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.