There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.
I guess it’s no secret that I have a real fondness for low budget movies; there’s something fascinating about seeing how filmmakers are able to stretch their resources. There have been a fair few highly successful film noirs that fall into this category, and that shouldn’t be all that surprising. Noir is arguably the type of movie best suited to budget filmmaking, relying less on location and high production values than almost any other style of picture. In truth, a clever director and cameraman can not only transcend the limitations of a tight budget, but can actually turn it to their advantage. Those directors who spent much of their early careers working in the B units were able to capitalize on their years of experience, and the better ones could make a virtue out of austerity. Phil Karlson was one of those who managed to make quality movies even when the finances were severely restricted. 99 River Street (1953) may be his best film noir, Kansas City Confidential would possibly challenge it for that honor though, and it’s certainly among his better films.
For Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) it wasn’t so much that he could have been a contender – he was. The opening sees Driscoll slugging it out in the ring during a world heavyweight title fight. He actually floors the champion and is just ten seconds away from glory. However, Driscoll is a classic noir protagonist – fate has got his number – so his opponent picks himself up, lands a lucky punch that opens a bad wound over his eye, and wins the bout on a TKO. Just to underline Driscoll’s fall from the big time, the camera pulls back to reveal that the fight scene we’ve been watching is in reality a syndicated rerun on TV. Driscoll’s sitting there, reliving every blow traded, torturing himself, as the pain flickers across his battle-scarred features. With his boxing career in tatters, Driscoll makes a living as a cab driver. He’s not exactly thrilled with this, but that’s nothing compared to the contempt felt by his disgruntled wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Pauline is a former showgirl, bitterly disappointed at the way things have turned out and convinced that Driscoll is nothing but a loser. She may have a point too; not only is Pauline about to run off with a small time hood, Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), but Driscoll finds himself suckered into believing a melodramatic tale spun by an aspiring Broadway actress, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes). The point here is that Driscoll is one of those eternal fall guys, the kind of man who has bad things happen to him just because. As such, it’s no major surprise, least of all to Driscoll himself I guess, when he finds himself framed for murder and on the run. Nevertheless, he does have a few things in his favour – a kind of two-fisted toughness and never say die tenacity, and a couple of friends in his boss (Frank Faylen) and a repentant Linda. With the odds heavily stacked against him, and time running short, Driscoll has no option but to scour the city at night in pursuit of the real murderer in the hopes of catching up with him before he skips the country.
Lots of movies tend to get tagged as gritty, and not all of them deserve it. 99 River Street is the real deal though – positively brimming with lowlife characters, sudden and brutal violence, and the stench of hard luck. Driscoll is marked as a loser right from the first scene, but just about every character we meet fits that description to a greater or lesser extent. The strongest examples of film noir introduced viewers to a gallery of misfits, chiselers, cheats, and saps. 99 River Street seems to have nothing else but such people, and director Phil Karlson positively revels in the sordid, seedy world these guys inhabit. The movie studiously avoids any sense of glamor, telling its tale against a backdrop of run down stores, dingy back rooms and waterfront bars. The decrepit city setting was a staple of many a noir picture, and Karlson uses it well to evoke a world of lost hopes and broken dreams. He also keeps the pace brisk and that helps add to the sense of urgency of Driscoll’s quest. Stylistically, the film only intermittently features what could be termed classic noir visuals in the first half – the “confession” by Linda in a deserted theater being one example – but cameraman Franz Planer does turn it on as the climax approaches. The final chase and fight along the dockside makes use of a selection of long, medium and close-up shots, and bathes them all in atmospheric, inky shadows. Karlson was doing some great work in the 50s, and a movie like 99 River Street genuinely celebrates the meanness and toughness of film noir at its best. It’s also interesting to note the way the movie plays around with the viewer’s perceptions of reality – the opening sequence that turns out to be a television recording, and the theater scene that tricks both the audience and the lead character.
John Payne is something of a forgotten man these days, probably due to the fact that most of his best work was done in B movies and programmers. Starting with The Crooked Way in 1949 though, he made a series of tough and entertaining noirs and westerns, frequently working for Karlson or Allan Dwan. He had a rough, lived-in look about him that made him believable in these movies, and 99 River Street drew on that weary, beaten appearance. Payne gave a very edgy performance, full of rage, frustration and a kind of bitter misogyny. He completely convinced as a man who knew himself for a sap, who allowed himself to be strung along by the wrong kind of women all his life, and despised himself and them for it. His sudden bursts of violence when provoked too far had a ring of authenticity to them – whenever he landed a punch you could tell he meant it to do the maximum damage. Of course, a hard character like this needs something or someone to balance them, to ground them and stop them sliding too far into macho aggression. Evelyn Keyes was nearing the end of her big screen career, having hit the heights in Gone with the Wind, and so had just the right kind of faded disillusionment for her role. Initially, she comes across as slightly skittish and flaky, but soon proves her worth when the chips are down. There’s a common misconception that the only interesting women in film noir are those who play the femme fatale. However, I’m of the opinion that the frequently unsung Girl-Friday parts are every bit as significant. Keyes’ role here is vital in eliciting sympathy for Payne – without her presence and loyalty, there’s a danger of his less attractive qualities running out of control. That’s not to say the femme fatale, Peggie Castle in this case, is unimportant here. However, her role is much more one-dimensional and consequently less interesting. The film features a particularly strong supporting line-up: Frank Faylen is very likeable as Payne’s stoic boss, and Brad Dexter does a nice line in smarm and self-interest. Rounding out the cast is Jay Adler as a vindictive fence and Jack Lambert as his strong-arm sidekick.
There are a few options as far as DVD editions of 99 River Street are concerned. The film has been released as a MOD disc in the US via MGM, and it’s also available on pressed disc in Spain from Art House/Paycom. I have the Spanish release, and the transfer is pretty good. There are some instances of softness here and there, but it’s clean and sharp for the most part. One criticism I do have is that I found the sound a little low at times – not very poor, but noticeable. The disc has no extra features and subtitles are not forced – they can be disabled from the setup menu. All in all, I think 99 River Street is a fine example of early 50s film noir, exhibiting a harder edge than the usual 40s variety. It also shows off Karlson’s ability to shoot lean, tight little movies economically. He’s a director who’s not really known outside of film buff circles and I think his stronger films, such as this one, deserve a bit more attention. It’s worth checking out.