Wednesday, January 16, 2013

PRIVATE HELL 36 (1954)

In New York City, a man gets out of an elevator carrying a briefcase full of money and leaving behind a dead body. A year later in Los Angeles, one of the "hot" bills, a fifty, shows up when cops Steve Cochran and Howard Duff break up a drugstore robbery. They track the bill to a shady lady singer (Ida Lupino) who got it as a tip from a drunk. Cochran, who finds himself falling for Lupino, gets her to help them out when they discover more of the bills in circulation at a nearby racetrack, hoping she can identify the guy in the crowds. When she does, the cops go on a wild chase which ends with the crook's car careening off a cliff. The cops find his dead body and the missing money scattered around the wreck. As they collect it, Cochran decides to hold back about $80,000 for the two of them, figuring their boss (Dean Jagger) will never know the difference. Cochran rents a trailer (#36, hence the title) to stash the money; Duff begins to have second thoughts, and a mystery figure contacts Cochran by phone, indicating he knows they have the money and trying to get in on the action. The violent climax plays out at Trailer #36.

This is a nifty B-noir, or more precisely, half-police procedural, half-noir. Because we get to know Cochran and Duff (pictured at left) as average cops investigating a fairly run-of-the-mill crime in the first half-hour, the moment when Cochran goes rogue packs a punch, especially because he's so charming, and uses that charm to romance Lupino, who, though a tough gal, becomes quite likeable. Duff's character could have been rounded out a bit more, and maybe been made more ambiguous—he goes along with the plan reluctantly because he can't bring himself to cross his partner, so it's almost too clear too quickly that Duff is the good cop to Cochran's bad, or at least amoral, cop. The two have good chemistry and give nicely naturalistic performances. Early on, Duff says to Cochran, "Sometimes I wonder why we go steady," and Cochran replies, "Because I'm irresistible." And generally, Cochran is, which is why we continue to emphasize with him for so long. Lupino (above with Cochran) is great in a role, like Cochran's, that shows her character change over time, from crusty distruster to admirably tough dame. Early on, as the cops question her, she says dismissively, "I’ve seen this all on Dragnet." Jagger is very good as the chief. Dorothy Malone plays Duff's wife and Richard Deacon has a small part as the druggist who gets robbed. An early film for director Don Siegel (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, DIRTY HARRY) and a good one all around. My only quibble: the title; though the film climaxes at the trailer, the film skimps on any suggestion that anyone's going through hell, though Duff is clearly conflicted. [Netflix streaming]

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