Saturday, February 05, 2011

Hell and Back

Ida Lupino once described herself as "a poor man's Don Siegel." She should know. She hired Siegel to direct Private Hell 36 (1954), the last film from her production company, The Filmmakers. It must have been an awkward set. The film was co-written by Lupino with her ex-husband, Collier Young, and Young was listed as a producer. Further, Lupino had remarried by the time this went before cameras and her new husband, Howard Duff, was her co-star in this picture. Siegel, for his part, wasn't sleeping with anyone on the set that I know of, but I think you can see a certain amount of discomfort in his direction.

The story here follows Cal Bruner and Jack Farnham, two cops investigating some money from a year-old heist that has surfaced in their bailiwick. The trail leads them to Lilli Marlowe, a nightclub singer who is the only witness to what their suspect looks like. She's reluctant to help. She doesn't like cops. Bruner, on the other hand, likes her, and dreams of buying her affections. When the trail leads them all to the money, Bruner contrives a scheme where he and Farnham can pocket the dough. Farnham, reluctantly, agrees. It's a downward spiral from there. For Bruner, it progresses to murderous thoughts. For Farnham, it's more complicated. He's a family man, and the crime weighs on his conscience for their sake. He gets to a point where he can't even look at his new baby anymore. Eventually, he resolves to come clean, but Bruner has different ideas...

This is a movie in two parts, bifurcated at almost exactly the halfway point. The first part is a Dragnet-style procedural, complete with moralizing narrator. The movie actually name-drops Dragnet. 1954 is pretty late in the classic noir period, relatively speaking; late enough that the genre was becoming self-aware. You see that here. This section of the film features some fantastic location shooting at a race track, as well as several other interesting locales. Siegel always did get the most from his locations, and these locations add to the docu-noir ambiance the first half assays.

The second part of the film is the pure noir part, in which the nuts and bolts of police work give way to the moral dilemmas that sex and money entail. The movie does a good job of shading one into the other. The film opens on a shot of New York City at night, followed shortly by a shot of LA at night. There's a purpose to this. The dark city is THE noir landscape, and this movie associates the dark city with moral turpitude. Bruner and Lilli are nocturnal urbanites, whose lives are inextricably tied to night clubs and late-night diners. Farnham, on the other hand, is the incarnation of the American dream, fifties style. He has a pretty good life, the movie intimates, and in contrasting his life with the life Bruner imagines, Private Hell 36 adds to the romance of the good life in the suburbs. Interestingly enough, Siegel doesn't seem to buy into his own mythmaking. There's a hint--just a hint, mind you--of the conformity the director would rail against a year later in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

This movie gets double duty out of its shady character. Steve Cochran's Cal Bruner functions as both patsy and homme fatale, while Lupino's Lilli Marlowe is a femme fatale and a harlot with a heart of gold rolled into one. The relationship between Bruner and Howard Duff's Jack Farnham is notable, too, in so far as there's a small but distinct homoeroticism at work. This isn't an accident. The movie is too coy with references for it to be an accident. At one point, when the strain of their scheme is driving Farnham over the edge, Lilli asks Bruner if the two of them have had a "lover's spat," while another cop refers to Bruner as "your boyfriend" while verbally fencing with Farnham. Dorothy Malone gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop in this movie, given that she's more of a symbol than a character. I like to think that her character here is in the beginning stages of a Douglas Sirk movie, but that's just me.

So all of this is interesting, but it's not the best work of anyone involved. As I said, Siegel doesn't seem to have anything invested in this movie and his direction, while efficient and professional, is completely impersonal. Siegel's usual style is deadpan, but he omits the hints of derangement that characterize his best work until the movie is almost over. By that time, I was kind of tuning out.

No comments: