Monday, 30 September 2019

October Horrors 2019: intro.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind readers that it’s that time of year again, so, beginning tomorrow, I’m going to try to get a new review of a horror movie (or some similarly seasonal horror-y stuff) up on this blog once every two days until the big day at the end of the month.

Here in the UK of course, enjoyment of our favourite holiday is liable to be marred this year by some gruesome business of an entirely different order, but regardless of how things pan out, I hope this writing project will give me a nice opportunity to put those battles aside and… I dunno, think some nice thoughts about Peter Cushing and Norman J. Warren and funny business going on in dusty old manor houses, I hope?

So, here’s modestly hoping that my rambling can offer a similar happy place so at least a few others this month, regardless of where they live (because goodness knows, few areas of the earth really offer their residents much of a reason to dance around in a spirit of carefree optimism at present). As usual, horror movies might help, so let’s watch ‘em whilst we can.

As in prior Octobers, usual standards of proof-reading and comprehensibility may suffer because I’ve got to knock these posts off pretty quickly, but we’ll see how it goes.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Sid Haig
(1939 - 2019)

As 2019’s great celestial purge of good and kind souls continues apace, it goes without saying that I was very sad to hear this week that the great Sid Haig has checked out, aged 80.

A wildly charismatic performer in his ‘60s and ‘70s hey-day, the nuance and variety Haig brought to his roles, and his capacity for creating fully-formed (albeit larger-than-life) characters in a matter of seconds, remain underappreciated.

The performances he gave us whilst working as a kind of totem for director Jack Hill are all, without exception, brilliant, whether playing primitive, cannibalistic creeper Ralph Merrie in ‘Spider Baby’ (1964), a feckless beatnik in the U.S. reshoots which helped create ‘Bloodbath’ (‘66), a sociopathic racing driver in ‘Pit Stop’ (‘67), a sadistic warden in ‘The Big Doll House’ (‘71), an equally sadistic thug in ‘Coffy’ (‘73), or an easy-going, sleazeball pilot in ‘Foxy Brown’ (‘74).

Sure, he goes over the top, but when you’re playing a rampaging weirdo in a Jack Hill movie, no one’s gonna give you a medal for under-playing it, y’know? Suffice to say that few could have brought this rogue’s gallery to life with the wit, charm and physical dynamism that Sid brought to the party. (It’s a shame that Haig and Hill seem to have parted company in the mid-70s – I would have loved to have seen him strutting his stuff in ‘The Swinging Cheerleaders’, ‘Switchblade Sisters’ and ‘Sorceress’ too.)

My all-time favourite Sid Haig character though must be one he played outside of Hill’s catalogue, during a sojourn in The Philippines which saw him appearing in a string of action-exploitation U.S. co-productions, including Eddie Romero’s immensely entertaining ‘Black Mamma, White Mamma’ (1973). The wild n’ woolly circumstances of Filipino film production seem to have suited Haig’s on-screen persona perfectly, and he’s an absolute riot in this one, playing a psychedelically-clad cowboy gangster / pimp cruising around the nation’s back-roads in a jeepy full of heavily-armed goons. (Highly recommended, if you’ve not seen it – it’s a hoot.)

Although Quentin Tarantino to some extent deserves credit for enabling Haig’s 21st century resurgence (convincing him to come out of self-imposed retirement to appear in ‘Jackie Brown’ in ’97), it is of course his work for Rob Zombie which has kept him in the public eye and given him an (I hope rewarding) second wind as a “horror man” – a designation which is odd, given that he pretty much never appeared in a straight horror film back in the old days (‘Spider Baby’ notwithstanding).

But, he certainly seems to have made it work for him, lending to his distinctive services to dozens of movies in the genre across the past few decades. Though Zombie’s recently released ‘3 From Hell’ seems likely to be his official swan-song, his great turn in the prologue to S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk also seems to make a perfect cap-stone to his career.

Outside of his film appearances, Haig also worked as a gigging drummer through the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (he played on The T-Birds 1959 hit ‘Full House’), served a two year apprenticeship at the Pasadena Playhouse, played mute ‘heavy’ roles in just about every ‘60s/’70s U.S. TV show under the sun, founded and managed a community theatre project in Simi Valley, and, according to IMDB, was a qualified hypnotherapist too. By all accounts, he was also a really nice guy - something which comes across loud and clear in every interview or Q&A I’ve seen with him, and indeed crossed over into his screen persona too; even when he’s playing a raving psychopath, you can feel the really-nice-guyness creeping through. He will, of course, be hugely missed.

The way all films should end.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Exploito All’Italiana:
The Great Alligator
(Sergio Martino, 1979)

(Holy cow, what a poster.)

The dog days of summer, when indoor spaces temporarily begin to feel like pizza ovens and the simple pleasures of falling into a stupor beckon, demand simple, undemanding entertainments; things which will induce neither tension nor agitation.

It is a time for films with bright photography – so as to hold up better to the shards of sunlight persistently creeping through the blinds - and vaguely familiar actors hanging around near oceans or lakes, or perhaps unhurriedly plodding through a jungle or something. Either way, there will probably be some water-side locations, plenty of time spent with people mopping sweat from their brows – and probably a monster.

Because, yes, having a monster is pretty important for these things. After all, none of us want to admit that we’re really just tuning in to enjoy the ambient pleasures of watching a bunch of poorly characterised bozos lazing around near a large body of water for 90 minutes. Our friends and loved ones would laugh at us for this, and would consider it insufficient justification for, say, refusing to open the curtains, or go outside.

So we need a monster. (Preferably just one monster though, and a relatively slow one confined to a particular habitat if possible, because we might tend to get a bit jumpy and over-excited if there are multiple monsters running about the place.)

Oh no, we must be able to tell our co-habitants, I can’t go to the park. I’m busy watching a movie about a KILLER CROCODILE. It’s exciting - you know, like ‘Jaws’.

Of course we know it isn’t, but we need the excuse.

What I’m leading up to, basically, is the declaration that *now is the optimum time* to watch Sergio Martino’s ‘The Great Alligator’ (Italian title: ‘Il Fiume del Grande Caimano’, aka ‘Alligator’, ‘Big Alligator River’).

If you’ve heard/read anything about this this film, you may have encountered the suggestion that Martino was reduced to shooting additional footage in his own bathtub. In truth, the effects aren’t that bad, with the offending shots of a motionless miniature croc flopping about amid some fish-tank flora wisely reduced to split-second duration, but nonetheless, ‘The Great Alligator’s failure to deliver a great alligator has understandably done a great deal of damage to the film’s reputation over the years.

This is a shame, because in most other respects, it’s surprisingly good. In fact, it is hugely entertaining, assuming you’re in the right frame of mind [see paragraphs above for details]. Certainly the best Italian ‘Jaws’ rip-off I’ve seen to date (beat that for a back-handed compliment), it stands as a worthy addition to the filmography of one Italian genre cinema’s most consistently rewarding directors.

Like a number of Martino’s most memorable films, this is essentially a generic cross-breed, taking the tried n’ tested ‘Jaws’ formula and boldly splicing in aspects of both the slightly questionable “erotic travelogue” films which enjoyed a brief vogue in the late ‘70s (you know, all those post-‘Emmanuelle’ movies about Europeans holidaying in exotic climes and getting, ahem, “awakened” by the dusky locals), and subsequently from their even more questionable cousin, the cannibal horror sub-genre.

As such, our setting here is a luxurious new tourist resort – ‘Paradise House’ - hewn straight from a stretch of remote, untouched jungle by an ambitious entrepreneur identified only as “Joshua”, played by Mel Ferrer (the ever-dignified former husband of Audrey Hepburn whose late career embrace of exploitation won him the unique distinction of having appeared in both ‘Eaten Alive’ (1976) and ‘Eaten Alive!’ (1980)).

As is often the case with these things, ‘The Great Alligator’ seems reluctant to divulge the actual location of Senor Ferrer’s resort. The implication seems to be that we’re in the Amazon here, but closer scrutiny of a map of shipping routes visible on the wall of Paradise House’s radio room suggests that we’re actually in Sri Lanka, where indeed the film turns out to have been shot, back-to-back with Martino’s horror film ‘Island of the Fishmen’, which shares much of the same cast and crew.

According to the – ahem - extensive research I carried out for this review, Sri Lanka’s inland waterways do indeed remain home to both deadly crocodiles (though NOT alligators) and indigenous tribes of hunter-gatherers, so yep – that’s enough realism for me to be going on with. Well done everybody. (1)

Stepping into this treacherous tropical paradise is our hero for the day, Daniel, a hard-boiled photographer played by the late, great Claudio Cassinelli, who delivered a wonderfully off-beat lead performance a few years ealrier in Martino’s audacious giallo/poliziotteschi/comedy mash-up ‘The Suspicious Death of a Minor’ (1976, and a lot more fun than the English title suggests). (2)

Daniel has been hired by Ferrer’s character to shoot publicity material for the resort, and he arrives in the company of a statuesque black model, Sheena (Geneve Hutton in her only screen role). Sheena smokes cigarettes with a long holder and glowers at everyone, so we know she is cool. When Joshua ventures to tell her, apropos of nothing, that “I believe Eve herself may have been black,” Sheena replies, “all I know is, Adam was a stupid shit”, and terminates the conversation right there. I think I like Sheena.

Perhaps it’s just me though, but her presence left me rather confused about the nature of Cassinelli’s character. I mean, his cynical, serious-minded demeanour, five-day stubble and practical wardrobe of camo fatigues all seem to suggest a wildlife or current affairs photographer. But, if he’s brought a model to pose for him on the other hand, wouldn’t that make him a fashion / glamour photographer, which calls for a whole other set of clichés..?

I’m guessing that this chronic stereotype malfunction probably results from the fact that ‘The Great Alligator’s script rather unfeasibly required the services of no less than five credited screen-writers (including such eminent figures as George Eastman and Ernesto Gastaldi amongst their number), so…. best just let it go, eh?

Naturally, Daniel soon finds himself gravitating toward the only resident of Ferrer’s artificial idyll who is neither a greedhead nor a simpleton - and the fact she’s a knock-out blonde no doubt helps too - Ali, played by the one and only Barbara Bach. Though she is essentially employed as Joshua’s right hand woman, Ali is also serious and sensible and dresses appropriately, so she must know what’s what, right? Indeed, it turns out that she is actually an anthropologist who has only taken the job at the resort in order to allow her the opportunity to research the culture of the local tribespeople, with whom Joshua has negotiated a tenuous ‘supply & demand’ type employment agreement.

And finally, rounding out our central cast of (predominantly) white interlopers, we find a surly “Great White Hunter” type guy (SGWH henceforth) who acts as Ferrer’s head of security / all-purpose native overseer. He immediately proves himself a bad ‘un by making crude advances toward Barbara, I mean, uh – checks notes - Ali. Don’t worry about him though, because he never really gets around to doing very much. Merely weep for the fact that he is inexplicably not played by George Eastman, in spite of the fact that Italio-exploitation’s most ubiquitous heavy even apparently wrote some of the damn story for this thing.

Throughout his career, Sergio Martino could usually be relied upon to bring stronger filmmaking chops to the table than most of his contemporaries, and ‘The Great Alligator’ is no exception. The film’s locations are singularly beautiful, the sets constructed within them are fairly impressive, and Giancarlo Ferrando’s photography captures everything with flair and professionalism, ensuring that, if nothing else, this is certainly a very nice movie to look at.

The editing (courtesy of Eugenio Alabiso) is also extremely good here, with swift and relatively complex cutting rhythms keeping things pacey even during the script’s more lugubrious moments, and successfully distracting our attention from the more questionable effects work. The strengths of Alabiso’s editing are particularly evident during the film’s opening stretch, in which proceedings are livened up by some exuberantly stylish montage sequences, built around the snappy, rhythmic freeze-frames of Cassinelli’s photography, and cut to the tempo of Stelvio Cipriani’s enjoyably unconventional, minimalist score.

Though Cipriani’s work here is unlikely to ever rival the cult status enjoyed by his compositions for Ovidio Assonitis’s similarly themed ‘Tentacles’ (1977), ‘Great Alligator’ certainly finds him striking out in some interesting directions, ditching his trademark staccato harpsichord workouts to deliver a set of lithe, rubbery p-funk and electro/disco jams, foregrounding heavy, fretless bass and quasi-“tribal” percussion in a manner which somehow manages to sound more enervating than cheesy. Worth a listen.

Back to the movie meanwhile, and, as Daniel has a good look around the resort complex, we learn amongst other things that an impregnable underwater fence has been installed in order to keep crocodiles out of the designated swimming area, thus allowing guests the thrill of paddling around “nose to tail” with the terrifying beasts. Can we detect a touch of grinding, new-career-low despair creeping into Mel Ferrer’s eyes as he takes a deep breath and gamely reassures us that there is no way this can possibly go wrong?

Sadly, ‘The Great Alligator’ also forces us to bear witness to one of Italian cinema’s more surreal incidents of animal cruelty, as the SGWH guy is shown tying a bunch of tiny piglets to ropes and throwing them into the water, ostensibly as bait to attract crocs to the ‘viewing bridge’ from which tourists are encouraged to gawk at them.

It is impossible to process the fact that this scene only exists in order to allow Cassinelli’s character the opportunity to decry the resort’s inhumane treatment of animals (“is cruelty one of the features of the tourist programme?” he sneers), whilst the filmmakers meanwhile are actually throwing cute little piggies into the river in order to demonstrate this. I mean, one hopes that they pulled the little critters out again, and that they survived their ordeal, but I’m pretty damn sure they didn’t enjoy it very much. W and indeed TF, Sergio?

Meanwhile, the ‘erotic travelogue’ bit comes into play as Sheena becomes entranced whilst watching the local tribe’s rituals – perhaps there is supposed to be some sub-text about her “returning to her roots” or something here, but probably best not think too deeply about that – and instigates a flirtatious exchange of body language with a young male tribesman. Naturally enough, this leads to her ducking the resort’s sunset curfew in order to enjoy a nocturnal rendezvous on the tribe’s forbidden ‘Island of Love’.

Unfortunately however, Sheena’s career as a budding Emmanuelle is abruptly curtailed when the couple are rudely interrupted on their journey home by none other than KARUNA, the tribe’s big daddy God-Alligator, who, apparently angered by the incursion of modern civilisation into his realm, has returned to stir shit up, selecting Sheena and her heretical beau as his first victims. Man, what a drag!

Filling us in – in a manner of speaking – on the legend of Karuna, we find none other than good ol’ Richard Johnson (whom you’ll recall either as that “the boat can leave now” guy from ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, or as Dr Markway from ‘The Haunting’, depending on the classiness of your horror fandom), appearing in an extremely strange cameo as a missionary who has been driven out of his mind after witnessing an earlier manifestation of the God-Gator, and is now reduced to a raving, loin-cloth clad wild man with full-on Ben Gunn style wig and beard, living alone in a remote cave, where he has kept himself busy by carving a big alligator head out the rock itself.

Perhaps the scene in which Daniel and Ali track Johnson down and try to talk to him was intended to invest the movie’s monster with a certain degree of Lovecraftian grandeur, but to be honest, it’s all just… really weird. Which usually strikes me as a good second best, so, great! Let’s move on.

This being a ‘Jaws’ rip-off, you will of course be unsurprised to hear that missing persons, native unrest, giant alligator sightings and sabotaged radio equipment constitute no problem whatsoever to Mel Ferrer, as he happily welcomes his first cohort of gawping, cretinous guests to Paradise House for the resort’s big opening weekend.

This brings us to another reason why ‘The Great Alligator’ may have taken a critical battering over the years – namely, the fact that the film’s English dub is extremely poor, certainly far below the usual high standards of the era’s export-minded Italian product, and the sections of the film dealing with the tourists suffer particularly badly in this respect.

Although more sympathetic voicing could only do so much to mitigate the fact that Martino’s extras seem to have been directed in such a way as to suggest that they spend every second of the way gluttonously downing bottles of wine, indulging in goon-ish disco dancing, leering at each other and wantonly disrespecting the natural environment, their sloppily rendered comedic banter, alternately incomprehensible and irritating, certainly doesn’t help matters.

As tension mounts, alligator attacks intensify and the local tribespeople become actively aggressive – parading around in big, paper mache crocodile heads, wielding spiky weapons and so forth – the scene is set for Martino to swiftly shift gears from the movie’s rather leisurely opening hour and propel us straight into a closing act in which things go absolutely bananas, in a manner reminiscent of only the very finest ‘80s Italian genre films.

This descent into chaos is initially instigated when Joshua – obviously - decrees that the scheduled nocturnal river-boat trip he has laid on for his inebriated guests must proceed, turning a blind eye to the growing body of evidence suggesting that conditions on the river increasingly resemble a cross between ‘Piranha’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ (even the SGWH guy thinks it’s a bad idea, forgodssake).

Meanwhile, the tribespeople have kidnapped Barbara, and tied her to a wooden frame on a special sacrificial canoe, sending her out onto the river as an offering to placate Karuna! Naturally, Cassinelli is soon in hot pursuit, machete in one hand, outboard tiller in the other.

Before too long of course, Ferrer’s party-boat (the thatched-roofed ‘Tarzan’s Raft’, which frankly looks to have been a pretty precarious vessel even before anything went wrong) is sized up by the God-Gator, who prepares to split it down the middle like a human-filled taco. Safe to say, any of those extras who were assured they wouldn’t get wet have another thing coming, and the production’s invaluable “big chomping jaws” puppet and fake blood supply are about to get a serious work-out.

Although *literally everything bad* which has happened in this film has been his fault, Ferrer’s character suddenly manifests a surprising degree of concern and competency once the proverbial shit hits the fan, working hard to save lives and get his inebriated charges to safety, instead of making a cackling getaway with a big suitcase full of money, as is usually de-rigour for his character-type… but needless to say, his last minute efforts at redemption prove too little too late.

When the first bedraggled passengers scale the spiked anti-croc fence make it back to shore, they discover that the tribe’s warriors have launched a full-on slash n’ burn massacre against the resort’s remaining residents, turning the place into a flame-lashed killing field, littered with corpses. Soon, children, OAPs and Hawaiian shirted yahoos alike are being crushed and trampled against that underwater fence, as Karuna chomps away behind them and a rain of flaming arrows meets them from the shore. It’s absolute fucking carnage, and it’s all your fault Mel, all your fault!

As I hope my synopsis above has helped make clear, ‘The Great Alligator’ has a lot more to offer the world than irritating dubbing and poor special effects. Though many of the films which fall loosely into this particular “Italians go nuts in the jungle” bracket can prove risky propositions, both from the POV of morality and watchability, Martino as usual puts us safely over the line with this one (give or take a few traumatised piggies).

By taking us from the “sittin’ on the dock of the bay” drowsiness of ‘Tentacles’ or Lamberto Bava’s ‘Devil Fish’ to the “literally ANYTHING could happen next” mayhem of Cannibal Apocalypse or ‘Nightmare City’, with healthy doses of sleaze, racial insensitivity, unintentional hilarity and flat-out weirdness along the way, this absurd little number definitely earns its place in the pantheon. If you can summon the strength to reach for it the next time the mercury creeps up to ‘heat wave’ levels on a weekend afternoon, you will not be disappointed.


(1) If you’re wondering at this point about the whole alligator/crocodile thing, well, good luck to ya, although in fairness this IS briefly addressed in the script, when Barbara (who is clever) notes that the idol worshiped by the local tribespeople represents the head of an alligator, which are not native to – quote – “the orient”, thus marking the film’s monster out as something immediately distinct from the area’s resident crocodiles.

(2) An always likeable actor in both lead roles and character parts, Cassinelli is sadly probably best known today for the manner of his untimely death, which occurred when a helicopter stunt went badly wrong on the set of Martino’s ‘Hands of Steel’ in 1986.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Noir Diary # 6:
Private Hell 36
(Don Siegel, 1954)

Produced and distributed by ‘The Filmakers’ (the pioneering non-studio outfit founded in 1950 by Ida Lupino and her soon-to-be-ex husband Collier Young), ‘Private Hell 36’ is a low budget crime picture telling the tale of a cop-on-the-edge lured into perdition by his association with a down-at-hell night club singer, played by Lupino, who also co-wrote the script (with Young), a year or so after she directed ultra-hardboiled classic ‘The Hitch-Hiker’.

Don Siegel directs - his only assignment for The Filmakers - and Sam Peckinpah fans may wish to note that, though their man had no discernible creative input on this film, he was nonetheless on hand as “dialogue director”, having assisted Siegel a year earlier on the explosive ‘Riot in Cellblock 11’.

Based solely on the information in the preceding paragraphs, you’ll appreciate that I approached ‘Private Hell 36’ more or less certain that it would be a sure-fire fucking classic (pardon my French), but, after viewing, I’d caution potential viewers to dampen their expectations. This is a decent, efficient little picture, but despite the big-hitters on both sides of the camera, it never really engages with the kind of sordid thrills implied by its attention-grabbing title.

In fact, the opening act here is pretty routine police procedural stuff (moral melodrama sub-division), only really elevated to ‘noteworthy’ status thanks to good performances from Steve Cochran as a risk-takin’, trigger happy Hollywood cop Carl Bruner, and Howard Duff (Lupino husband # 3) as his more straight-laced, even-tempered partner Jack Farnham.

Cochran and Duff’s characterisations here are effective and believable, as is the latter’s interplay with his wife (Dorothy Malone), but some of the stuff in the film’s first half nonetheless borders on the hokey. It’s always nice to see Dean Jagger popping up, but the relationship between his canny Station Captain character and our central pair of cops comes across as annoyingly paternalistic, whilst the core mechanics of the plot they become embroiled in stretch our credulity just a little too far for us to really take it seriously.

I mean, would the Captain really send two of his best men off on a long-term assignment that required them to hang around the race-track all day, accompanying a night club singer who received a hot $50 dollar bill as a tip, just on the off-chance that she might recognise the guy who gave it to her -- and then assign them to guard her by night as well…? Seems to be going way out on a limb for a pretty slim lead to me.

Things certainly become a lot more interesting however when Bruner & Farnham eventually do get their man, accidentally killing him at the climax of an under-cranked, out-of-town car chase and apparently suffering no repercussions for their fatal recklessness (the Captain is shown joking with them and patting shoulders right there on the scene).

Before Jagger arrives however, things have already taken a far darker turn following the crash. As the two cops survey the wreckage, they follow a trail of high denomination bills fluttering in the breeze, and discover the box in which the deceased suspect had stashed the proceeds of a recent armed robbery. Without a word, Bruner – who had made the opening moves in his romance with Lupino’s character just a few hours earlier, chatting to her about diamond bracelets – picks up a few massive wads of cash, and pockets them.

Casually done, this is a real shocker, and immediately turns the film on its head, simply because, up to this point, we had no intimation that Cochran’s character was anything other than a trustworthy, rough-around-the-edges good guy.

Naturally this leaves Farnham, as his partner, in a tight spot. Though he immediately expresses shock and disbelief at Bruner’s theft, he can’t bring himself to rat on his best friend once the Captain turns up. In subsequent scenes, he may harp on about being sick to the stomach and unable to look at his mug on the mirror and so on, but when Bruner introduces him to the concept of “your share” on their drive back to town, and suggests a diversion to a spot where they can stash the loot, he quietly follows his friend’s lead.

As so often in the world of noir, the path to the dark side is a slippery slope, rather than a sudden cliff edge – just a few small decisions, taken a bit too quickly, from which there is no way back - and in its best moments, ‘Private Hell 36’ reflects this, evoking a sticky feeling of creeping, soul-withering corruption. It’s underplayed for sure, but it’s there, lurking in the background, right from the moment Cochran impulsively pockets the dough.

The ‘36’ of the film’s title by the way refers to the number of the rented trailer which the pair use to stash their ill-gotten gains – a brilliant touch which provides a great setting for the momentarily atmospheric finale, but like so much in this movie, its potential is sadly under-utilised.

Already a seasoned specialist in low budget crime flicks by this point in his career, Siegel’s direction is breezy and fast-paced, but as a filmmaker who always privileged movement over visual style, he has little time for the kind of brooding, expressionistic flourishes which may have given visual emphasis to the script’s darker themes (an oversight which may at least partially be the fault of time and budget constraints, I’d imagine).

Instead, we get bland-looking interior sets and uniform daylight for the most part, although the location shooting at the race-track has some scope and energy to it, and the rudimentary car chase gives us a welcome blast through that ubiquitous b-movie scrubland that we’d get to know so well in subsequent decades.

Lurid, sleazoid jazz meanwhile seems to creep into the background of almost every scene, whether emanating from the radio of a crashed car, from Lupino’s ‘night club’ (which looks more like a suburban soda counter, to be honest), or merely piped into the air from nowhere – a siren call to the darker underbelly of this ostensibly dull, work-a-day world.

As with so many of these post-HUAC ‘50s noirs though, this is a character piece really – a quiet little ‘actor’s movie’ that sometimes feels closer to a TV “play for today” piece than a big screen thriller. Lupino is as brilliant as ever – I’d describe her character as a “quintessential hard boiled dame”, but she’s f-ing Ida Lupino ferchrissakes, so you knew that already – and Cochran and Duff bounce off each other really nicely.

The former has a touch of that riveting Italian-American machismo about him (connecting the dots between Richard Conte and Pacino, possibly?), whilst Duff has a pudgy-faced, jobs-worth, Joe Friday kind of vibe about him that makes it all the more fun seeing him descend into more tormented, morally compromised territory than that self-righteous shmuck ever had to contemplate.

You get the feeling that a writer like Jim Thompson or David Goodis could really have gone to town on a story like this, turning it into an airless nightmare of moral degradation and self-immolation, but at every turn, the filmmakers (and indeed The Filmakers) hold back. It’s all just a little too polite, too restrained – a little too mainstream perhaps? - to really deliver on the kind of emotional gut punch the material demands.

All the ingredients are in place here for a devastating, pitch-black noir masterpiece, but as it is, it all just seems a bit timid and under-cooked. Shaky scripting and continuity errors bespeak a lack of time or effort, and when Lupino at one point tells Cochran she’s “seen that bit on ‘Dragnet’”, it feels all too appropriate to the finger-wagging, buddy-cop morality tale the movie eventually settles for.

(Far be it from me to second guess respected movie industry professionals long since in their graves, but wouldn’t this story have been a lot more exciting if Lupino’s character was actually a nefarious femme fatale with underworld connections, knowingly coaxing Cochran to his doom? As it is, she eventually emerges as rather boring and incidental to the central plot, in spite of Lupino’s best efforts to liven her up a bit; sure she’d like some diamonds, but what girl wouldn’t? She certainly didn’t mean to encourage her boyfriend to steal for her, and is shocked when she learns of his crimes, etc etc.)

‘Private Hell 36’ is certainly not a bad movie, I should stress – it’s a solid programmer with the seed of a great story buried in it, and, given the weight of talent on both sides the camera, it naturally has its share of arresting moments. But, at the end of the day, it feels like a very minor work for all concerned – certainly nowhere near the level of greatness achieved by Lupino on ‘The Hitch-Hiker’, or by Siegel a few years later on ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’.

(Sadly, the scene depicted on this lobby card does not appear in the film itself.)