Private Hell 36 (1954)

Directed by Don Siegel
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
When 2 detectives steal $80,000 from a dead robber, one of them suffers from a guilty conscience which could lead to murder.

An effective early Siegel

12 November 2007 | by Martin Bradley ( (Derry, Ireland) – See all my reviews

This taut, low-key and highly effective B-movie film noir was an early example of a style that director Don Siegel came to perfect in his later films. Although dealing with robbery and murder it’s at its most effective in the small scenes of domesticity between the central characters, a crooked cop, his partner and the women they are both involved with and there are good performances from Steve Cochran, Howard Duff, Ida Lupino and Dorothy Malone in these roles. (Lupino co-wrote the movie with producer Collier Young). Excitement is generated from not knowing exactly which way the characters might go and from the degree of complexity that both the players and writers invest them with. The denouement is a bit of let-down, however, with things tidied up too quickly and too neatly. Still, it’s a commendable effort.

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Alcohol, affectation, and ex-wives override any expectations

Author: melvelvit-1 from NYC suburbs
17 January 2009

Independent filmmaker Ida Lupino didn’t intend to make a B picture with PRIVATE HELL 36 but that’s what happened. In the early 1950s, director/writer/actress Ida and her writer/producer husband Collier Young broke away from the studio system by forming “The Filmmakers” and they used it to tackle such topical subjects as rape and “ripped from the headlines” social commentary. Young and Lupino soon divorced but they kept their working relationship going and even used each other’s new spouses in their “classy” exploitation films.


Ida directed Collier’s wife Joan Fontaine in THE BIGAMIST (1953) and her follow-up film was going to be “The Story Of A Cop” starring her husband, Howard Duff. At the time, big city police corruption and the Kefauver TV hearings on organized crime were hot-button issues that made national headlines and were inspiration to writers like William P. McGivern who fashioned roman-a-clefs in films like THE BIG HEAT (1953), SHIELD FOR MURDER, and ROGUE COP (both 1954). Never one to let a good story go by, Ida Lupino threw her bonnet into the ring but by the time she was ready to make “Cop”, she and Duff had separated.

They soon reconciled but, afraid to rock the boat, Ida decided not to direct her husband and hired Don Siegel, who had just made RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, for the job. The result, now called PRIVATE HELL 36, is the story of L.A.P.D. partners Steve Cochran & Howard Duff and what happens when temptation proves too much for one of them. Lupino actually tackles themes that many Films Noirs have been accused of doing now and then: capitalism, materialism, and the American Dream are the mitigating circumstances propelling the self-inflicted problems everyone involved have to confront.


Loyalty and “the blue wall of silence” are also thrown in for good measure but the character study the film becomes disrupts the pace. The movie starts off with a murder/robbery but the real action doesn’t come until after the half-way mark; in between are slow build-ups involving family man Duff and his wife, Dorothy Malone, and the single Cochran who’s fallen for a witness in the case, nightclub chanteuse Ida Lupino. Ida’s a bit old for her role as a sympathetic “femme fatale” but the dynamics between her and the seemingly laid-back Cochran are one of the film’s highlights. The movie takes too long by half to get where it’s going but the ride is fascinating -as is the back story:


“Siegel was never comfortable working on the film and most of his memories of it are bad. He can remember little of it and readily admits that he may be blocking it out psychologically. The things he does remember are uniformly unpleasant. Siegel recalls there was a great deal of drinking on the set by the cast and producer. The script was never really in shape, ready for shooting, and Siegel was given little opportunity to work on it. He began to lose control of the picture, got into fights with Lupino and Young, had difficulty keeping Cochran sober, and got in the middle of arguments with his cameraman… One time, he recalls, Miss Lupino told Guffey that she wanted him to re-shoot something and even Guffey, whom Siegel describes as the mildest of men, exploded and became party to the bickering.


‘I was terribly self-conscious on that picture,’ recalls Siegel. ‘I had just done a picture for Walter Wanger, RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, in which I had great authority, did whatever I wanted to do. Now I was on a picture battling for every decision, working with people who were pretentious, talented but pretentious. They’d talk, talk, talk, but they wouldn’t sit down and give me enough time. They wouldn’t rehearse. Perhaps it was my fault. Cochran was a good actor, but not when he was loaded, and I had a hard time catching him even slightly sober. I was not able to communicate with these people and the picture showed it. Strangely enough, I personally liked both Ida Lupino and Young and still do, but not to work with.”


Cinematographer Burnett Guffey had just won an Academy Award for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and would do so again with BONNIE & CLYDE over a decade later. Don Seigel hired his friend Sam Peckinpah as “dialogue coach” and Howard & Ida’s little girl had a bit part. The alcohol-fueled acting (enhanced by Leith Stevens’ jazzy score) is fine all the way around with Steve, as usual, being the stand-out as he slowly reveals his character to be a self-assured sociopath under the badge.


A Must-Have for Cochran Fans

Author: mackjay from Out there in the dark
5 May 2003

PRIVATE HELL 36 has one of those pulp-sounding titles that are like a drug for noir enthusiasts. We just have to see any film with a title like this, even if in some ways it may be a disappointment. One of Don Siegal’s less galvanizing films, PRIVATE HELL still delivers in terms of noir situations and atmosphere.


Where the film really excels, however, is with the cast. In major roles, Howard Duff and Dean Jagger deliver the goods. Duff is especially adept at the hang-dog, trapped noir protagonist. And this is one of many small-scale noirs with many familiar faces in bit parts: Richard Deacon, Dabbs Greer, King Donovan. Dorothy Malone had yet to come into her own as an actress, but she looks incredible here.

Malone might have seemed a better choice for the Femme Fatale lead, were it not for Ida Lupino’s extraordinary, iconic noir presence. Something in Lupino’s vaguely exotic face and world-weary voice belongs eternally to the noir universe. She may have been a few years too old, but her spider-like character rescues the film from the merely routine.


Also rescuing the film, and raising it a few notches above a B programmer, is Steve Cochran as Cal Bruner. Somewhat belatedly (he died in 1965) it appears that Cochran is finally receiving recognition not only for his handsome looks, but for his perceptive acting. Every scene with Lupino and Cochran in this film is riveting. These performers are totally convincing in their doomed mutual attraction.

For Lupino’s Lili, meeting Cal could have meant redemption. But she is indeed a Femme Fatale in this film, even if not an all-time classic one. The man she touches will be marked for destruction.


Cal, on the other hand, is the most complex and interesting character. His responsible investigator, by way of a drug-like obsession with Lili, heads toward corruption in true noir style. Without spoiling anything, it can be said that this film’s last 10 minutes are the very stuff of film noir.

Solidly Siegel?

Author: Spikeopath from United Kingdom
23 November 2008

No, not really.

Two detectives, Jack Farnham and Cal Bruner are deeply investigating a robbery in which $300,000 was stolen. As their investigation progresses, they, by way of a sultry woman called Lilli Marlowe, manage to find the perp and recover the cash. But Bruner has fallen for Marlowe, and realising she has expensive tastes and that his police salary can not sustain the relationship, he ponders turning to the dark side, with Farnham equally at odds with himself over the pressures of raising a family.

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Is Private Hell 36 a Noir film? Well I’m no paid expert on the subject but it certainly has all the ingredients in place. Yet the film, in spite of some watchable attributes, is a largely character driven talky piece of fluff that isn’t really raising the bar in film noir. Or, in fact, crime picture history. Certainly it’s not a film that screams out that it was directed by Don Siegel. It’s a solid premise to work from, and in Ida Lupino (Marlowe) and the great Steve Cochran (Bruner), the picture boasts two very fine performances, with each actor giving the film its emotional weight. A nod of approval also goes to the scoring of the piece by Leith Stevens, as jazzy blues like combos flit in and out to create an ear worthy alliance as our detectives battle with their very conscience. All things considered it’s an enjoyable enough piece, but one that fades very quick from the memory. Solid if unspectacular, and reliable if lacking in any major amount of thrills and brain tickling plotting. 5/10


Underrated Siegel/Lupino noir that inspired Stanley Kubrick

Author: mwmerkelbach from Stuttgart, Germany
16 January 2008
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Decent people struggling for keeping things going are suddenly tempted by a large amount of money coming from a long gone robbery. With its moral ambiguity and twists and the main focus on character development the writing and acting of “Private Hell 36” is above ordinary crime movies from that period.


It is exactly what makes this early Don-Siegel-flick a true film noir despite a conservative crime movie posing as one. If you don’t expect too much action and can relax while watching a slow paced middle section, which builds up tension carefully and therefore convincing, this one will give you a very enjoyable watch. Forget about the voice-over at the very end telling something about “good cops, bad cops”, because that was simply the way they had to handle things in the fifties to avoid censorship. Besides the fact that Howard Duff appears a little too stiff once in a while, Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran and Dorothy Malone make it a real fine treat. I also liked the jazzy score – typical for that period on one hand, but perfectly creepy and surprisingly “modern” on the other.


It is very obvious to me that Stanley Kubrick was highly inspired by this one for his very own sensational film noir “The Killing” that came out the year after. The race track as a central location, money blown out of an opened suitcase, a trailer park as a hiding place and especially the Ida-Lupino-character, which is very close to the one of Marie Windsor in “The Killing”, brought that suggestion immediately up to my mind. In comparison to other movies at IMDb “PH 36” seems a bit underrated to me, maybe because everybody’s expecting crime movies to be extremely fast paced as those that are made since the early 70’s. In fact “Private Hell 36” is a grim little noir and for its fans that does mean something else. 8/10

Private Hell 36 1

A Movie That Punches Above Its Weight

Author: seymourblack-1 from United Kingdom
17 October 2009
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

“Private Hell 36” is a no-frills crime thriller written by Ida Lupino and producer Collier Young which was made by their independent company “The Filmmakers”. The story about temptation and police corruption is well paced and provides evidence of Don Siegel’s considerable directorial skills at an early stage in his career. A particularly impressive example of this is the sequence early on in the movie in which an off duty cop interrupts a drugstore robbery and gets involved in a shoot out. The depiction of what follows is stylish and tense and provides the story with an extremely gripping introduction.


When the LAPD links a $50.00 bill recovered in the attempted drugstore burglary to a major robbery carried out in New York a year earlier, further enquiries lead to a singer at a local night club. Police detectives Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) interview the singer, Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino) but she’s unable to provide them with a precise description of the customer who gave her the money as a tip. Soon, more of the marked bills come to light at the Hollywood Park Racetrack and this leads Captain Michaels (Dean Jagger) to assign Bruner and Farnham to accompany Lilli to the track to see if she can identify the wanted man. A number of days pass without the man being seen and during this time, Cal and Lilli become close. She’s very materialistic and despite her attraction to Cal isn’t convinced that a long term future with a police detective would enable her to achieve her financial aspirations.


One day Lilli sees the man they’re searching for leaving the track by car and Cal and Jack follow him. After a high speed chase, the car they’d been following leaves the road and crashes and the driver is killed. The two detectives recover a metal box full of money from the vehicle and Cal, without hesitation, starts to put bundles of bills into his pockets. Jack is very nervous about being a party to what has happened but Cal subsequently takes him to a trailer park where the money is hidden (in trailer number 36) and Jack agrees to go along with the scheme, although he remains very anxious and is consumed with guilt.


Captain Michaels tells the two detectives that only $200,000 of the $300,000 stolen in New York had actually been recovered from the crashed car and deduces that the dead man must’ve had a partner. Shortly after this, a man claiming to be the partner telephones Cal to demand his money back. Jack doesn’t want to proceed with paying the partner and suggests they hand the money in to the police and confess what they’ve done. Cal pays lip service to agreeing and they both go to get the money from trailer 36, where some unexpected developments bring the story to its all action climax.


“Private Hell 36” is one of those movies that certainly punches above its weight. Despite an obviously low budget and a very straight forward, pulp fiction type story, “The Filmmakers” produced an end product which turned out to be far greater than the sum of its parts. This is down to the director’s skills and also some fine performances from a talented cast. Steve Cochran and Howard Duff are particularly good as the two men who both recognise the dangers of their jobs and who, for different reasons, are desperate to be better rewarded.


When they discover the metal box full of money, both men are strongly tempted to steal its contents but their reactions are ultimately quite different to each other. Cochran is confident and focused as his character readily seizes the opportunity to realise his ambitions and seems totally unconcerned by any thoughts about guilt, duty or the legality of what he’s doing. Duff on the other hand looks convincingly anxious and full of guilt. Dean Jagger also provides a well measured interpretation of his character’s rather benign and avuncular manner which doesn’t make it obvious just how well he’s attuned to everything that’s going on.



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