Friday, March 5, 2010

#47: 99 River Street (Phil Karlson, 1953)

Released: October 2, 1953

Director: Phil Karlson; Screenplay: Robert Smith, Phil Karlson (uncredited) and John Payne (uncredited) based on a story by George Zuckerman; Cinematography: Franz Planer; Music: Arthur Lange and Emil Newman; Producer: Edward Small; Studio: United Artists

John Payne (Ernie Driscoll), Evelyn Keyes (Linda James), Brad Dexter (Victor Rawlins), Frank Faylen (Stan Hogan), Peggie Castle (Pauline Driscoll), Jay Adler (Christopher), Jack Lambert (Mickey)

- “There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time…”

Kansas City Confidential may be the most well-known noir from director Phil Karlson, but I feel that 99 River Street is actually his best. While it might not contain the intricate, inventive setup of Kansas City Confidential, it plays out much more smoothly than that film and boasts two major improvements over the previous year’s effort – a much better performance from star John Payne and remarkable direction from Karlson that trumps anything seen in Confidential. It is unfathomable to me that this is not better known and discussed, both within noir circles and in terms of cinema of the era. 99 River Street is about as rugged and hardboiled as movies – not just noirs – of the 1950s get. I oftentimes wonder why it is not included among the canon of noir. Since everything from here on in is, to my mind, essential for any fan of noir, its placement here at #47 is at least one minor step to rectifying such an omission.

The opening of the film is brilliant, showing the skill of Karlson. Things open to a heavyweight title fight, with up-and-comer Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) apparently on his way to claiming the crown. As the fight progresses and we see Ernie fouled by an accidental headbutt that opens a cut and causes the fight to be halted, the camera zooms out to reveal that the fight is actually on television and the same Ernie Driscoll is watching from his living room. In the zoom out, the scar from the same cut about Ernie’s eye is shown, as is the bitterness of his gaze as he relives his one failed shot at glory. It is revealed that not only did the cut cost Ernie a title shot, it also led to the state boxing commission revoking his license and banning him from ever fighting again. The result is Ernie being forced to work as a cab driver and stuck in a marriage with a woman (Peggie Castle) that no longer enjoys the glamor of being the girl of a future champion. This quick scene is a creative way of introducing a key theme that Karlson will play with throughout the film – the different venues in which violence is condoned (a boxing ring), frowned upon (the violent outbursts that occur throughout Ernie’s now boring life), and manipulated (a scene in a theater that I will not spoil for those that haven’t seen it).

Perhaps I’m completely wrong, but my sense is that not many readers are going to have seen this one already, so an in-depth plot synopsis would be doing everyone a great disservice. It will suffice to say that over the course of a single evening, Ernie Driscoll’s life is destined to take another dramatic turn. His ungrateful wife, who is cheating on him with a jewel thief, will be murdered and the body surreptitiously deposited into the backseat of Ernie’s cab. Along the way Ernie is actually implicated in a number of crimes and is forced not only to flee from police, but also work to try and outsmart circling gangsters as well. All of this is made difficult by his struggle to try and contain the emotions that have been raging out of control ever since his forced retirement from the ring. But if there is one thing that Ernie was made to do it is fight and he has no intention of going down without putting one up on this night.

I say again, this is a hardened film. John Payne’s Ernie Driscoll is as embittered a hero as you will find in movies of the era. Just seeing the look on his face as he watches the boxing match – recounting how he was leading on all cards to win the title – drives home the disillusionment. But he is not a man without hope. He maintains a dream of transitioning into a normal life, of acquiring his own gas station and becoming successful. Payne makes you immediately care about the character, which sets up an interesting dynamic to the story. Very early it becomes obvious that Ernie is never going to be successful as long as his wife Peggie (Pauline Driscoll) is around to nag and doubt him. So it is as if you are hoping that she somehow exit his life – as if her leaving his life would be a relief. But when she is murdered (making that exit that you hope for – albeit, admittedly, on less than ideal terms!) Ernie remains at her mercy. He is now thrust into the roll of having to hunt down her killers or potentially take the fall himself.

Aside from the wonderful opening, Karlson also shows flashes elsewhere. The fight and action sequences are top-notch, with fight scenes that are surprising in how violent and realistic they feel. Payne certainly lets punches fly like a prizefighter. There are also wonderful scenes set on the New Jersey waterfront that are photographed as textbook noir. Darkness, shadows, fog that hovers over ominous spaces, it’s all there.

Alas, this is another one that has no DVD release. But it's at least one that can be viewed easily enough. On IMDB it can be watched for free, with only occasional commercials interspersed every 20-30 minutes. If you have the capability of running a feed into a TV, the picture looks great. And I can’t recommend this noir enough, so it’s worth this extra effort.


  1. The line you quote from this film has been burned into my memory since I first saw the movie about ten years ago. 99 River Street is also the first time I watched a John Payne film and knew I was watching him! Upon subsequent viewings of other films, he had become the Driscoll character so completely in my mind.

    I'm glad to see this one on the list--and placing so well.

  2. Dave, this is one I have been dying to try to catch for years, I am glad to hear it is so good. Of course that only makes me salivate that much more (lol). Keyes is an actress I have not seen much of but saw her a while back in “The Prowler” and she is terrific. Excellent review!

  3. "There are also wonderful scenes set on the New Jersey waterfront that are photographed as textbook noir. Darkness, shadows, fog that hovers over ominous spaces, it’s all there."

    Well Dave, this certainly does remind me of ON THE WATERFRONT, which as you know was shot in Hoboken, which is only a matter of minutes where I live. But, alas, I have not seen this one either. You really make a strong case for the film in the opening paragraph, and you frame the boxing context wonderfully in the second. Another to see ASAP.

  4. C.K. - Thanks for checking in, and I obviously agree with you here. A truly underrated film.

    John - I wish TCM or somewhere would put this one up occasionally, it's a great movie. I am certain that you would like it.

  5. Sam - Yes, it has that same type of waterfront feel, although 99 River Street is even darker in terms of the shadows. I think you would appreciate this one, Sam, as it has a grittiness that feels very genuine. Definitely one to seek out.

  6. This is the second strong recommendation I've seen for 99 River in the past year, so by now I have no real excuse for not having seen it yet. Thanks for reminding me.

  7. Samuel - Definitely try and see it... it deserves much wider recognition.

  8. Phil Karlson destroyed his career as director when he decided to be part of this film. I think this movie should be forgotten by everyone cuz it was a total fail.