Friday, August 24, 2012

143. PRIVATE HELL 36 (1954)

At the time Ida Lupino co-wrote this Don Siegel thriller with her ex-husband Collier Young, she was 22 years into her acting career, a film producer (as part of "The Filmakers" with Young) for a few years, and had already directed five feature films (and assisted on a couple more), a feat unequalled by any other woman of her time -- but her vast talent, in its demand to be reckoned with, had forced her to work on the level of B-pictures by the time she reached her 30s.

Here Lupino uses her professional disappointments and steely self-respect to breathe life into Lilli Marlowe (she admits the name sounds made-up, and is), a cocktail lounge singer, questioned in a robbery case, who becomes involved with one of the two assigned detectives, Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran). Lilli's hunger for the good things of life which have passed her by spurs the lovestruck Cal, for the first time, to reach beyond his meager cop's weekly paycheck; when he and his earnest partner Jack Farnham (Howard Duff, then Lupino's current husband) chase their to a fatal crash at his drop point, Cal pockets a healthy helping of untraceable stolen cash, forcing Jack to share it with him without discussion. While Cal continues to run high on the fumes of Lilli's shopworn glamor, biding his time until he can get the cash laundered to present to her as a nest egg, Jack begins to fracture, drinking and darkening an otherwise bright and cozy homelife with wife Francey (Dorothy Malone in her prime) and their two kids. In a twist of "Gift of the Magi" irony, the more involved Lilli gets with Cal, the more she realizes she doesn't really need more than an honest, hard-working man, but once his imperative to provide gets mixed-up in it, their equation is doomed.

Siegel had an unhappy time making this film, citing a volatile mix of too much alcohol and divided authority on the set, and it does feel generally more attuned to Lupino's noir filmography than his own, but it's nevertheless a very satisfying, multi-angled story with well-crafted, natural dialogue that allows several of its characters to shine. The finale is also surprisingly downbeat for its time, but perfectly so for this genre; whether or not Lupino and Young were responsible for writing it, it's here -- and in the scenes of rocky domesticity -- that we can best feel Siegel was behind the camera. The supporting cast includes the always-reliable Dean Jagger as the police captain, the ubiquitous Dabbs Greer as a bartender, and future TV teenager Jimmy Hawkins (in the '40s, one of the kids in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) as a delivery boy.

PS: Ida Lupino was 36 years of age at the time of filming.

Viewed via Olive Films' DVD.


  1. I liked this film a lot when I caught it on Netflix Instant about a year ago. Not surprising, since I'm a big Siegel fan. The entire cast is fine, but for me the highlight was Steve Cochran (not Forrest!), whose unusual balance of likability with dark undercurrents puts him somewhere on a spectrum between Garfield and Brando.

  2. Thanks for the correction; that's what I get for trying to write and post five of these in a day.