity for recklessness and callousness. When a fellow cop gets killed he just shrugs it off. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to believe that his entire life he’s been calculating the odds. Somehow it’s doubtful that he ever was a paragon of duty.
Because of a dame he goes off the straight and narrow, and in the end he wouldn’t even stick at shooting his partner. In true Noir fashion it is suggested that under the right or wrong circumstances anybody can cross the line and show himself to be capable of almost anything. I’d say Bruner’s dark alter ego was always his true character that up to then had simply never been explored.
Cochran was one of Noir’s sexiest actors and managed to make seedy, sleazy brutes utterly irresistible. With a rough and roguish charm, he leers at Lilly like a hungry wolf the second they meet. He may be a rotter, but he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind sinking into the gutter with cause you know it would be a fun ride. Just the way he ties and unties the straps on Lilli’s halter dress is enough to drive a girl wild, I’m telling you. The temperature gets a lot hotter in the room every time he appears on the screen.
Cochran may have risen above B actor status, had it not been for his out-of-control private life which had "bad boy" written all over it. Apparently Siegel had a hard time keeping Cochran - and the rest of the crew - sober on the set.
Howard Duff has the most thankless role in the movie, the guilt-stricken good guy full of self-loathing. Farnham can’t bring himself to go against the blue wall of silence. I never considered Duff the most charismatic actor and his pained righteousness and weakness make him hard to like.
There’s some funny risqué banter in the movie hinting at the relationship between Cochran and Duff.
“Sometimes I wonder why we go steady,” Farnham says to Bruner, to which Bruner replies, “Because I’m irresistible.” Later, when the robbery tears them apart, Lupino wonders: “You two having a lovers’ spat?” A fellow cop refers to Farnham as Bruner’s boyfriend, and when Bruner has to leave Lilli to meet Farnham, she says: “This is the first time I’ve ever lost a man to another man.”
In this movie it seems strangely out of place. Nothing in their relationship suggests lavender-tinted leanings, so why the hints? The only reason I can think of is that this kind of talk links the partners to countless Noir couples whose relationship turns sour turn when distrust enters the picture.
Private Hell juxtaposes Farnham’s suburban white picket fence life with the rotten little world of Lupino and Cochran.
Domesticity is nothing Bruner or Lilli want. “Rice is for eating, not throwing,” Lilli notes. Bruner replies, “That’s how I feel. We’re a lot alike, Lilli.” The two worlds clash at a dinner party at Farnham’s house where Bruner and Lilli seem completely out of place. A wild party would be more up their alley.
Still, I don’t see the movie as another cynical meditation on the American Dream, a film criticism that so often is an utterly trite cliche in itself. Farnham and his wife Francey don’t live a suburban nightmare, they are happy in their lives, before Farnham lets himself get corrupted. And there’s a lot more to Francey than just being a housewife. She can accept Lilli for what she is and doesn’t pass judgment on her because her morals aren’t quite up to standard.
It's Farnham who wants nothing more to do with Bruner but their lives are inextricably linked. When Francey wants to show off their baby, he angrily refuses. He doesn’t want his child tainted with the presence of Bruner, the reminder of his own sin. So he guzzles down booze to anesthetize his guilty conscience. His silence eats him up inside.
The symbolism of unit No. 36 is none too subtle of course. The stashed loot in the trailer and their shared guilt poisons both men's lives and their relationships, with each other and with their women, and so becomes their private hell.
|Well...what am I supposed to think now?|
The ending, as so often, is a copout and feels tacked-on. Bruner gets shot and the Police Captain simply seems to forget about about Farnham’s complicity in the crime and lets him off. It’s all tied up too neatly.
The real crime in the end is that we don’t find out what becomes of Lilli but it’s easy to guess. Another affair that went nowhere, another piece of hard-won wisdom, but she’ll just shrug her shoulders and go back to that gin joint to sing for her next supper without missing a beat. One For My Baby and One More For The Road. What’s the use of crying?
The picture has a lot to recommend it but it falls just short of little gem status.