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'99 River Street' Feints and Punches

This noir throws several clever misdirections at the viewer.

99 River Street

Director: Phil Karlson
Cast: John Payne, Evelyn Keyes
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1953
USDVD release date: 2016-06-21

This independent noir, produced by Edward Small for distribution through United Artists, opens like a boxing picture -- more like Mark Robson's Champion (1949), which was shot by the same cinematographer, the great Franz Planer, than like the smoky Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947). As noir historian Eddie Muller observes in his commentary on this new Blu-ray, the actors in this film aren't good at pretending to be boxers.

As directed by Phil Karlson, however, the film itself has no such problem. Light on its feet and dexterous of plot, this film throws many an expert feint at the viewer before landing a few solid punches, and it's hard to say which moves are the most entertaining.

The story's first fake-out occurs as we watch the boxing match, which suddenly transitions to a TV broadcast making it clear that this fight happened years ago to its battered loser, Ernie Driscoll (Phil Payne). He can't stop from wallowing in his great moment of failure, to the annoyance of wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Even as this disorienting transition occurs, the film is smart enough to present the TV image as an unedited single shot, as it really would be in a broadcast, which is not how the fight was presented before the transition. Thus, we shift from a present reality, or possibly a memory, to a new and credible formal medium.

A greater feint occurs when an aspiring actress, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), delivers a lengthy, increasingly hysterical soliloquy that, just for good measure, is presented in a single virtuoso take. Again, the presentation is modulated in a way that fits the context, because it makes sense that her performance should be melodramatic and mannered. This scene is crucial for throwing a major curve at the viewer and teasing us with the sheer joy of narrative, which amplifies Karlson's simpler pleasure in hard-hitting violence during the scenes of fisticuffs. His films tend to be punchy, while this one is also twisty.

Except for the coda and arguably the opening shots of the boxing match, the entire drama takes place in one doozy of a night for bitter cabdriver Ernie, who's still sore that he coulda been a contender. This script by Robert Smith and George Zuckerman (with Smith polishing Zuckerman's script, according to Muller) is full of contrivance and credibility stretchers, but that doesn't stop it from being well constructed and surprising. Not to give anything away, it involves a sleazy jewel robber (Brad Dexter), his vividly realized cronies (Jay Adler, Jack Lambert), at least two plotlines at cross purposes, a big frame-up, and the contrast between a femme fatale and a stand-up woman, both of whom are excellent at deception.

This remastering looks wonderful, although it can't help heightening the clumsy matting effect in several shots. Only a few shots have visible damage, evidently sustained on the negative. Muller, who knew Keyes personally, tells background about her and the others involved in the production, and he calls attention to Karlson's manner of staging tense, confrontational scenes with reverse angles that look up toward the dominant character and down upon the threatened character.


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