There are a considerable number of film noir conventions which appear in film after film, but one of the marks of a truly good noir is its ability to incorporate some of these conventions in a unique and unusual way. One of the most gratifying things about the 1953 movie 99 River Street is the striking and memorable manner some of the archetypal elements of the genre are recreated by their placement in the film.
This is not to say that 99 River Street was consciously written or shot as a noir; anyone even remotely familiar with the history of this film genre knows that the noir was “discovered” by French film critics as they noted the recurring themes and distinctive style present in the most illustrious American crime films and thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s. Without wishing to enter explicitly into the debate at this time, I would nevertheless say that the French critics were right, and had in fact isolated cinematic proof of the unrest that seethed through post-WWII America. But like all great artistic concerns, the themes of the best film noirs were more than merely contemporary and strictly historical issues; part of the reason the genre is so widely studied and loved today is because it is at bottom an exploration of the darker side of human life, an acknowledgement of the force which circumstance, chance, and sheer luck have in shaping every life, and an unflinching look at the capacity of each soul to contain both good and evil.
99 River Street runs a compact 83 minutes and was directed by Phil Karlson, whose other notable contributions to noir include Kansas City Confidential (1952), 5 Against the House (1955), and The Brothers Rico (1957). It`s a violent little film with all the bitter trimmings of a good noir, from the beautiful, mercenary, two-timing blonde, to the tough hoods and double-crossing thieves, to the disillusioned working-class hero.
In this case, the hero is an ex-boxer called Ernie Driscoll (played by John Payne) and the duplicitous dame is his wife Pauline (the lovely Peggie Castle). The film opens with a graphic depiction of a brutal boxing match during which Payne is painfully defeated by his opponent, despite his violent efforts; the scene is shot in such a way that the spectator is confronted with the full horror of the spectacle.
And then we realize that the boxing match is a television replay of a past event, being watched by Ernie in his New York apartment to his wife’s disgust. Few films set up their “backstory” in such a succinct and effective way; within minutes we know that during the televised match Ernie was injured so badly that he’s now debarred from the ring, his ambitions of becoming “a champ” a thing of the past (interestingly, this film actually predates On the Waterfront by a year).
Pauline, who before her marriage was a showgirl with her own share of ambition, is disgusted by Ernie’s failure, his current job as a taxi driver, their poverty, and his dreams of domesticity and owning a gas station. She decides to take a quicker route to the American Dream of wealth and fame, and we soon learn (along with Ernie) that she has found another man, one who’s just stolen $50,000 worth of diamonds.
And so the story begins, progressing rapidly towards multiple murders, violent confrontations, police-dodging, and other dangerous activities. The film takes place during one eventful night, during which Ernie is helped by aspiring actress Linda James (played by Evelyn Keyes). While it would be wise to avoid revealing too much of the plot, a few further remarks on the movie can be made without killing too much of the suspense for future viewer.
As in much noir, ambition–both financial and otherwise–plays a large role in the life of the average person. The desire for fame and fortune which plagues both Pauline and her husband also infects most of the other characters in the movie, both good and bad. Linda James (Keyes) is a struggling actress who will stop at almost nothing to get one of those “breakthrough parts” every actor dreams of; Pauline’s love for her husband dies a swift death when his career gets all washed up (to borrow a phrase from noir lingo); and the movie’s villains entangle themselves in a complex set of crosses and double-crosses liberally sprinkled with theft, murder, and violence in their own quest for money. The film does not hesitate to show that both good people and bad want to succeed in their own way; what distinguishes the good from the bad are the lengths to which they are willing to go in order to gain that success. Linda in particular is driven to make amends to Ernie for the harm she does him in her quest for glory, demonstrating a rare triumph of moral scruple over worldly benefit.
But what comes through most clearly about Ernie is his anger, his tendency to let rage dictate his first actions. Even his friends are liable to suffer if they are in his vicinity at an unfavorable moment; this is no peaceable hero. Ernie is an angry man, a man whose failures are ever present, one whose innate violence comes to the fore in his final encounter with the killer, a scene that makes use of the chains of the shipyard walkway to echo the ropes of the boxing ring.
There is no proof in the film that the violence which Ernie uses on the killer would have had any other than a fatal end had not Ernie been interrupted, a point which raises valid doubts in the viewer’s mind about the change or lack of change which has come about in Ernie during the duration of the movie. Or is the film making a statement about the hold which one’s past has upon one? Either way, the question is worth pondering.
Indeed, the film is unusual in the consistency of Ernie’s attitude towards the world, an attitude colored by a cynicism and despair he acquired first-hand during his rise and fall in the boxing world. One of the film`s most memorable speeches takes place when Ernie and Linda find momentary respite from the police. Linda`s tentative expression of possible romantic feelings for Ernie is met by a tirade about the faithlessness and cupidity of women, a lesson that Ernie has learnt most recently through the example of his wife, but which he also backs by a vivid description of the female adulation he briefly enjoyed as a boxer. There is an uncomfortable grittiness and animality represented in the movie (as in much film generally) by the nominally respectable boxing profession, and the film also uses this to its advantage by subtly suggesting how Ernie’s violence is associated in his mind with the triumphs of his boxing days, thus creating a spurious alliance between aggression and achievement.
Besides the excitements of the plot and the complexities of its main characters, the film offers one of the other pleasures of film noir in its procession of odd and entertaining minor characters and intriguing locations (the pet shop masking a fence’s office is a memorable example). Furthermore, Evelyn Keyes has a memorable scene near the end of the film as she attempts to lure the killer out of a cafe, going through all the femme fatale tricks in the book and even inventing some new ones along the way.
99 River Street also boasts ravishing cinematography, working that filmic wonder whereby dingy and sordid localities reveal structure and beauty. One of the most interesting things film noir achieved was the glorification or discovery of the urban landscape, and this film does nothing to weaken that claim. Indeed, it could be recommended for its visuals alone; yet it is so solid in most other respects that it can safely be recommended to all those who enjoy either film noir or movies which deliver both the thrill of action and the greater pleasure of intriguing characters.