Private Hell 36 (1954) Don Siegel
Amazon Instant Video
In New York City, a man is robbed of $300,000 and murdered. Months later, several of the bills from that robbery begin appearing in Los Angeles. One such bill – a fifty – is given to a nightclub singer named Lili (Ida Lupino) as a tip. L.A. police detectives Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran, left) and Jack Farnham (Howard Duff, right) investigate, asking Lili if she thinks she could help them find the man who tipped her.
Lili’s not really interested in helping the cops. She’s much more interested in acquiring the finer things: diamonds, cars, exotic travel, things that Cal – who’s clearly smitten with her – could never afford on a policeman’s salary. But thanks to Lili, the cops run into a bit of luck… until one of them makes a serious mistake at a crime scene and asks the other to help cover it up.
Private Hell 36 does a lot of things right as a straight-forward crime drama with good performances not only from the three leads, but also from Dean Jagger as the police captain and Dorothy Malone as Jack’s wife Francie. Siegel and the scriptwriters spend significant effort in contrasting the two men – the single Cal and the family man Jack, both of whom want different things out of life and may possibly have found the means to make their desires come true. Although there’s no overt gay pretense here, the film is largely about the two men’s relationship to each other, which provides just as much drama as the crime.
Lupino, as a writer/director/producer, was always interested in the main story, but was just as interested in examining larger social, personal, and cultural issues. Moral issues also feature prominently in Private Hell 36 as each of the three main characters have to come to grips with situations they know are wrong. None of these characters are what we would call “bad” people, but the allure of crime and the attempted justification of it can’t help but make us ask ourselves “What would I have done?” It’s the inner battles going on in the lives of its characters that makes Private Hell 36 worth watching.
The film was produced by Ida Lupino and then husband Collier Young’s company The Filmakers, an early independent production company. (Lupino and Young also wrote the screenplay.) The couple had seen Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 earlier in 1954, knew he could deliver a good picture with a modest budget, and were impressed enough to ask him to direct Private Hell 36. Siegel next directed what is, by most accounts, a rather lackluster 1955 film called The Blue and Gold (a.k.a. An Annapolis Story). That film is important because Siegel worked with an actor named Kevin McCarthy, who would star in Siegel’s very next film, the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Private Hell 36 is currently available on Amazon Instant Video as well as on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films.