Directed by the great Don Siegel in 1954 from a script co-written by Collier Young and the film's leading lady, Ida Lupino (the two were married at the time and worked together as an independent production company called The Filmmakers), Private Hell 36 also featured contributions from none other than a young Sam Peckinpah (who is credited as David Peckinpah), who served as the dialogue director on the film. The film holds up well as a tough, hardboiled story of cops and robbers, with a few good twists and some fun performances that help us overlook a few of its flaws.
The story revolves around a pair of Los Angeles Police Department detectives named Jack Farnham (Howard Duff - who would marry Lupino after she and Young divorced) and Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) who are just out doing their job and following up on a robbery. This task introduces them to a gorgeous nightclub chanteuse named Lilli Marlow (Ida Lupino) who Cal is immediately, and quite understandably, very attracted to. When the two cops discover a good chunk of the stolen loot, Cal talks Jack into keeping it, splitting the cash fifty-fifty - it seems that getting involved with a woman like Lilli is expensive, more than Cal can afford on the money he makes as a cop. The pair finds a trailer that would make a good hiding spot for the money and leave it there until things cool down, but they never really do. Rather, Jack starts feeling terrible about his new role as a thief, which becomes of concern to his wife, Francey (Dorothy Malone), while Cal seems to be spiraling ever downward, quite content to take anyone down with him he can.
While the plot is a little bit on the predictable side, the story does offer a few good twists towards the end, and even if you do figure out the hook, noir fans will absolutely have a good time here going along for the ride. The movie is wonderfully shot making excellent use of the high contrast photography to do some very enticing things with shadows, and a few great locations are captured very nicely. A scene that takes place at a racetrack stands out as do the nightclub scenes, particularly the one where Lupino is in full on femme fatale mode as she delivers a chilling version of a song called 'Didn't You Know' (which is available on CD with the rest of the soundtrack paired up with The Wild One - both were composed by Leith Stevens).
The film also features some really great performances. As mentioned, Lupino is excellent here. She smolders with sexuality and plays her part incredibly well. There's just enough mystery surrounding her to keep her intriguing and the camera loves her, the cinematography couldn't really be any more complimentary to her than it is in this picture. Her back and forth with Cochran is great, there's some excellent dialogue shared by the two of them and as things start to get thick and heavy, the two actors do a great job of portraying all the emotions and tensions you'd expect. Duff is also good, his character making an interesting contrast to the other two leads, and the scenes he shares with Dorothy Malone, who is also very lovely here, are also strong.
When it's all said and done, Private Hell 36 doesn't really reinvent the wheel and you could make the argument that maybe it plays things a little bit too safe, at least in the specific terms of the chances that it takes with the storytelling side of things. There is an underlying seediness to the scenes that Cochran and Lupino share together, however, which make an interesting contrast to the more traditional relationship that Malone and Duff share. The first couple is drawn together by greed and antisocial leanings, the second by a commitment to family and a more traditional lifestyle. The movie is also paced quite well, if slightly erratically, and it's got enough energy behind it and talent happening both in front of and behind the camera to make it work.
Private Hell 36 is another good black and white transfer on Blu-ray from Olive Films, presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. The image is nice and bright without looking artificially boosted and it shows decent depth and detail throughout the duration of the movie. Although there are occasional issues with sporadic contrast fluctuations and mild aliasing, there's a nice amount of natural looking film grain present that results in a very film like presentation without the picture ever looking deteriorated or dirty because of it, even if minor print damage shows up here and there. Generally speaking, texture is excellent and black levels are strong, with very nice shadow detail making the film's stark photography really stand out. This isn't a reference quality image but it's good.
The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD Mono track in the film's original English language, no alternate language or subtitle options or offered. The audio is clean and clear and easy to follow and periodically more aggressive than you might expect it to be. The dialogue is consistently easily discernible and the score dramatically strong without overpowering anything. There are no issues here with hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced throughout the movie save for a few infrequent moments where the sound effects seem unusually high in the mix. Range is obviously limited by the age and format of the source material but the movie sounds just fine here.
Olive Films doesn't usually include any extras on their releases aside from a static menu and chapter selection, and unfortunately that is the case with this release, which doesn't even include a trailer.
Private Hell 36 isn't Siegel's best film by a long shot but it's a solid thriller with a good script, some interesting performances and some very nice photography. All of that lets us overlook some of the pictures flaws and enjoy it as the entertaining slice of vintage noir that it is. Olive Films' Blu-ray looks good and sounds just fine. Even if the disc is completely barebones, this is worth seeing and recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.