Friday, August 28, 2009

Private Hell 36 (1954)

Editor's note: This week, hardboiled writer Megan Abbott takes on the criminally overlooked cop thriller Private Hell 36. Edgar-winning Abbott's latest page turner is Bury Me Deep

“A policeman, unlike most men, lives close to evil and violence. He can, like all men, make his own private hell. The good pass through it with minor burns. The evil stumble and fall. And die in strange places.”

Private Hell 36 is one of that special brand of B noir that just revels in the claustrophobic tawdriness of its characters. But it’s also one of those—like Crime Wave and Pushover—that is at least twice as smart and potent as its gears-turning plot first reveals. Shot through with the 50s-noir nihilism of Kiss Me Deadly, it’s also a film very much of its moment—that 50s midpoint that, arguably, summons up the world of standard love-gone-wrong big-city noir only to smash it against Eisenhower-era ideals: suburbia, security, family.

Directed with grim, artful efficiency by Don Siegel (with a young Sam Peckinpah as dialogue director), Private Hell 36 was one of the last films to come from The Filmmakers, the independent production company created by Ida Lupino and producer Collier Young, Lupino’s second husband. The couple coscripted Private Hell 36, but by 1954, the year it was released, the company was on its last legs and Lupino and Young had divorced. Completing the roundelay, the movie boasts Lupino’s new husband, Howard Duff, as one of the leads. Don Siegel reports a set suffused with alcohol and misery, which seems perfectly suited for a film drunk on its own darkness. It’s hard to watch the nightclub interview scene with Lupino, Duff and Steve Cochran talking in front of three enormous, novelty bottles of booze and beer and not wonder if Siegel is making a winking aside. (An equally great meta moment has Duff’s wife scold him for drinking too much, to which a guilt-ridden, sneering Duff replies, “It’s supposed to be a party, isn’t it?”)

Private Hell 36 is a tale of two Los Angeles cops, Farnham (Duff) and Bruner (Cochran) investigating a robbery with the reluctant help of Lilly, a nightclub singer (Lupino). Bruner falls hard for Lilly and, when the two cops uncover a portion of the stolen money, he suggests that he and Farnham split the money. Farnham reluctantly gives in and the two stash money in a trailer park, unit #36. The rest of the film witnesses the two men circling each other, Farnham tormented with self-disgust and Bruner turning more and more rancid—cop to criminal in a heartbeat.

On the surface, it’s just a nasty little movie ripe with noir pleasures, including Lupino singing “Didn’t You Know,” bare shoulders swaying, Dorothy Malone in full-on ’50s house wife mode, as Duff’s worried wife and magnificent location shooting at the famous Hollywood Park Racetrack—you half expect The Grifters’ Lilly Dillon to stroll by.

You can probably guess most of the plot turns, hear the gears clicking, but that’s part of its efficiency. It’s putting a group of characters through the noir iron-maiden. But what characters, and what a world they live in.

Among its greatest, grittiest pleasures is seeing Lupino and Cochran spark off each other. Has any actor ever so consistently made seedy cunning so seductive as Cochran, his eyes glittering with mayhem? (On a personal note, Cochran was the actor I could never stop picturing when creating my own version of the “homme fatal” in my novel Queenpin). Throughout the film, you find yourself begging for Cochran’s character to sink lower and lower just for the erotic kick he gives it. His scenes with Lupino crackle and buzz, dirty up the story. Their been-around slyness with each other—Cochran untying and tying the straps on her halter dress—and their frank shallowness feels like lost pages from a James Ellroy novel, rank with self-loathing, romantic in its view of love as shared irredeemability.

Seeing Cochran and Duff together is nearly as intriguing. The film delights in linking the two as opposites-attract lovers. “Sometimes I wonder why we go steady,” Duff jokes with Cochran early on, to which Cochran replies, “Because I’m irresistible.” (He is.) Later, when the robbery tears them apart, Lupino notes archly, “You two having a lovers’ spat?.” Another cop refers to Duff as Cochran’s boyfriend. The jokes are more than jokes. They cleverly link the pair to not just other cop partner movies but to countless noir lovers who turn against each other when money and guilt enter the picture (it’s important that, as much as Cochran desires Lupino, it never feels like she is his only, or even primary motive. The film is subtler than that. Cochran, unconsciously or otherwise, is looking for the rabbit hole from the very start. And he turns out far worse than you could guess.)

As for Duff, it’s easy to dismiss his whimper-faced, eyebrows-knitted expressions as simplistic—is this what self-loathing really looks like?—but it actually works perfectly with Cochran’s wheels-always-turning, slick-eyed cunning. “You’re sick, Cal,” Duff tells his partner, late in the film. “I should’ve known that a long time ago. You don’t care about anything or anybody. You’re sick.” It’s the kind of cop world partner dynamic Ellroy and others will both deepen and dissect in the years to follow, but that makes it no less compelling here.

As noted (see “Domesticity That Never Sleeps”), the movie offers very timely contrast between the urban noir sleaze of Lupino and Cochran’s scenes together, in nightclubs and in Lupino’s moderne L.A. apartment, and the rising suburban domesticity represented by Duff’s family, his sunny blonde wife, the care with which she keeps her home, her mother’s pride in her child. Cochran and Lupino are drawn to each other by a shared distaste for just this kind of world. “Rice is for eating, not throwing,” Lupino notes. Cochran replies, “That’s how I feel. We’re a lot alike, Lilly. We won’t settle for just anything. We want the best. And we’re going to get it.” Their dream is the big gold one—but the film asks how different that is from the one represented by Duff’s overstuffed faux-colonial home.

The two worlds are thrown together in a dinner party scene at the Duff household. Guilt-ridden Duff, who has been forced to straddle the line between the two worlds, stumbles through his own house, drunkenly knocking his own furniture around as if a stranger in his own home. When she wants to bring out her baby, Duff refuses angrily. He does not want to contaminate his child with the presence of Cochran, the grinning reminder of his own sin. Meanwhile Cochran and Lupino seem cool, relaxed—and equally out of place, Lupino kicking her shoes off and lifting her feet for Cochran to rub. It’s sexy and cheap and delicious and the movie’s all the better for having Malone not bat an eye. She doesn’t mind. And when Cochran, in a moment so slight it seems like it could have been ad-libbed, grabs Malone around the waist for a goodbye kiss, it’s jarring. He manhandles her like he does Lupino, or like he might a whore (late in the film we see him exchange silent greetings with a likely streetwalker as if he knows her quite well). But it’s a cunning move—lining up Duff and Cochran this way. Instead of hoisting Duff up as the noble do-gooder, it shows how both men are driven by the same longings. How is Cochran’s desire to live the good life with his diamond-hungry girl so different from Duff’s desire to keep his suburban family on the track to the American consumer dream?

Ultimately, Private Hell 36 is a film that refuses tidy answers. It’s comfortable in messiness, and slippery truths. The story is book ended by what first appears to be an authoritative, Dragnet or Naked City-style voiceover. But it’s Dragnet-Meets-Sartre, or Freud. While a kind of order is restored at the end, what kind of order is it? Whether in the balmy burbs or the gaudiest of nightclubs, the drive is there. The hunger. It’s inside us and it’s hoisted upon us by the Big Dream, the American one. Who are we to stop it?

Written by Megan Abbott



  1. Fantastic! I have to search this one out and see it!

  2. Ida Lupino is far from cheap here. She is cynical and wary yes, but she is straight-up decent and loyal. An otherwise atmospheric review.

  3. Tony--I'm referring not to Lupino or her character but to the contrast btw. the conventional suburban environs and Cochran and Lupino's sexy, easy, grownup and very un-bourgeois vibe with each other.

  4. I don't know. I think she is a bit cheap. I mean she was taking 50 dollar tips from strangers in the bar, right? She's not pure evil like Cochran but she seems kinda cheap and sleazy to me - even if she is loyal and trustworthy.

  5. When she runs after Cochran in their last scene and suggests she might not need money, we have to decide if we believe her. Cochran doesn't buy it and she seems unsure too. But it depends how we define cheap. I was using the term to point to differences re: suburban propriety vs. urban sexual openness, ease with their bodies, etc. To bourgeois eyes, taking off shoes and feet-rubbing during a dinner party is "declasse"--but the film itself doesn't take a stand (Malone, the film's most upright one, doesn't seem to mind).

  6. Great review. A friend recently recommended your novels to me.

  7. Virginia Mayo as Cody’s slatternly wife in White Heat is cheap, and Betty Field's Kay in Blues in the Night is cheap.

    There is an amour fou element in 36 that explains Lupino's willingness to accept ill-gotten gains.

    In some ways there is a connection with Pushover, where Kim Novak is not as cheap as we thought, which MacMurray realises too late: "We didn't really need the dough..." There is another interesting connection - Malone in Pushover plays the innocent young woman in the other apartment. In both roles, Malone plays a middle-class woman open to the other. She accepts Lupino and shares her motherhood with her in 36, and in Pushover her first instinct in the final scene is to run to the wounded MacMurray not to the cop she likes and who saved her..

    Sadly in 36, Seigel's flat direction and Burnett Guffey's even flatter lensing don't do the screenplay or the cast justice.

  8. Excellent review as always, Megan. Mentioning Ellroy reminds me that his novella "Hollywood Shakedown" uses the making of Private Hell 36 as a backdrop.

  9. Beautifully written review.

  10. Thanks for your great review of a noir that should be better known. Always love these low-budget 50s noirs that give such an unsentimental view of life in the 1950s; they stand up better today than any 'A-list' picture of that era does.

  11. How is Cochran’s desire to live the good life with his diamond-hungry girl so different from Duff’s desire to keep his suburban family on the track to the American consumer dream?

    Well, clearly it's no mystery to the Captain. He has no qualms treating Duff's character like a good guy, and just 'forgetting' about his complicity. Or so it seems at the end. Is that being comfortable with 'slippery truths' or just a tidy wrapping up? I tend to think the latter, and that you've read a little too much social commentary into this one.

    I did enjoy it though, and Ida Lupino and Cochrane were great together.


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