Private Hell 36 (1954)

The 1954 crime film noir thriller Private Hell 36 seems somehow familiar.

From the fade into the New York skyline and the rising incidental music, there seems to be something about it that is so well known as to be embedded in our media subconscious.

What is it?

Perhaps Private Hell 36 feels like we have just come off a commercial break.

It feels so much like the classic cop shows which were to follow on the heels of the many police procedural thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s.

This might be to do with director Don Siegel. Siegel went on to give voice to some of the best cop action of the 1970s in particular. Over a few years, for example, he offered this little run:

  • Coogan's Bluff (1968)
  • Madigan (1968)
  • Death of a Gunfighter (1969)
  • Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)
  • The Beguiled (1971)
  • Dirty Harry (1971)

Certainly these are not all cop films, and yet there's plenty crossover between the wild west and the city beat, with Clint Eastwood and John Wayne both featuring. But there is a template here for the kind of lawlessness versus the law, with a very rough divide between the two, that became the norm for 1970s TV viewership.

And Don Siegel learned it all in film noir.

Private Hell 36 (1954)
This was also after making some of the finest alternative fare of the fifties, notably Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956). Don Siegel is something of a cinematic adventurer, but it appears he blocked some of the details of this movie out when it came to talking about it in later life.

Some of that was due to the dynamics on set, as we see from Ida Lupino's own commentary:

"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..."

Police procedural isn't the most glamourous side of film noir, and yet so many noir hits feature scenes of such like, or have it buibbling away in the background. Sometimes it's made interesting and even super dramatic, such as in The Enforcer (1951), but it isn't any of that that makes Private Hell 36 the unmissable film noir it is.

It is to be seen perhaps for the wrong reasons, partially because of Ida Lupino and partially because of the films structure and how that hangs on all the expectations that went into the movie.

Ida Lupino in Private Hell 36 (1954)

"One time, (Siegel 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."


Maybe because of these troubles, Private Hell 36 isn't quite there, and it holds up its noir credentials by being about the paranoia of a bent cop, a lawman who is froced into theivery and doesn't like it. With its moral ambiguity and the main focus on character development, the writing and acting of Private Hell 36 is actually above that of ordinary crime movies from that period, giving it some elevated status that doesn't quite sit right at times.

Perhaps that makes it a true film noir, and not a conservative crime movie posing as something  deeper.

Exciting as this is, and at times isn't, what we really came for here was Ida Lupino. Ida co-wrote in this and headlines in it too, and if Howard Duff her ex-husband hadn't put his foot down, she might well have directed it too.

Strange Topless Advertising Shot - this never really happens in Private Hell 36 (1954)

The trouble with Hollywood at times, appears to be in the behind the scenes planning of its movies. Ida Lupino had just directed Joan Fontaine in The Bigamist (1953) and her follow-up was planned as “The Story Of A Cop” starring her husband, Howard Duff.  Her current husband at the time of

At the time, police corruption and the Kefauver TV hearings on organised crime were a hot topic that made headlines and inspired to writers like William P. McGivern to create films like The Big Heat (1953), Shield For Murder (1954) and Rogue Cop (1954)

Involved in what could be called a series of classy exploitation films concerning taboo topics, such as rape it has to be said, Ida Lupino did plan this film as her own but by the time she was ready to make it, she and Duff had separated.

So it became the property of Don Siegel, who gave it what I wqould now call a television cop feel, almost of he were providing some kind of template for future episodes of Starsky and Hutch, or Kojak.

Lupino actually tackles themes that many film noirs have been accused of doing: capitalism, materialism, and the American Dream are the dreadful circumstances propelling the self-inflicted problems everyone involved has to deal with. Especially the cops!

And these cops are bent! One of them at least. One of the cops is in fact something of a homme-fatale for the other. They are supposed to be best buddies, but the bad one is too strong and bullying for the good one, and that leaves Ida Lupino to play well - she certainly doesn't have to do the femme-fatale bit, neither the vamp, or the simp, nor the haunted wife.

Ida Lupino remains the star of Private Hell 36. It is a fine enough movie, and actually had a surprise ending that I did not see coming the first time I watched it. There is a lotta dumb coppery, and there is precious little to go on in the way of interesting film noir style camera work and lighting.

Hence, and with its mood-background music, it looks and feels like the pedestrian cop shows that were to begin filling our screens in the decades that followed.

Private Hell 36 has its own noteworthy cast, and as has been noted, it's a bad-buddy film, as opposed to a weak guy falling for femme fatale.

The film noir aspects are packed into the rather shoddily play-acted paranoia good-cop Jack Farnham, played by Howard Duff. His character feels like something from high-period film noir ― slightly out of control ― and somehow not managing to 'man-up'.

  • Ida Lupino as Lilli Marlowe
  • Steve Cochran as Cal Bruner
  • Howard Duff as Jack Farnham
  • Dean Jagger as Capt. Michaels
  • Dorothy Malone as Francey Farnham

Director, writer and actress Ida and her writer, producer husband Collier Young broke away from the studio system at some point in the early 1950s and formed "The Filmakers” tackling topics such ss 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 ... as here in Private Hell 36.

Private hell 36.JPG

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