Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on October 3, 1953
Directed by Phil Karlson
Written by Robert Smith, from a story by George Zuckerman
Cast: John Payne, Evelyn Keyes, Brad Dexter, Frank Faylen, Peggie Castle, Jay Adler, Jack Lambert, Glenn Langan, Eddy Waller, Ian Wolfe, John Daheim, William Tannen, Peter Leeds, Helen Kleeb, Claire Carleton, Vivi Janiss
“You don’t know what he’s like. He broods about things, and suddenly explodes.”
A snappy, action-packed film noir that grabbed hold of me and refused to let go; an incredibly entertaining 83 minutes of noir twists, turns, and atmosphere, directed with style and smarts by Phil Karlson, who displayed a sharp noir mentality that was present in every scene. Everything about this effort was top-notch, from the direction to the story to the actors, but what really hit home was the pervading sense that the world was spiraling downward for each and every one of these characters, and only a few—if any—would make it out unscathed.
John Payne plays down-on-his-luck cab driver Ernie Driscoll, a decent guy who almost hit the big time as a boxer, who finds himself the sap in a plan hatched by his cheating wife, and is soon chased by thugs, hunted by cops, and accused of murder, all in the span of one night. This poor slob is betrayed at every turn, but he’s soon had enough and begins fighting back, slugging heavies and jerks senseless with every vengeful opportunity. Eventually an actress friend decides to help clear his name, and both find themselves mixed up with a dangerous diamond fence and his goons, as well as the hood who’s actually responsible for the murder.
This unheralded little film was just loaded with surprises, and I especially loved the way several semi-connected stories collided at the midpoint, then collided yet again at film’s end, at where else but 99 River Street. There were some fairly sexy scenes, too, especially when hot dame Peggie Castle was involved, and it’s a shame she didn’t appear in more noir films; she had the right attitude and a luscious look about her. And without a doubt my favorite moment involved Payne turning the tables on quintessential noir henchman Jack Lambert; for me, the sight of a deserving thug getting the absolute hell beaten out of him was icing on a dark, rain-slicked cake.
I was first introduced to Payne via an earlier noir film, Kansas City Confidential, but it was in 99 River Street that I really took notice of him and his skills as a noir actor: his character was a chump, but one who refused to be duped or taken advantage of, and whose boxing skills and temper were indeed a volatile combination. His face and expressions gave off a ‘tired with life’ vibe, but when pushed too far, his passive mug hardened to one of cynicism and barely-contained rage. I loved how director Karlson used extreme close-ups and head shots to emphasize these boiling point moments, where Payne spoke his sharp-edged lines with utter conviction. This was not a guy to be messed with.
Karlson established a wonderful noir mood with his camera angles, lighting, and clever touches, and made the audience feel like they were walking and driving the nighttime streets of New York City along with Payne, even though most of the movie was filmed inside sets and on studio back lots. To me, 99 River Street is one of the roughest and most mean-spirited noirs ever made…not one character was safe from being punched, shoved, slapped, clubbed, or beaten down with harsh words. This is a fine example of film noir done right, with plenty of choice dialogue and compelling situations to keep any fan of the style entertained. (9/10)