In this grim, sexy film noir about corrupt male police officers, its lasting effect can be attributed to its lead woman, Ida Lupino. Yet the first woman on screen in Private Hell 36 (Don Siegel, 1954) is Dorothy Malone, an actress who could demand attention even when she blended into the scenery. Francey Farnham (Malone, in her first film role as a blonde) is roused from sleep by her policeman husband, who arrives home from a case in the middle of the night (or, more likely, very early in the morning). The next woman shows up a few hours later, in daylight – only a few minutes later in the realm of screen time – as Lilli Marlowe (Lupino) walks into a nightclub, sits at the edge of the bar and pours herself a drink. It is sometime in the afternoon, and she’s about to start work for the evening. But the cops want to talk to her, so she stiffly leads them to a booth, subtly drawing breath as they sit on either side of her and she realises they are blocking her in. It’s clear, as she later says, that her time is precious and that she waits for no man.

The detectives question her about her previous evening, and, as she describes it, her eyes take on a gaze that is at once blank and deep with intention. She’s calm and secure as she shapes her story. “I sang ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ five times,” she says, exhaling cigarette smoke in the direction of her interrogators. She speaks through expressions and body language as well as words, using the full arsenal of her performance powers. She hasn’t used her real name in so long that she’s forgotten it, she says, and her adopted moniker has resonances of “Lili Marleen”, the famous German WWII song whose title became aligned with Marlene Dietrich’s persona – and even, perhaps, of all those other characters named “Lily” during the pre-Code era. It’s a reference that can be read as deeply embedded in the text. For Private Hell 36 not only stars but was also co-written by Lupino, and produced by her production company, The Filmakers. She wrote and produced the film with her business partner and ex-husband, Collier Young, and co-starred with her then-husband, Howard Duff,1 but she was paired as romantic lead with another man, played by Steve Cochran.

It seems odd to use the term “romantic lead” for a film that is more about dangerous men and independent women than it is about conservative domesticity. Private Hell 36 is one of a series of B-movies, shot at Republic Studios and around Los Angeles, that comprise a tightly wound knot of noir, action, musical and melodrama. And it’s clear that Lupino was on top of all genres – down to a sarcastic dismissal of the popular NBC show Dragnet2 – as well as adept at penetrating the poisoning pull of masculine bravado that led to so many downfalls. For instance, after the two cops engage in a car chase that results in their suspect’s death – he’s crushed beneath his own car at the bottom of a cliff – they discover his body while the car’s radio drones on with a report from the nearby racetrack. But the moment that Cal (Cochran) notices the money, the radio announcer leads in to some jazz music. With jazz being typically associated in noir and other genres with deception and corruption, this cue is thus enlisted as a symbolic clue to their actions.

While Private Hell 36 is based in Los Angeles, the setting seems to be the same lost milieu of so many post-WWII films, and of others directed by Lupino. The only real marker of the urban location is Lilli’s address, which she gives as “305 Sycamore Avenue, Hollywood”. The other major locales could be in any anonymous state: a dark drugstore on an abandoned street, an underground parking lot, a trailer park, roads winding through mountains. These are locations familiar to the seediness of noir, often because they are framed that way, slipping away from the light; in Private Hell 36, their grim alliance never seems in doubt.

And while the main plot involves these men, it is Lupino who, on screen, is the star of the film. In the script, it’s made clear that a woman’s bind is to be one of two things: somebody’s property or nobody’s wife. But as per noir’s typical cynicism, if she’s the latter, then no man is going to believe that she just wants to sing for a living. It’s in this that Lupino’s feminism comes through – in the script, and also in her performance as she hears this accusation. And given that there is no indication of how Lilli ends up after the film, her independence is declared here.

During a relaxed performance at her nightclub’s upright piano, Lilli is playing and singing a tune, a glass of whisky sitting atop the piano case and a neglected cigarette wafting smoke in the ashtray beside it. As she sings, she glances regularly at Cal – seductive, but with a hard edge. In this single scene, Lilli makes love to a man as she sings lyrics about never falling in love, and this contradiction is found as much in her eyes as in the music. Lupino’s brunette is darker and more dangerous than Malone’s blonde. In her performance, she has the same pert innocence as she has in one of her earliest American screen roles, as a headstrong young woman in Ready for Love (Marion Gering, 1934), and the same hardened bitterness from Road House (Jean Negulesco, 1948) that would return in While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956). What is particular about Lilli is a gentleness that comes with these qualities – a reluctance to align with either extreme, and an excitement for life’s possibilities.

Private Hell 36 is a film that showcases Lupino’s talents as screen actor, singer, writer, and producer, and in other ways might shed light on her abilities as a composer and director. If it isn’t the ultimate Lupino film – I’d say there’d be at least a few of those – it certainly comes close. Carrie Rickey defines a unique genre: “Not film noir, but Lupino noir: a dimly lit low-budget world in which everyone lives sadder-but-wiser ever after.”3 It’s a luminous kind of cinematic hell.

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Private Hell 36 (1954 USA 81 minutes)

Prod Co: The Filmakers Prod: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Dir: Don Siegel Scr: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Phot: Burnett Guffey Mus: Leith Stevens Art Dir: Walter Keller

Cast: Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran, Howard Duff, Dorothy Malone, Dean Jagger

Endnotes:

  1. Lupino was originally set to direct Private Hell 36, as she had other films produced by The Filmakers, until she realised that she would be unable to successfully direct her husband; see citation in Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman, Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), p. 219n23.
  2. Lupino would herself direct episodes of television series, but unlike the ongoing procedural serial style of Dragnet, her work was mainly in anthology series, some examples of which are presented in the 2018 Melbourne Cinémathèque season.
  3. Carrie Rickey, cited in Grisham and Grossman, op. cit., pp. 33–34.