A big heist is pulled in New York City, and at least one man ends up dead. The money and the crooks disappear. A year later, a marked bill from the robbery shows up in Los Angeles. Police detective Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran, Il grido, Quantrill's Raiders) finds it on a junkie robbing a drugstore. Cal and his partner, Jack Farnham (Howard Duff, While the City Sleeps), are put on the trail to find who passed the bill. A bartender used it at the drugstore, and he got it off the bar's singer and hatcheck girl. She got it from a customer who liked hearing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." He said he could afford it because he had a good day at the horse races, so the cops take the street-wise lady down to the track to look for the culprit. She's the only witness who knows what the killer looks like.
The lady is Lilli Marlowe, and she's played by Ida Lupino, who wasn't just an actress in movies like Road House and On Dangerous Ground, but was also one of the first women directors in American cinema. Perhaps her best-known effort behind the camera is the classic noir thriller The Hitch-hiker, which she wrote with her one-time husband Collier Young. The pair were divorced by the time they also co-wrote this 1954 picture (and Lupino had married co-star Duff), but that didn't prevent them from crafting a tight little crime story about the temptations that turn dirty cops into good ones.
By the time Lilli spots her man, Cal has fallen in love with her. He's also gotten a pretty good idea of what kind of taste she has--the expensive kind. So, when they find nearly $300,000 on the crook, he stuffs a good portion of that into his pockets, forcing the more straight-laced Jack to go along with him. Cal wants to buy Lilli diamonds, and he leverages Jack's house and family to push his partner over the edge. The rest of the movie becomes a waiting game: will they turn on one another before they get found out?
Private Hell 36 wasn't directed by Ida Lupino; rather, the film was helmed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, The Shootist). His efforts here are workmanlike, lacking in any real impact or anything to distinguish it from other B-movies. Which isn't to say it's bad work, the job gets done. Siegel makes good use of a tight budget. He and cinematographer Burnett Guffey (Mr. Sardonicus, The Learning Tree) weave real locations in with their sets, grabbing impressive wide shots at the racetrack and staging a fairly hairy car chase through the suburbs (though, both cars rarely appear in the same shot together). The action is clear and concise, but lacks tension.
What distinguishes Private Hell 36--the title refers to where the guys hide the money; the film has also inexplicably been called Baby Face Killers--is Lupino's character. She writes Lilli not as a femme fatale looking to screw over whoever gets in her way, but as an independent-minded woman trying to avoid being tied to any other person, especially any man. She's been done wrong in the past and is over trusting anyone to take care of her. It's a message that likely had real meaning for Lupino personally, as an actress who broke from the studios to forge her own way. Her real-life connection to the part makes her particularly exceptional as Lilli. Her performance is smart and sexy, and always on her terms, no one else's. Duff and Cochran are fine as the cops, but Private Hell 36 definitely loses a little of its luster every time the camera pans away from its female lead.
Olive's widescreen presentation ofPrivate Hell 36 is middling. There are a lot of marks on the print and the resolution tends to be soft (it's particularly noticeable when actors are in profile, their noses go all jagged). The black-and-white doesn't have a lot of deep blacks, which affects the image contrast. It's not a bad job, it's just not a full-fledged restoration, more likely just the best that was possible with what material is available. Go in with your expectations adjusted appropriately, and you'll be fine.
The mono soundtrack is given a decent mix, with clear tones and no real glitches.
Don Siegel's Private Hell 36 is an effective, if maybe unremarkable, crime picture. It stars Steve Cochran and Howard Duff as two honest cops tempted by ill-gotten money, and co-writer Ida Lupino as the not-so-fatal femme who leads them to the loot. There are some good moral questions raised here, some solid action sequences (shootouts, car chases, and the like), and an excellent performance by Lupino--all of which is enough to make Private Hell 36 Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.