WEIRDLAND: Steve Cochran: "I don't act like a hood", Private Hell 36 in Blu-Ray

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Steve Cochran: "I don't act like a hood", Private Hell 36 in Blu-Ray

Steve Cochran and Ida Lupino in "Private Hell 36" (1954) directed by Don Siegel

Ida Lupino (High Sierra) co-wrote and stars in the classic 1954 film noir Private Hell 36, and this release marks its DVD and Blu-ray debut. The crime drama follows desperate cop Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran, White Heat), who strays off the straight-and-narrow and falls for a hardened lounge singer (Lupino). His affections get in the way of his investigation of a robbery in which $300,000 was taken. And while his detective work leads him and his honest partner (Howard Duff, While the City Sleeps) to the key suspect and they find the cash, Cal is taken by his lady friend—who has expensive tastes—and he sets out on a path that can only lead to betrayal and murder.

Directed with grim efficiency by the great Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the movie also features Dean Jagger (White Christmas) as the detectives’ Captain and Dorothy Malone (TV’s Rich Man, Poor Man) as Cal’s partner’s understandably worried wife. Source: www.discdish.com

"Steve Cochran was a natural for the hoods and cutthroats he so often portrayed in the movies, and he was seen to good advantage in several entries from the film noir era, including The Chase (1946), White Heat (1949), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), and Private Hell 36 (1954). Despite a career that included more than 40 films during a span of three decades, however, Cochran frequently found himself in the press more often for his off-screen exploits than his cinematic performances -

from his numerous run-ins with the law and his highly publicized affairs with such notables as Mae West, Barbara Payton, Merle Oberon, and Mamie Van Doren, to his bizarre death in the middle of the Pacific, Cochran led a life that surpassed even the most creative Hollywood script – and ended much too soon. Named for his lumberman father, Robert Alexander Cochran was born May 25, 1917, in Eureka, California, the eldest of two children. The family moved to Wyoming when Cochran was a child, and during his high school years, after being kicked off the school basketball team for missing training practice, Cochran turned his sights toward dramatics. He never looked back. In terms of box-office receipts, Cochran hit the jackpot in 1946, with featured roles in a pair of money-makers, The Kid from Brooklyn, another Danny Kaye starrer, and The Best Years of Our Lives, which won a slew of Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Also that year, Cochran leapt into the domain of film noir, portraying a suave racketeer in The Chase. Here, Cochran played Eddie Roman, who lives in an opulent Miami mansion with his unhappy wife, Lorna (Michele Morgan), and his inscrutable side­kick, Gino (Peter Lorre). Sometimes confusing and often bizarre, The Chase was highlighted by the performance turned in by Cochran; his character’s persona is strikingly revealed in my favorite scene, where Roman is seen receiving a manicure in his home. When the manicurist accidentally nicks his finger, she quickly apologizes: “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Roman – you moved,” she says. “But you didn’t,” Roman rejoins, slapping her from her stool onto the floor, “quick enough.” The woman leaves the room crying, leaving Roman to comment, “Stupid dame.” Cochran’s picture-stealing performance was a highlight of the film.

With Virginia Mayo in "White Heat" (1949)

In the next two years, Cochran made only two films, Copacabana (1947), a vehicle for Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda, and A Song Is Born (1948), a hit musical starring Danny Kaye. Instead, he took time off from his budding screen career to appear on Broadway with the legendary Mae West in the revival of Diamond Lil. Upon his return to California, he signed with Warner Brothers and was cast in his second film noir, White Heat (1949). In this top-notch feature, Cochran played Big Ed Somers, a rebellious, outspoken member of a gang headed by the psychologically disturbed Cody Jarrett (James Cagney). Despite the memorable performance provided by Cagney, Cochran was mentioned by several reviewers, including Lloyd L. Sloan of the Hollywood Citizen-News, who fittingly termed him “excellent.”

The following year, Cochran continued racking up the bad-guy roles with starring parts in Dallas, an above-average western starring Gary Cooper; Highway 301, a gritty cops-and-robbers saga, and Storm Warning, co-starring Doris Day and Ginger Rogers. In this gripping feature (which also starred president-to-be Ronald Reagan), Cochran played a bigoted family man who is a mem­ber of the Ku Klux Klan. He later called the role his favorite of his career.

Cochran played his favorite role in Storm Warning, with Doris Day and Ginger Rogers. “To me, one source of satisfaction in playing the role of Hank in Storm Warning was the feeling that I might be making a small contribution toward racial tolerance,” he told the Saturday Evening Post. “As a youngster in Wyoming, I had seen the fiery crosses of the Ku Klux Klan burning near my home and even then I sensed their frightening menace. As Hank in this picture, I had a chance to show how basically shabby such demonstrations are.”

Cochran’s final film of 1950 was his third film noir, The Damned Don’t Cry, with Joan Crawford, David Brian, and Kent Taylor. Here, Cochran was again cast as a gangster, this time playing a renegade syndicate member who tries to take over the entire organization from his ruthless boss. This well-made and often gripping feature earned mixed reviews, but there was no disagreement over Cochran’s performance – the critic for Trade Show said the actor “has a field day in a colorful spot,” Film Daily’s reviewer labeled him “vivid and compelling,” and in the Los Angeles’Times, Dorothy Manners wrote: “Next to [Joan Crawford], Steve Cochran makes the best impression as the diamond-in-the-rough who dares to break with the syndicate – and winds up just in the rough.”

Off-screen, though, the actor became embroiled in the first of many brushes with the law when, on New Year’s Day 1952, he was involved in an altercation with Lenwood “Buddy” Wright, an aircraft worker and former professional boxer. According to Wright’s version of the incident, he was a guest at a party given at Cochran’s house, and after leaving, discovered that he had left behind an overcoat. When he returned, Wright charged, Cochran met him at the door and “brutally and violently” struck him over the head with a baseball bat. But Cochran claimed that Wright had come to the house “as an intruder looking for a fight and had his fists raised,” forcing the actor to use the bat in self-defense. Following a two-week trial in June 1953, a jury awarded Wright $16,000 in general and punitive damages.

Steve Cochran and Ruth Roman in "Tomorrow Is Another Day" (1951) directed by Felix E. Feist

Meanwhile, in 1953, Cochran started his own production company, Robert Alexander Productions, and enthusiastically discussed his new venture in the press. “I left Warner Bros. recently because I wasn’t growing,” he said. “I had some pleasant assignments there . . . but the last few parts were so bad I had to get out. This new producing-acting venture is my most exciting experience yet.”

In 1954, the actor starred with Ida Lupino and her then-husband Howard Duff in the tense film noir, Private Hell 36, produced by Lupino’s production company, Filmmakers. In this feature, Cochran played Cal Bruner, a police detective who, along with his partner (Howard Duff), finds a steel box filled with cash following a car crash. Rather than turning over the entire amount, Bruner talks his partner into splitting a portion of the money, which he craves, in order to provide material possessions to his nightclub singer girlfriend, Lili (Lupino). The film is seldom mentioned in film noir discussions, but it’s well worth a look – and, again, Cochran is outstanding.

After portraying a seedy circus advance man in Carnival Story in 1954, Cochran was off screen for a year, returning instead to the stage, where he starred as Starbuck in a production of The Rainmaker. He was back to feature films in 1956 in Slander, a fast-paced drama that starred the actor as the ruthless publisher of a tabloid magazine, and Come Next Spring, the first film produced by Cochran’s production company.

In this feature, Cochran starred opposite Ann Sheridan as a farmer who redeems himself for his past drinking and wild ways. The feature was well­-received by critics and audiences alike – a letter to Filmland magazine by one fan praised the actor’s favorable characterization: “I hope Steve Cochran succeeded in Come Next Spring in getting away from being typed as a criminal-villain-tough guy. Let’s see Steve in more roles like this real soon.” During this time, Cochran also began appearing on various television programs, including Zane Grey Theater and The Naked City.

Between acting assignments, Cochran was busy making headlines for his off-screen exploits. In October 1956, he earned the dubious distinction of receiving the first flying ticket issued by a police helicopter. The adventure-loving actor – who had been flying for about two years, and had approximately 100 hours of flying time behind him – was cited by officers when he dipped over his mountaintop home in Studio City and rocked his wings. Claiming that he did not see the police helicopter trailing behind him, Cochran initially pleaded not guilty, but he later reversed his plea and was fined $500, grounded for 90 days, and given a suspended sentence of 30 days in jail.

Steve Cochran and Alida Valli in "Il Grido" (1957) directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Cochran starred as a Confederate officer in Quantrill’s Raiders (1958), a fairly entertaining low-budget western, and as an underworld kingpin in I, Mobster (1958), in which he suffered his 25th on­screen death. Shortly after the release of the latter film, Cochran discussed his success in playing villains on the silver screen.

A notorious womanizer, Cochran reportedly had a steamy affair with his "Beat Generation" co-star, Mamie Van Doren. “I don’t act like a hood [in my films],” Cochran told Hollywood columnist Joe Hyams.

“I’m basically a decent person and I let this come through in my portrayals. After all, a guy has to make a living some way, even if he’s a gangster. The big secret in playing a gangster in movies is to really believe that the character you are playing is doing no wrong.”

Cochran followed I, Mobster with a rare heroic role in the first-rate suspenser, The Big Operator (1959), as a man who goes up against a tyrannical labor boss, chillingly portrayed by Mickey Rooney. In The Beat Generation, Cochran’s final film noir, he stars as Dave Cullman, a woman-hating cop searching for a rapist known as “The Aspirin Kid.”

Cochran with his third wife, Jonna Jensen.

Around this time, after two brief marriages earlier in his career, Cochran gave the institution another try in 1961, marrying Danish actress Jonna Jensen in Las Vegas on March 18th. But the third time would not be the charm. The two separated in November, and the actress filed for divorce on January 5, 1962.

The Hollywood community was stunned by Cochran’s strange and sudden death. But his estranged wife, Jonna Jensen, wasted no time in laying claim to his money. Just four days after the actor’s body was discovered, Jensen filed a petition in Los Angeles Superior Court for letters of administration over his estate, estimated to be worth $150,000. In July, a Superior Court judge appointed both Jensen and Rose Cochran as temporary administrators of the estate, but three months later, Jensen was named sole administrator. It was a seedy footnote to an already-gruesome set of circumstances. (After his death, Cochran’s last two films were released – Mozambique [1966], the picture he made in South Africa, and Tell Me in the Sunlight [1967], which marked the actor’s sole big-screen directorial credit.)

Although Steve Cochran was typed as the heavy throughout his career, he nonetheless demonstrated in numerous movies that he had a genuine talent, and he will be re­membered for his unforgettable portrayals in films such as White Heat, Storm Warning, and Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. Despite his brushes with the law in his personal life, Cochran seemed to be more of a reckless ad­venturer than any kind of real menace, and while his acting career appeared to be waning at the time of his death, he was just starting in a new direction as a director and producer. Because of these realities, his premature end is that much more tragic." -"Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir" by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry (2008)

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