Jan 15, 2011

99 River Street (1953)


Open on grainy footage inside a sweaty, crowded boxing arena. Cut to closeup of boxer Ernie Driscoll getting hit in the face- sweat sprays onto the camera. Cut to a shot of Driscoll watching himself box on the television set. The television narrator remarks that this was Payne's final fight. Cut to an extreme closeup of Ernie's eyes and sweaty forehead. His eyelids blink when the narrator explains that an eye injury ended his career.

This decoupage, which opens 99 River Street, is compact storytelling at its best. We learn all we need to about our flawed hero in little screen time, and have had that communicated visually. Within these few moments we learn that our protagonist has had a fall from grace, and is prone to violence: classic traits of a film noir anti-hero. These first few moments also personify the economy of B-movies at their best: lean, no-nonsense prose with not a moment wasted- a perfect example of achieving much by working with so little.

Driscoll (John Payne) now works at night driving a taxi, and on the surface he seems to enjoy his new environment: trading quips with his dispatcher (Frank Faylen- best remembered today as the sadistic orderly in The Lost Weekend and the cab driver in It's A Wonderful Life) and struggling actress Linda James (Evelyn Keyes) who likewise hangs out at the local diner. But as that opening sequence also suggests, all is not well below the surface, which is about to erupt. He just discovers that his wife Pauline (blonde bombshell Peggie Castle) is cheating on him with a two-bit mobster (Brad Dexter), who then kills her over complications with obtaining stolen jewels and plants her body in Ernie's taxi! For the rest of the film (which takes place entirely in one night), Payne, with the help of Keyes, tries to track down the hoods who were involved with her death, and evade the police in the process.

From those opening shots, this movie simply does not let up, save for the rushed resolution. The story seems to change with every other scene, and no matter how outrageous this scenario escalates it is always kept believable, not that we are given much time to ponder such things. The cast reciprocates with game energy for the colourful roles they are given. Evelyn Keyes is given a great scene that most thespians would starve for, describing the sensation of being forced to kill someone out of defense-- all presented in one single take. While the camera remains on her throughout this scene, we "see" the act in our minds. This deceptively simple approach is a marvel of cinema. There is also a good supporting role for Jack Lambert (a familiar character player of the decade) as a mob flunkie who often crosses paths with Payne in this long night.

99 River Street
may be the best of director Phil Karlson's noirs, made on a roll in the 1950's, and bears his distinctive docu-realism style (exemplary also in The Phenix City Story). This film is largely a symphony of close-ups and low angles, offering a lean, mean depiction of the world of violence and deceit into which Payne is thrown.

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