99 River Street is directed by Phil Karlson and adapted to screenplay by Robert Smith from a story by George Zuckerman. It stars John Payne, Evelyn Keyes, Brad Dexter, Frank Faylen, Jay Adler, Eddie Waller and Peggie Castle. Music is by Arthur Lange and Emil Newman and cinematography by Franz Planer.
After sustaining a serious eye injury, boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne) has had to retire from the ring and now drives a cab for a living. Constantly chided by his beautiful wife, Pauline (Castle), for being a failure, Ernie is close to breaking point when he finds that she is having an affair with a charismatic jewel thief. So when Pauline turns up dead in the back of Ernie's cab, he's obviously the chief suspect. But along with actress friend Linda James (Keyes), he attempts to unravel the mystery that is threatening to destroy his life.
Tough as old boots, 99 River Street is the kind of unsung film noir crying out to be discovered by more like minded cinephiles. Though short of expressionistic verve, which was never Karlson's thing anyway, all the elements for a nitty-gritty noir are in place. New York forms the backdrop as a city of broken dreams, shattered illusions, a place frequented by unfaithful spouses, shifty fences, violent thieves and theatrical luvvies so far removed from the real post war world it would be funny were it no so sad! Smack bang in the middle of this tainted Americana is Ernie Driscoll, basically a good guy, but when pushed into a corner emotionally or physically, he strikes out in the only way he knows how, with his fists.
As Karlson blurs the lines between the theatrical world and that of the real one, deftly essayed by Ernie and Linda, the director is clearly enjoying having such colourful characters to work with. Payne's tough guy anti-hero, Keyes' savvy heroine, Adler's unerringly menacing fence, Dexter's oily villain and Castle's disgustingly selfish wife. Throw in some thugs, persistent coppers and humane counterpoints portrayed by Faylen and Waller, and it's a nicely simmering broth of bad news, sexual suggestion and off-kilter redemption's. Violence is rife, and it's not the sort of staged violence that reeks of fake scents, this stuff hits hard, something which Karlson was always very adept at.
The director also introduces some striking filming techniques to pump the picture with an edgy frankness. The opening sequence featuring Ernie's last fight is wonderfully staged, low angles and close ups put the sweat and pain front and centre, it's a smart set-up for when the story comes full circle at film's punchy finale. Another sequence features a panic stricken Linda begging Ernie for his help with something, the camera sticks rigidly to her, this also is a delightful set-up that has a sting in the tail. There's mirror images dropped in, scene echoes that mean something of note, one of which sees Karlson film a shot dead centre through the spread legs of Castle. So cheeky, and what a pair of legs as well!
An unsung noir full of unsung actors (Payne is excellent) and directed with cunning absorption, 99 River Street is a must see. 8/10
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