On the face of it, Don Siegel’s Private Hell 36 is a sturdy, if somewhat stolid, B noir co-written by star Ida Lupino and her former husband Collier Young. For a time, Lupino and Young ran their own production company, the Filmakers, responsible for low-budget noirish gems like The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist, both of which Lupino also directed. Private Hell 36 isn’t quite in their league. Talky and sluggishly paced, its narrative is fairly boilerplate: Walking in on a drugstore robbery-in-progress, L.A. detective Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) shoots it out with the culprits and manages to nab one of the suspects, putting him on the trail of an interstate counterfeiting racket. Bruner and partner Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) trace a phony $50 bill to nightclub chanteuse Lilli Marlowe (Lupino), who says she received it as a tip from a big spender. With Lilli in tow, Bruner and Farnham make the circuit of local racetracks, hoping she can identify the man who passed her the funny money. Along the way, Bruner begins to develop feelings for Lilli, detecting in her tough-gal cynicism a kindred spirit. (On the subject of matrimony, for instance, Lilli quips, “Rice is for eating, not throwing.”) Bruner and Farnham eventually spot their man, and car chase leads to car crash, putting 80 large in marked bills at their disposal, an opportunity Bruner quickly seizes, all the better to woo world-weary, money-hungry Lilli. Now on the wrong side of the law, Bruner adroitly manipulates guilt-stricken Farnham into keeping quiet. Needless to say, a showdown between these partners is inevitable.
So far, so obvious, perhaps. Dig a little deeper though. Lupino and Young’s script has a way of putting quotation marks around certain genre staples. The blandly moralistic narration that opens and concludes Private Hell 36 signals its ostensible similarity to Jack Webb-style police procedurals, yet Lilli dismisses Bruner’s initial strong-arm tactics by saying, “You know, I’ve seen this on Dragnet.” Private Hell 36 determinedly plays urban squalor against (hardly more idealized) suburban conformity. For his part, Siegel invests the film with his usual streamlined, workmanlike approach. Siegel manages to overcome various budgetary limitations like sparse set designs, either by going abstract (the nightclub décor includes two gigantic bottles on display behind the table where our trio first meets), or else taking the show outdoors with some racetrack location shooting that injects a breath of fresh air into the tawdry proceedings.
Then there’s the sly undercurrent of homoeroticism running between Bruner and Farnham. When Farnham loses his shit with another cop, the man’s partner tells Bruner, “Your boyfriend’s a little overprepped for the job.” Later, when Bruner leaves Lilli in order to rendezvous with Farnham, she complains, “This is the first time I’ve ever lost a man to another man.” These sentiments subtly shift the emphasis away from the Lilli and Bruner’s romance, obviously meant to stand as Private Hell 36‘s emotional epicenter, placing it squarely on the Bruner/Farnham dynamic, a bait and switch that’s signaled by the film’s title. The number 36 refers to the trailer-park rental where Bruner stashes the purloined loot, the secret spot that comes to represent both men’s “private hell” because their shared secret undoes not only their relationship, but poisons their relations with women as well. It’s interesting, too, that these ladies represent antipodal alternatives: Farnham’s wife, Francey (Dorothy Malone), embodies suburban domesticity, white picket fences, newborn babes; Lilli offers urban discontent, material acquisition, open relationships. Not exactly the mother and the whore, since Lilli hardly counts as the requisite femme fatale; burned by past relationships, she’s understandably gun-shy, hesitant to be tied down. Malone’s matron, on the other hand, is far less fleshed out, more a walking, talking emblem.
In the end, of course, neither option counts for much. As surely as any western must culminate in a gunfight that parses out hero and villain, Private Hell 36 closes with a shootout among the blandly anonymous masses of the trailers. These trailers are ambiguous, liminal sorts of vehicles. Whether rooted in place or wandering the highways like aimless vagabonds, trailers are where you wind up when you’ve got nowhere else to go. Ultimately, though Private Hell 36 shuts down in entirely conventional fashion, it evinces plenty of signs of subterranean life along the way, and provides ample grist for intriguingly oppositional readings.
Aside from Private Hell 36's opening and closing action set pieces, there isn't a whole lot of shadow play in this noir. By and large, DP Burnett Guffey works the grayscale register, which seems fitting given the script's emphasis on moral murk. Olive Film's Blu-ray transfer is solid enough, with fine detail and clarity in general. All the same, there's quite a bit of artifacting (scratches and speckles abound), as well as some sporadic contrast issues, especially in outdoor racetrack scenes where bright whites tend to get blown. The lossless Master Audio mono track clearly delineates the dialogue, and Leith Stevens's score simmers and bounces by turns.
Middling noir bolstered by strong central performances and some canny subtext, Private Hell 36 looks reasonably spiffy in Olive Film's no-frills Blu-ray package.