99 River Street (1953) – A Review
|99 River Street|
Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) looked like he would have a great career in boxing, maybe going all the way to the top. But after a humiliating defeat leaves him beaten and injured he’s forced to retire. He’s now making ends meet driving a cab, but has plans to open up a gas station. This doesn’t suit his wife Pauline (Peggie Castle) too well and is eyeing a future with hood Victor (Brad Dexter) after he sells off the diamonds he stole for a cool fifty grand.
Complications erupt when Victor has a bit of a problem fencing his valuable haul. Then he comes up with a way that by framing Ernie for murder will allow him to get his payment and hightail it out of the country. It becomes a race against time as Ernie must now find Victor in order to prove his innocence.
I went into this never having seen or read anything about it and when it was over realized this is a little noir gem. The movie could have easily turned into one big convoluted mess. I’m going to try to avoid going into too much detail for those who might want to check it out. I certainly don’t want to ruin the experience of watching this movie as cold and ignorant as my opportunity was.
The script begins to introduce varying storylines and at first I didn’t see how they would be connected or what exactly would be the main thread. There were certain scenes that at the moment caught me off guard and I began to think, “Ok, here’s where things kick in”, but the film tricked me in a sense saying, “No, no, no, that’s not it”.
I wasn’t sure where the story was going and how it was building. Then once a certain scene arrives it becomes clear and all the earlier setup of the characters and their stories begin to collide in a real captivating way. Director Phil Karlson keeps amping up the tension and momentum and doesn’t waste a minute as it builds to its climactic ending.
All our main characters have varying degrees of flaws. Although Ernie our hero is an innocent guy and not the usual noir hero who at one point makes their own conscious dumb decision which will lead to their own fateful end, he’s still too hot-tempered and stubborn for his own good. Those who are only familiar with Payne as the good-ole, believing saint of a lawyer in Miracle on 34th Street will be surprised by his darker turn here.
Our leading lady Linda James (Evelyn Keyes) is a struggling actress who seems to be a wholesome acquiescence towards Ernie, but we see her innocent audition for a Broadway show snowballing into exploiting Ernie’s trust in a way that I wouldn’t blame him for wanting to knock her teeth out.
There’s Ernie’s cheating wife Pauline (Peggie Castle) who while she seems more than willing to betray her husband manages to have a spark of conscience for her shallow actions. She’s not so much a classic femme fatale as a woman who just wants to leave her husband behind and not involve him in any kind of sinister plans her boyfriend might have.
The hoods, well, they’re pretty nasty folks who are only looking at their own interests and have no compassion for any innocents that get in their way.
The whole film takes place at night and that’s more than enough opportunity to film the characters in those beautiful needed noir stark shadows, It was shot mainly on studio sets, but convincingly manages to convey the big dark dangerous urban jungle. It’s a pretty impressive job.
I was actually surprised how hard-hitting the violence is. Not so much the gunplay, which you have to expect to see in a noir, but the physical fist violence by Payne. Since being a boxer he’s aware he could potentially kill a person with some punches and the film convinces you of it. Each time he lands a punch on someone it looks and sounds painful. Along with his temper and built up rage from his cheating wife and failed boxing career it looks like he’ll let loose in certain scenes until he just beats them to death.
Recognizable character actors pop up in parts and bring their unique faces and voices to supporting characters that could have easily just been forgotten afterthoughts. There’s a fantastic seduction scene by Keyes, along with an earlier well filmed confession she has towards Ernie. When you see the movie you’ll know what I’m talking about.
It’s a really entertaining surprise of a movie. It’s only eighty-three minutes, but a heck of a lot happens within that time. It might be more on the low-budget obscure side, but it’s an awfully good noir just waiting for movie fans to discover.