Monday, February 18, 2019

Noir City 2019: City That Never Sleeps/Private Hell 36

Sunday was day three for Noir City 2019 here in the Emerald City.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see two of the day’s classics - Pickup on South Street (1953) and Pushover (1954).  However I did manage to make it to two other films. 

City That Never Sleeps (1952)
Chicago.  Over the course of a single night the fates of a diverse group of people - a stripper, a cop, a business man, a con artist, even a human mannikin - play out.   

I loved this movie.  In fact, hidden gems like these are one of the main reasons that one goes to Noir City.  The cast in this ensemble are fantastic.  Gig Young plays a married cop ready to leave the force and run away with his stripper girlfriend, Angel Face, played by Mala Powers.  Edward Arnold is a shady businessman looking to settle scores with a former protegé played by the bug-eyed William Talman.  Since Arnold’s wife is played by Marie Windsor (yes!), you know that things will not end well.  And then there’s the Mechanical Man - dressed in a tuxedo, his face painted in silver, he stands in a show window and moves robotically.  As passersby gawk at him a barker’s voice asks them to consider whether he is a man or a machine.  In truth, this poor bastard, played by Wally Cassell, is married to the stripper.  He loves her and doesn’t want her to leave him.  And to top everything off, the voice-over narration is from no other source than the city of Chicago itself.   

Wally Cassell and Mala Powers
This is a weird and wonderful movie.  Director John Auer has a unique and surreal vision which perfectly suits the nocturnal tone of the film.  Steve Fisher’s script is full of desperate characters at their wits’ end.  The Mechanical Man alone is a brilliant and haunting creation.  The language of the characters is tough, with the punchiness we expect from film noir.  At one point, for instance, Angel Face the stripper comments: “When I first came to this town I was gonna be - oh, there were a lot of things I was gonna do.  Become famous.  But Chicago’s the big melting pot, and I got melted, but good.”  Delicious.

Edward Arnold, Marie Windsor, and William Talman

Private Hell 36 (1954)
There's $300,000 in stolen money on the loose, and when the marked bills show up in Los Angeles, detectives Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) are put on the case to find it.  Their leads take them to Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), a night-club singer with whom Cal promptly falls in love.  Soon they’re a pair.  But when Cal and Jack finally come upon the case full of loot, Cal breaks bad and starts to pocket the money. Jack doesn't like that at all, but he doesn't stop him.  

This is a very well-made “good-cop-gone-bad” thriller, and it has a wonderful plot twist at the end.  It’s tight, brisk.  Now, I’ll watch anything with Ida Lupino in it anyway, but throw Howard Duff into the mix and, to my mind, you can’t go wrong.  Though, to be honest, at times it feels like this film is about to go very very wrong.  It has an odd and unfocused feel to the performances.  This is probably due to the fact that, according to director Don Siegel (as relayed to us by festival host Eddie Muller), the cast was drunk during the entire shoot of this film.  The screenplay was written by Ida Lupino and Collier Young (who also co-produced the film with Robert Eggenweiler).  Young and Lupino were married when they wrote Private Hell 36.  But by the time production began they had divorced and she had married Howard Duff.  So everyone dealt with their emotional distress the way people did in those days.  They got stinking drunk.  Nonetheless, Lupino, Duff, and Cochran were professionals and they all put in solid, if somewhat distant and numbed, performances.  Cochran was technically the lead but Duff’s depiction of a good man trapped in doing bad was riveting.  He's a volcano ready to explode.  Lupino essentially reprises her role from 1948’s Roadhouse but I don’t mind; I’ve always been mesmerized by her combination of fragile beauty, hard-core toughness, and intelligence.  Leaving the movie I couldn’t help but think that there aren’t any contemporary actors who so embody the visions of masculinity and femininity as these three do.  These may be damaged people - on the screen and in real life - but there was something refreshingly genuine about them (although you might not think that to judge by the poster below).    

Steve Cochran, Ida Lupino, and Howard Duff  (FYI-This scene is not actually in the film.)

And what a great movie title!  It’s not quite my favorite, but it’s definitely top ten.  For now that top spot is held by Seijun Suzuki’s 1963 crime film Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!  One final note on Private Hell 36 - the Dialogue Director is listed as being one David Peckinpah, who would later work in Hollywood under the name of Sam Peckinpah.

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