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With: Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran, Howard Duff, Dean Jagger, Dorothy Malone, Bridget Duff, Jerry Hausner, Dabbs Greer, Christopher L. O'Brien, Kenneth Patterson, George Dockstader, Jimmy Hawkins
Written by: Ida Lupino, Collier Young
Directed by: Don Siegel
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 81
Date: 03/09/1954

Private Hell 36 (1954)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Trailer Cash

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Having begun as a maker of montages for Warner Bros. features like Now, Voyager and Casablanca, Don Siegel graduated to become one of cinema's most reliable and durable directors of crime and action. He made his directorial debut in the 1940s and continued strong into the 1970s, becoming Clint Eastwood's favorite director (he faltered only in the 1980s, on his last film, a much-loathed Bette Midler comedy called Jinxed!). He may not have had a strong personality like Samuel Fuller or Howard Hawks, but if you check out a Siegel film, it's likely you're going to get a good one.

One of his "B"-level pictures, Private Hell 36, is the latest to receive a DVD release, as well as a beautiful new Blu-ray, courtesy of Olive Films. It's notable for a screenplay and a potent supporting performance by Ida Lupino. At the time, Ms. Lupino was blazing new trails as one of only a few women film directors, making low-budget "B" movies like The Bigamist and The Hitch-Hiker. It's not clear whether she hoped to direct Private Hell 36 herself, but either way, she was happy enough to stay on to play the role of songbird Lilli Marlowe.

The movie begins deceptively, with a long setup, establishing our two lead characters: cops and partners Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farnham (Howard Duff). While on the way home one night, Cal foils a robbery that turns up a counterfeit $50 bill. This leads to a nightclub where singer Lilli received the bill as a tip. She knows nothing about the counterfeiters, but she agrees to help find the man who gave it to her. This leads to a cool car chase and a crash, where a strongbox full of money breaks open, scattering bills into the wind. Cal decides to pocket a small fortune before calling for backup. He rents a trailer -- no. 36 -- and gives Jack a key. From there, the men each deal with their own "private hell." Cal starts up a volatile relationship with Lilli, and Jack wrestles with guilt while at home with his wife (Dorothy Malone).

That's a twisty plot, and a good long time before the title comes into it. This doesn't even take into account some of the other subtleties of the story, such as the cops' relationship with their chief (Dean Jagger), their own experience as cops, and the fates of the other men in their department. And the film is only 81 minutes long. This alone proves Siegel's brilliance with rhythm and economy. Lupino's characters and dialogue help a great deal, of course, and she certainly understood a thing or two about conciseness. Overall, Private Hell 36 is a little noir with big riches, and worthy of re-discovery.
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