Life and Death in L.A.: July 2022

Friday, July 8, 2022

A Cache of Hot Money Fires Up ‘Private Hell 36’

Det. Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) and wife Francey (Dorothy Malone)
in 'Private Hell 36' (1955).

We’re in a New York City office building. A pair of elevator doors open and a dead man is sprawled on the floor inside. Another, wearing an elevator operator’s uniform, exits and disappears into the night with a satchel of loot — $300,000, to be exact.

The blunt, factual opening sequence coupled with voiceover narration gives “Private Hell 36” the feel of a police procedural, initially, at least. The story moves abruptly from New York to Southern California, not the breezy, palm-tree shaded Los Angeles that delights tourists, but in a shadowy, claustrophobic urban landscape that’s as confining as any sprawling East Coast city.

Some of the money stolen in New York has turned up in the City of Angels and two L.A. Police detectives are tracking it down. Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran), the younger of the pair, is freewheeling and a bit reckless. His partner, Jack Farnham (Howard Duff), is a family man and the picture of responsibility. In contrast to the risk-taking Cal, Jack worries that he could leave his wife a widow and his young daughter fatherless. 

While the two have a collegial relationship and seem to make a good team, it’s likely that their differing styles will sooner or later cause friction.  Sure enough, money and a woman are destined to come into the picture and disturb their equilibrium.

At the Scene of a Crime
When we meet Cal, he’s stumbled upon a robbery in progress and rather than call for backup, he takes the risky step of halting the burglars single-handedly. Gunfire erupts and he kills one robber, and after a raucous fistfight, subdues, pummels and arrests the other. With his penchant for gratuitous violence, Cal clearly harbors a world of suppressed anger that drives his impulsive behavior.

Later at the station house his boss, Capt. Michaels (Dean Jagger), an apt judge of character, warns him against taking unnecessary risks, a tip that Cal brushes off, just as he does the news that a fellow policeman has died in action. That he’s so blasé about the killing of another law man says a lot about his detachment from the reality of police work. It’s easy to take him as a fatalist, believing that death is inescapable once your number’s up. But his arrogant posture suggests that beneath his risk-taking bravado he believes firmly in his own infallibility.

Steve Cochran and Evney Serovich —
heavy-handed persuasion.
Meanwhile, Cal slaps the robber around as he’s questioning him at headquarters, as is probably his standard operating procedure. When asked for his address, the prisoner mutters that he’s a “transient.” That’s a term some would use to disparagingly describe Southern California’s populace — rootless, shady, on the move and restless for change, in contrast to stable, Middle America, with its “traditional values.” It also sums up the contrasts between the two detectives, Jack being the dependable, traditional one, while Cal is dwells among the impatient, rootless, vaguely dissatisfied fringe of society.

Steve Cochran’s Cal has a more internalized sinister edge than accused murderer Bill Clark, whom he portrayed in “Tomorrow Is Another Day” (1951). Unlike the reactive Bill Clark, a fugitive from justice who digs himself into a deeper hole when confronted with bad breaks and unfair treatment, Cal’s dark impulses compel him to tempt fate. He’ll lie dormant until the right circumstances come along, then ditch his present identity and move on to an idealized life in a distant land.

'Wrong People Got Framed' 
While chasing after the stolen money Cal meets lounge singer Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), who has a low opinion of cops. She once cooperated with the law and “the wrong people got framed.” Working for tips and living a low-rent life, she wears a flashy faux diamond bracelet and carries a fake gold cigarette holder, but wants real diamonds and gold someday soon. Cal takes a shine to her and eventually, after aggressive, slightly creepy pursuit, breaks down her resistance and they become an item. Lilli’s outlook brightens when she’s with Cal, but like him she’s uninterested in a committed relationship. She brushes off the topic of marriage with noir-appropriate sarcasm — rice is for eating, not for throwing.

Howard Duff, Ida Lupino and Steve Cochran
scan the crowd at Hollywood Park.
The trail of the cash brings the two detectives to Hollywood Park racetrack with Lilli in tow. A customer tipped her a hot $50 bill and she’s eyeballing the crowd in search of the chiseler. Once again, we’re confronted with a view of Los Angles that offer little relief from the confining walls and swelling crowds of the city. Racetracks are, of course, a noir-infused environment. You can practically smell the stogie smoke floating in the breeze. A crush of spectators makes the racing oval seem no less confining than city avenues lined with granite skyscrapers that block out natural light. 

Stakeout Pays Off
After days of wandering through the crowd and searching for the heavy tipper she spots him and a car chase ensures. Cal and Jack are in close pursuit, tires screeching on winding canyon roads. The perp drives over the edge of a cliff and lands at the bottom of a valley and the two detectives hike down into the canyon to investigate — it’s probably the first open, unconfined space we’ve seen them in and it’s outside the watchful eyes of the public. The suspect is dead and an open box of money was ejected in the crash. Dollar bills waft across the ravine, and the two detectives are on it, quickly scooping up the loot. But what to do about it?

Howard Duff and Steve Cochran
discover a box filled with loot.
Cal doesn’t hesitate to avail himself of this quirk of fate, we could suppose, because he feels entitled to extra rewards for the risks he faces as a cop — of course, the greater danger he encounters are often due to unwise chances he seems compelled to take. His determination to provide the materialistic Lilly with luxurious baubles allows him to further justify his morally unsound actions. 

Jack stands on shaky ground. He’s torn between duty and loyalty to his partner. It’s plain to see that he’s tempted to go along with Cal and take the cash but it goes against every fiber of his being. The money, blowing in the breeze, no less, represents freedom that’s there for the taking. It’s hard not to think of the bank notes churned up by airplane propellers and blowing away from Sterling Hayden in the final scene of “The Killing” (1956) as he grimly watches his last chance of starting life anew go down the drain.

Living in Cramped Quarters
Cal and Jack exist in downscale claustrophobic spaces, far from the prosperous suburbs where others have achieved the American dream. Their situation is reminiscent of GIs who live in relative poverty after risking their lives overseas in World War II and in Korea. A telling moment occurs when, during a dinner party at Jack’s home a loose coffee table leg pops off and he quickly fits it back into place. His reaction lingers between humiliation and fury. Embarrassed that his household is so obviously shabby, Jack’s angrily determined to keep his hands off the hot money and feels powerless to stop Cal from stealing it. His silence is the private hell in which he lives, tamping back his frustrations with a bottle of whiskey.

Cal stashes the money at a trailer park, in a unit he’s renting — it’s trailer number 36, hence the movie’s title. They’re the kind of camper trailers that families tow to Yosemite and other outdoorsy destination, the perfect vehicle for the mobile, rootless lifestyle that he wants. 

Ida Lupino and Steve Cochran.
Cal and Lilli edge toward marriage, and Lilli’s values begin to change. The security of a lasting relationship seems within her reach, and her disdain for matrimony dissipates as does her shallow materialistic outlook. Cal doesn’t change. Morally corrosive materialism has only made him sink deeper into the abyss to the point where he’s willing to commit murder to make a clean getaway. 

Jack wants to come clean and Cal is vehemently against returning the loot he’s pocketed.

Capt. Michaels sees through the consternation emanating from the two detectives and intuits that something troubling is going on. We can see the wheels turning inside his head as he watches their petty squabbles escalate. 

Cal receives an anonymous threatening phone call from a third party who was involved in the New York heist who knows that the detective is holding the money. He tells Lilli that they need to leave for Acapulco immediately — she’s in the dark about the stolen loot.

On the Run
The film’s climax occurs at the trailer park, the symbolic homeland of middle-class nomadic dreams, further heightening the permanent vs. transient battle being symbolically being waged. Cal lives in a world where one can take advantage of an illicit opportunity, run to Acapulco and live in luxury, and he’s now willing to kill if it’ll ensure he gets what he’s after. 

But sooner or later a risk-taker’s luck is liable run out, and we discover, to paraphrase noir novelist Jim Thompson, that things aren’t what they seem to be. That may be the only immovable truth we’re likely to encounter in this, Cal’s private hell.