For this edition Shadows of Film Noir, it's time for Phil Karlson's tough 99 River Street, produced by United Artists in 1953. It will be playing in a new print on Saturday, May 15 at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema. The film is not available on DVD, but for those not lucky enough to see it on the big screen, it is at least available streaming on Hulu.
Behind the Scenes
Director Phil Karlson was born in Chicago in 1908, the son of an Irish stage actress. He attended law school in Los Angeles, and began working in the movie industry as a prop man. He moved up to assistant director and began making his own films in the 1940s. Despite directing one notable, early Marilyn Monroe film, he did not make a mark until the 1950s, with a series of very tough, violent film noirs. This run eventually ended, and he went on to make Elvis Presley and Dean Martin films, and his career culminated with his biggest hit, the drive-in classic Walking Tall (1973). Critics and historians never really agree on Karlson's masterpiece, but discussions usually come down to a trio of noirs, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955). Kansas City Confidential is widely available in the public domain, but an official MGM/UA DVD was released in 2007. The Phenix City Story is much harder to find. Karlson died in 1985.
Karlson worked three times with actor John Payne, who studied acting and singing and even wrestled for a bit. He's one of those guys you might call a "big lug," and is best known for believing in Kris Kringle and romancing Maureen O'Hara in Miracle on 34th Street. In his later career, he's best known for his tough guys in lower-budget noirs and Westerns. He eventually became the father-in-law of screenwriter Robert Towne. According to some sources, Payne and Karlson both contributed to the screenplay for 99 River Street, their second film together. Payne died in 1989.
What It's About
Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) is a washed-up boxer who was on the verge of becoming champ until he injured his eye in the ring. He's married to the gorgeous Pauline (Peggie Castle), who was hoping for the good life, and now spends her time being angry and disappointed. But she has chosen a way out; her new lover Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter) is a thief who has just stolen a batch of diamonds and hopes to trade it for enough cash to skip town. Meanwhile, Ernie decides to help a friend, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), an actress hoping for a break on Broadway. Through a complex series of circumstances and coincidences, the cops are soon hunting Ernie for an assault and battery charge (which is real) and a murder charge (which is false).
The Lure of the Underworld
Usually, a noir hero makes a bad choice that sends him running irrevocably down the wrong road, and it usually has something to do with either money or women. In Ernie's case, he's mostly innocent; he never consciously makes a choice to enter the underworld. On the contrary, his dream is to save up enough money to open a gas station! His mistake came years earlier when he confused the adoration of his female fans -- like Pauline -- for the real thing. ("When I was a kid I thought I'd grow up and meet a girl who'd stick in my corner, no matter what. Then I grew up," he says.) Pauline betrays him, his career betrays him, and his own brute strength betrays him. When he loses his temper, he has the power to kill, and thus his assault and battery charge could result in some real, hard time.
The Femme Fatale
Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. Neither Pauline nor Linda are genuine femmes fatale. Pauline is sexy and duplicitous, but she does not draw Ernie into her illicit activities. She deliberately seeks not to involve him. Indeed, she's more a passive victim, allowing her fate to be decided by her new boyfriend. A true femme fatale is mostly in control, seducing and bringing down a man over the course of the film. And even though Linda tricks Ernie with a stunt designed to get her a part in a play, she turns out to have a heart of gold, and eventually risks her own safety to stick by Ernie.
99 River Street is notable for its frank, brutal violence, which doesn't stop at images of men smacking around women. Andrew Sarris wrote that one of Karlson's themes was the outbreak of violence in a world controlled by criminals and the corrupt. The film opens on an absolutely astonishing boxing sequence, close-up, ringside and off-kilter, that Martin Scorsese surely studied before he made Raging Bull. Karlson continues this low-angle violence throughout, and even echoes certain key shots over the course of the film. Many small moments further establish his agenda, such as when Rawlins simultaneously takes a belt of liquor and slugs a man in the jaw. In another scene, Linda plays out a lengthy post-murder scene in panicked close-up, with no cuts or cutaways.
What Was Said
"His movies are remarkable for their endless outlay of scary cheapness in detailing the modern underworld. Also, Karlson's work has a chilling documentary exactness and an exciting shot-scattering belligerence." - Manny Farber
"Unpretentious film really packs a punch." - Leonard Maltin
"It's an example of the kind of humble brilliance that often emerged from the American genre cinema." - Dave Kehr
"There are worse things than murder. You can kill somebody an inch at a time."