“99 River Street” (MGM Limited Edition Collection)
Phil Karlson is, to my mind, the toughest of the film noir directors. Films like Kansas City Confidential (1952) and Phenix City Story (1955) gives us heroes who get knocked around by life and come up for more. 99 River Street (1953), arguably Karlson’s greatest film and certainly his most beautifully brutal, is a film driven by the fury of a man who is tired of being life’s punching bag.
The film opens on a boxing match shot Weegee style: spare, bright, all close-ups and hard light on our boxer hero, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), getting one of the fiercest beatings I’ve seen in a classic Hollywood film. While Scorsese never acknowledged it specifically as an influence on his Raging Bull boxing scenes, the inspiration is obvious. The kicker to this prologue is too good to spoil, but suffice it to say that it is just one of the inventive storytelling inspirations that both enlivens the film and informs the character. Ernie was once a contender and while he still relives that fight in his head, he’s rolled with the blows and come up with a new plan, driving a cab while saving for a new, more modest dream. Not so his wife (Peggie Castle), who hitched herself to this rising star in anticipation of the high life and ended up in a crummy apartment and a job slinging drinks at a cocktail bar. She’s got plans and it involves a sleazy thief (Brad Dexter, playing it with an arrogant, greedy twinkle) and a fortune in jewels that his own arrogance has made worthless. He needs a patsy and Ernie is his guy.
Along with the working class milieu and the blue collar loyalty of his dispatcher buddy Stan (Frank Faylen in upbeat form) and still-idealistic young actress Linda (Evelyn Keyes), a buddy from his coffee-shop breaks, Karlson gives this brawny noir a shot of theatrical flair that joins it, if only momentarily, with a rarified sub-genre of noir where the exaggerated melodrama of theater and actors gets tangled in the “real world” of troubled characters, personal betrayal and criminal threats. Linda, so wrapped in her own dreams, twists the knife in wounds she has no idea even exist when she pulls Ernie into her world of make-believe, but redeems herself by using her talents (and putting herself on the line) with a performance in the theater of life.