99 River Street (1953)

Down at 99 River Street (1953) meet furious and and pent-up ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll; his devious but gorgeous wife Pauline; Ernie's wife's lover, a sleazy diamond thief whose got a new line in murder; and Ernie's old pal Linda James, an aspiring actress who, almost in the style of Team America ― uses her acting powers to solve the crime.

There, down at 99 River Street is where these all converge, with of course the cops and the diamond fencing gang, who are an especially brutal coterie of evil, with big spade hands for chopping necks and revolvers for the killing slug.

In for the worst weekend of his life, angry former boxer and now full time cabbie Ernie Driscoll lives life on  ropes, when he's not reliving the fatal moment in the ring where he was defeated, felled and retired, all in one series of sucker punches to the eye and gut.

It's likely one of the most definitive film noir set-ups going —  the ex-boxer, living in the shadows of society, struggling with women, struggling with the past, and struggling with crime which seems to be all around him.

We are all in to witness the fantastic escapades that ensue, when Ernie Driscoll takes yet another sucker punch to the guts.

It is supreme film noir fayre.

As noted, Ernie is trapped in the past, and like many an honest sap, is tackling the present with as much morality as he can. He's also trapped in a marriage with a woman whom it turns out is far less than moral herself.

To make matters worse, it's a bad weekend because his failure is being broadcast on primetime, on this new-fangled television that everybody's got.

It is an incredible set-up —  being able to witness your own shame, your failure, and humiliation on national television, and in your own home. And then when we cut to that home, we find that this too is a place of humiliation for poor old Ernie Driscoll.

The opening scenes of 99 River Street are pure brilliance, as may be handled by any director in any period. There is nuance and there are layers; there is action and for film noir there is a frame. 99 River Street opens with John Payne as a boxer in a fight.

Peggie Castle as Pauline Driscoll, less than pleased in 99 River Street (1953)

However, to offer us a frame for the telling, which film noir did so well, with so many directors and producers creating new and different frames ― it materialises that we are watching this fight on television many years later.

Not just that, but we are watching Ernie Driscoll watching the fight; and not just that be we are watching his wife watching him, and she is not pleased. The cruelty of their marriage and the frustration they both feel ― she with his failure and he with the trap he's in ― make it one of the best openings of any film noir.

Peggie Castle and John Payne in 99 River Street (1953)

Evelyn Keyes acting the actor in 99 River Street (1953)

It is the modernistic side of film noir; that which elevates the storytelling, not for commentary, philosophy or any other smart reason ― even despite the suggestive meat-readings one can make ― it is framing at its best, and so many different film noirs offer so many different frames.

The story is not told within another story, but through another medium almost. At the start of 99 River Street, the story is told through the television set, an advance in itself.

Framing becomes a trope of the medium; every film noir worth the name will carry a framing device of sorts. Less so the color noirs of later years but think of the body in the pool in Sunset Boulevard; the skyline shot in Lost Weekend; the many newsreel openings that Citizen Kane injected into the noir style; the voiceovers and narrations; the tales told within tales in the likes of I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes. 

John Payne in 99 River Street (1953) - - You've Been Framed, pal

Legs et noir in 99 River Street (1953)
Another cute framing device?

Ernie Driscoll - - you absolute sap!
99 River Street (1953)

The frame is vital in film noir.  John Payne is instantly shown in close up watching this boxing match, and appears in close up constantly throughout 99 River Street. This works so well because we see everything we need there, on that face. 

All is framed however, right down to the poor sap who must clear his name. The innocent man with a murder rap pinned on him is another film noir staple.

He's got to be strong to master the forces of fate, femininity and the feral workings of organised crime.

Brad Dexter enjoys yet more legs
99 River Street (1953)

Probably the strongest failing of all in such a drama as this, is indecision; an important feature in any leading male film noir character; but we see the rage brewing , and the horror too, the shock at his own condition, at his lack of eyesight at times and most vital of all to the drama, we see Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) beaten down again, and on the ropes, starting to hear that count ― and finally placed in that focal point where so much of film noir takes place ― the man alone with his voice.

Evelyn Keyes - - acting horrified in 99 River Street (1953)

The exceptionally unusual theater scene in 99 River Street (1953)

It is for this reason that 99 River Street succumbs to the use of the voiceover near the end, when Ernie is crawling his last few yards, fighting for his life and to clear his name.

Although not ever enjoyed as one of the greats of film noir, 99 River Street has everything for full film noir chops. Above all the escapism into dark fantasy as an aspect of the overall effect works beautifully. The male hero is neck deep in bad luck, in malignant women and a dark, dark journey to clear his name.

Jack Lambert gets tough with John Payne
99 River Street (1953)

Jack Lambert - - slugged by a bozo
99 River Street (1953)

The next layer of this film noir perfection concerns the weakened male lead regaining his belief in himself as a man, which is a huge theme here and common to the style. 

What makes 99 River Street so outstanding in these areas is that the second female lead, Linda James played by Evelyn Keyes, acts out this elaborate and detailed charade for quite a long portion of the early part of the film, confusing our poor male hero with regards femininity to a deeper level than can be previously managed in noir.

This refers to the scene in the theatre in 99 River Street, which is one of the greatest reveals and surprises, and is an elaborate deception the likes of which could only exist in film noir; this too again because of framing, because this whole sequence of action between John Payne and Evelyn Keyes is framed by the theatre; offering commentary from several angles.

Glenn Langan

The whole theater set-up and the massive false game that is played, in all its oddity also brilliantly brings in a class element to 99 River Street, and although Ernie Driscoll does a fair amount of fighting in the picture, it genuinely is satisfying to see him smacking out the middle class types on Broadway.

In fact, the fighting itself is first rate, everywhere in the film. Always tough, much more brutal than the movies of only five years before, there is blood and furniture, torn clothes and rolling across the floor. It's one of these movies where the guns don't seem so threatening, and look small compared to everybody's hands.

Down at the old Harbor Light Cafe  . . .

 . . . Evelyn Keyes is acting as a loose dame

One of the joys of film noir is that as a style, it was clever before such things were clever. The meta-possibilities of an actress playing an actress, who acts as a loose dame on the make, when she is in fact the solid-gold girl-next-door  - - for which read wife-material - - is lost in the pure fun of film noir. Nobody makes a virtue of this sort of thing - - it's normal for the style to be so playful.

It means that Evelyn Keys has a role here with meat,. She gets to play the nice girl and the femme fatale, simultaneously. She gets to play the demure girl and the fun lover too ― Linda James is a truly great role in film noir.

Witness the cigarette sex she carries on with Brad Dexter, one of the weirdest items of noir erotica in the entire canon.

Cigarettey Sex - - Evelyn Keyes and Brad Dexter 
99 River Street (1953)

Lastly, the lovely denouement down at the eponymous venues of the title, River Street - - which happens to be at the harbour.

John Payne, slugged one last time is being taken to his execution by the thugs, crammed in the thugmobile and bearing down on the last remaining witnesses to their heinous activities.

Brad Dexter brushes off Evelyn Keyes and heads along the dock front with a gun, there to take out his nemesis, good-guy and sap, John Payne.

The two meet up on the gangway of an ocean going ship, where Ernie Driscoll gets his second chance. He hears the boxing fight that we heard at the head of the film; the crowd is jeering, or is it cheering? He is on the ropes, or are they chains?

Everything is going to hinge on him getting up and fighting on. He's defeated after another long bout, because it has been a tough 83 minutes for him, being beaten, duped, framed and suckered. 

And 83 minutes is incredibly tight; a lot of noir is packed into that time.

Visit River Street on Wikipedia


99 River Street is a 1953 film noir directed by Phil Karlson and starring John Payne and Evelyn Keyes, Brad Dexter, Frank Faylen, and Peggie Castle. The screenplay is by Robert Smith, based on a short story by George Zuckerman. The film was produced by Edward Small, with cinematography by Franz Plane

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