Her Private Hell
Directed by Norman J. Warren
Blu Ray Zone B/
DVD Region 2 Dual Edition
I recently become properly acquainted with the work of director Norman J. Warren by way of the wonderful Blu Ray boxed edition from the Powerhouse/Indicator label, Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J Warren. The contents of this box will be coming in over various reviews in the weeks and, possibly, months to come but, before I put those up, I wanted to take a look at Warren’s debut feature release My Private Hell, which I picked up on Blu Ray a couple of years ago from my local Computer Exchange shop for around a fiver. And, I have to say, the film is amazing.
It’s black and white photography and begins with a couple making love under the credits, with really beautiful photography which utilises the textures and abstract forms that can be achieved using this kind of filming. It immediately feels both European and somehow grittily English as the story, such as it is, unfolds.
Starting off with the arrival in England of Italian protagonist Marisa, played by Lucia Modugno, who appeared in such films as The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Danger Diabolik and Isabella, Duchessa Dei Diavoli (aka Ms. Stiletto, reviewed here), we follow her in her new career in ‘Swinging London’ as she is given board and lodging and a luxury lifestyle living in sin with the head photographer, all laid on by a modelling studio. So we have the photographer Bernie (played by Terence Skelton), his assistant Matt (played by Daniel Ollier), their direct bosses Margaret (played by Pearl Catlin) and ultimately Neville (played by Robert Crewdson)... plus a couple of Bernie’s ex-girlfriend models. The basic through line of the picture is the issue of nude pictures of a reluctant Marisa being sold on the sly and the tensions this causes within their small community as she swings between Bernie and Matt and ultimately gets confused and troubled by her situation (which really isn’t as hellish as the title makes it sound, to be honest).
However, what the film really is, is a time piece which nicely captures the 1960s London lifestyle (to a certain extent)... perhaps not as I remember it personally because I was just a toddler but, certainly the spirit as it’s often portrayed on film, at least. Mind you, I was born five days after this movie came out and in much less than two years I was a professional child model myself, working for a modelling agency called Tiny Tots (are they still around?)... and from what little I can remember of the atmosphere in the photo studios at the time... a lot of this rang true, to be honest.
And, honestly, what promise this director had back then. It’s like Antonioni meets London all over again as Norman J. Warren matches the subject matter of the movie, the pursuit of the perfect pictures, with an astounding visual flair and jagged, ‘of its time’ editing style which really got me going ooh and ahh as I watched it (mentally oohing and aahing, for the record). There’s a real beauty to the way he manages to throw people together perfectly into the 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the shoot. I loved, for instance, the way he places people around objects and furniture, giving the shot a certain depth through a strong sense of perspective and then having people walking into the front of a shot and blocking out part of the view to present new compositional possibilities within the same frame.
Even on the rare sequences where he goes on location, he manages to treat the various environments such as the airport where Marisa pitches up at the start of the movie, as something which is interacting with the body shapes of the actors in some perfect set ups. For instance, during a forest montage sequence, bang slap in the middle of the movie, where Marisa goes out with Bernie to take some ‘fun pictures’, Warren manages to use the vertical tree trunks and angular, jutting branches to create little pockets of space to frame the actors in. It’s really nice stuff and it's this kind of harkening to the art form that kept me engaged with it all the way through. Not to mention that the actors are all pretty good and Marisa and Matt are quite sympathetic. He even manages to get a couple of overhead shots (whether using a crane... or just standing on the roof of a building is my guess) and it all pitches in with the monochromatic photography to dazzle the eyes.
There’s also a nice punchline to the film with, literally, the very last line of the movie. I won’t spoil that for you here but I wonder if the line was somehow shocking in it’s day or just, of it’s time. It’s fairly tame now but it’s also a nice bit of insight which possibly transforms some viewers' perceptions of the attitudes inherent in the film they’ve just been watching a little and, well... I appreciated the moment.
Unfortunately, the film was cut for time in the US version and also cut due to censorship of certain of the sexualised moments in the UK (see Dr. Adrian Smith’s informative essay detailing these as part of the accompanying booklet with the discs for more details). Rather than present the film as a composite, extended cut, the extra US moments are presented as three minutes of deleted scenes (along with several other nice extras which I haven’t had time to explore as yet). I would have preferred them to have been recut back into the feature presentation, for sure, because one of those deletions explains what I thought was a continuity jump in an earlier part of the film but... yeah, censorship causes problems folks, just don’t do it.
And that’s me done on this one. I think this may be my favourite film yet by the director and, given its successful reception back in 1968, I have to wonder why Norman J. Warren’s career took the path it did and why he plumped for a career in, more or less, B movie horror films (some of which are absolutely brilliant and others of which are... yeah, I don’t like to think of Bloody New Year too much). It’s clear just how talented he was and it’s a shame we’ve just lost him... he died in March 2021. I know his films will definitely live on for many though and, I’d certainly recommend Her Private Hell if you like the kind of cinema that was coming out of the London scene in the late 1960s, for sure.