Saturday, June 25, 2011

99 River Street (1953)

Directed by: Phil Karlson

After losing a spirited title fight due to a career-ending eye injury, Ernie Driscoll has traded his bloody trunks for a blue collar by driving a cab to make ends meet in hopes of opening a gas station one day. It's been three years since Ernie was forced out of the ring and this pedestrian life seems to be enough for him. Unfortunately, this life isn't enough for Ernie's ex-showgirl, high society-craving wife, Pauline, who detests their working class status and blames Ernie for not providing a better life. Ernie does his best to make her happy and decides that having a child might repair their relationship. On his way to eagerly tell her this, Ernie catches sight of his wife knotting tongues with another man, jewel thief Victor Rawlins. She's drawn to Rawlins with promises to whisk her away to France upon securing $50,000 in exchange for his latest haul of stolen diamonds.

The only problem is that Rawlins' buyer Mr. Christopher refuses to honor their deal because Pauline's now involved; Mr. Christopher never conducts business with women under any circumstances because they always complicate matters. Pauline proves Mr. Christopher correct when hysterically yelling at Rawlings after learning that he had to kill the jewelry store owner to steal the diamonds. Rawlins solves this problem by murdering Pauline and making Ernie the fall guy by stuffing her corpse in the trunk of his cab. Still incensed at Mr. Christopher's refusal to deal earlier, Rawlins steals the $50,000 from the chivalrous buyer and flees en route to making his getaway to France.

With no other alibi, Ernie has to stop Rawlins' escape and simultaneously protect his life from Mr. Christpoher's revenge-seeking thugs out for the kill. He's helped in his search by friend and new interest Linda, who guiltily feels indebted to Ernie after using him, and fight trainer turned cab dispatched Stan, who orchestrates all the cabbies as lookouts to find the fleeing Rawlins. They eventually track Rawlins down and must race to keep him from leaving the county aboard the France-bound boat liner located at the address referenced in the titular film title.

99 River Street is a little slice of classic noir goodness that apparently has gone underseen due to general lack of availability. As I've been saying frequently of late, thank god for Netflix Instant View for giving us access to another forgotten movie. It's a surprise that this film isn't more heralded considering that director Phil Karlson left a sizeable mark in the same genre with Kansas City Confidential the year prior and garnered even more cult film fan adoration with Walking Tall toward the end of his career. 99 River Street stands out in the way that it carefully subverts film noir conventions without undermining the essential genre tropes.

The uniqueness of the characters and their variational usage set 99 River Street apart from other film noirs during this classic period. From the start, it is clear that this film is not focused on the standard good hearted man or well-intentioned detective seduced into crimes and murder leading to their inevitable downfall. Instead, the story is anchored to a simple man not interested in any shortcuts to fortune even though it would be natural given the way Ernie's prizefighting career harshly ended. His motivation is only to one day scratch out enough of a living to open a gas station and repair the damaged relationship with his wife.

99 River Street also diverges from other classic film noirs by not really having a true femme fatale. Ernie's disdained wife Pauline has the fatale makings with her scorn and envy, but rather she's the one seduced into crime and tragic results. To this end, you might even coin the term "male fatale" to at least some degree for Rawlins for sucking Pauline into his world and then coldly removing her from it. To a lesser degree, Linda operates in the conniving vamp role, but her intentions are never deadly; she harmlessly (though, insensitively) utilizes her charm to further her acting career and then later to entice Rawlins into Ernie's hands.

99 River Street is the definition of gritty noir because brutality underscores the entire picture. I'm often dissatisfied when watching edgy noirs from this classic era that skimp on much needed violence. The opening prizefight between Ernie and the reigning world champion is particularly authentic and hard-hitting for the time. It is realistic enough that it feels like some of those blows really land. While not nearly as savage, the choreography and the relentless fistic barrages resemble Raging Bull and perhaps inspired Scorsese. When Ernie finally gets ahold of Rawlins, he uncorks ferocity and nearly beats the murdering thief to death out of vengeful anger in spite of needing him alive to clear his name. It should be noted that Karlson shoots this scene exquisitiely, mimicking shots and exchanges in Ernie and Rawlins boat dock scuffle from Ernie's titlefight -- guardrail chains act as ring ropes, entrance ramps sub as the canvas and police officers impersonate the referee stopping the brawl.

Ernie's brutality manifests without physicality as well. He explodes in enraged rants, screaming about wanting to beat his wife for her infidelities and he also threatens to smack Linda around when learning that she's been playing him for a fool at another juncture.

Make or Break scene - The scene that makes 99 River Street is when Linda turns femme fatale to influence Ernie to assist her with the disposal of a dead body. This is the best scene in the film for me for a number of reasons. Foremost, I absolutely love that Ernie finally gets to unload his rage in this scene. We've seen this good guy endure so much heartache -- a bad break in his fight, a promising boxing career cut short, a cheating wife -- that you want him to fight back, and when he does, I smiled with glee as a bunch of play producing suits got the hell beat out of them. Evelyn Keyes is spectacular in this moment, completely selling the scene and impressively delivering a critical monologue in one lengthy shot. Karlson incorporates a great POV shot as though we're the deadman as Linda describes the events that led to his death, the camera moving and rising as she recounts the details. There's also a great twist in this scene both in the manner that Karlson films it and the fashion in which it is narratively constructed, which I won't spoil, that probably either makes or breaks the film for anyone.

MVT - Tough call, but we'll give a close split decision victory to John Payne as Ernie Driscoll over Phil Karlson's direction and Robert Smith's script. Payne's performance is one instilled with such vital downtrodden good nature that you root for him throughout the movie and it makes his violent outbursts that much more arresting when they occur. For this character, Payne manages a difficult task to allow just enough pent-up rage simmering beneath the surface without coloring the performance as bitter.

Score - 8/10


  1. Watched this on TCM during a John Payne festival and loved it. A very well done film. I recommend THE CROOKED WAY with John Payne as an amnesiac war vet. John Alton shot it and it's worth the cinematography alone.

  2. I will check out that film. Thanks for the tip, and appreciate you reading.

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