Yesterday at the Roxie

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It starts with a bang: an off-duty cop stumbles across two small-timers boosting a drugstore, and their confrontation doesn’t end until one robber is dead, and the other crook and the cop, kicking glass and splintered wood in every direction, have somersaulted through the front window and onto the street. (The fact that one man slams out of the window feet first, rather than via a clichéd shoulder, is the kind of touch that separates Don Siegel from the pack.) The film then settles into a nicely controlled lull, as the cop (Steve Cochran) and his partner (Howard Duff) team with a nightclub singer (Ida Lupino) to find a robber who’s been passing hot money; since their only clue is the suspect’s fondness for ponies, the three begin haunting the racetrack, hoping to trip over their prey. This gives the upright Cochran time to develop a nice, unhealthy obsession with Lupino, whose short-term sexual interest in him is constantly undercut by a long-term fondness for the pampered life. Private Hell 36 is mainly worth seeing for what occurs just after she glimpses their target speeding away from the track one day. The ensuing car chase–a breathless two minutes of tight screeching turns and increasing desperation–ends with the crook’s wrong-way plunge down a steep ravine, and when the two cops descend into the arroyo to retrieve his body, they’re greeted by a storm of paper currency blowing around their feet. The movie’s purest moment of beauty comes a second later when a phalanx of cops, caught in the late afternoon sun, alights at the crime scene.

Private Hell 36 is hardly a “good” picture, and it scarcely looks better on a screen than it does on a TV set, but it stubbornly resists giving us what we expect, and that’s a winning quality either today or any other day. Its best moments come when the low-rent moviemaking and the seamy lives of its characters strike sparks against each other, working like an under-the-table kick in the shins. When Cochran unties the strings holding up Lupino’s little sundress in order to rub her neck–his fumbling fingers juxtaposed against her bare shoulders and the cheap costume which probably represents the character’s favorite dress–the movie seems to be verging on the indecent or the calamitous. Will the top of Lupino’s dress fall down? Or–the hell with it–mightn’t the sex-crazy Cochran simply grab her breasts and knead them between his massive hairy hands? No matter how superior they seem, a Chinatown or L.A. Confidential will never pose a question like that one. Only a movie that consumes its own steam can make you wonder if it’s about to blow up in your face.

Also:

Which, apart from a joke involving the word “penchant”, is more or less a dud. (It was directed by Russell Rouse, that same auteur who gave us The Oscar.) Broderick Crawford sets the land-record for racing through dialogue (which is a good thing since he has so much of it) and Richard Conte is the hit-man making a name for himself. The film spends most of its time explaining the Syndicate’s inner mechanics for audiences which hadn’t been inundated by such info; in today’s culture, though, where some children can explain what a consigliere does, it’s strictly Mafia 101. We’re left with simpler pleasures: soaking up a yummy (if not truly ready for primetime) Anne Bancroft, playing a pre-Meadow Soprano, or enjoying the princely Conte. At one point Conte, his cigarette drooping elegantly from one hand, takes in from his armchair what’s going on around him with a watchfulness posing as deference; twenty years later, as Don Barzini, he’d employ an identical guise while measuring the Corleones.

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