Crime pictures don’t come much tougher than Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street. They also don’t come much smarter, better acted, or more suspenseful. In short, they don’t come much better.
99 River Street is the nighttime odyssey of an ex-boxer turned cabbie named Ernie Driscoll (John Payne). The night begins pretty badly, with Ernie watching a television program recounting his last fight—a fight where he not only got beat, but suffered a career-ending injury to his left eye. It’s bad enough for Ernie to watch a replay of the worst moment of his life, but his no-good, ex-showgirl wife Pauline (Peggy Castle) is watching it with him. Sensitive soul that she is, she takes the opportunity to remind him what a deadbeat he is. She married a guy on his way to the top, she complains. Now she’s stuck with a loser driving a cab and talking about opening a gas station.
Ernie drives Pauline to work—suffering an ass-chewing the whole way—and then he heads to a coffee shop before his shift starts. While he’s there he runs into his friend Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), a struggling actress. She’s on her way to an audition for a big part. Ernie wishes her luck. Nice girl. One can’t help but note the contrast with Ernie’s wife. He probably notes it, too, but he wants to make his marriage work. To smooth things over with Pauline, he buys an expensive box of candy and takes it over to the florist's shop where she works, but when he gets there he catches her with another man, a hood named Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter). Turns out Rawlins has just pulled off a big jewel heist. He’s ready to leave town with Pauline.
Things have just begun and one of the pleasures of 99 River Street is the way the plot complications keep coming. Ernie’s in for one hell of a night: murder, multiple betrayals, police dragnets for two different crimes, a carload of gangsters, and more ass-kicking than anyone can keep track of. The script by Robert Smith, from a story by George Zuckerman (reworked by Karlson and Payne) is a brilliant example of the “long dark night” subgenre of noir.
I love the Long Dark Night. An ordinary man with pressing problems discovers one night that his entire life has come to a head. The sun has gone down, and his world is about to fly apart. Maybe he will survive this night, and maybe he won’t, but either way everything is about to change. As Ernie Driscoll crisscrosses nighttime New York City, dodging cops and gangsters, having his heart broken over and over, he’s forced to face down his demons and summon strengths he didn’t know he possessed.
Phil Karlson was one of noir’s great directors. His impressive list of credits includes Scandal Sheet with Broderick Crawford, Kansas City Confidential and Hell’s Island (both with Payne), and the early corruption drama The Phenix City Story. Any noir fan will probably have their favorite Karlson movie, but 99 River Street exemplifies what was best about his work. It’s exciting and completely unsentimental. Karlson was a master of action, and this movie is his masterpiece of brutality. It begins with a savage boxing match and ends with a white-knuckle slugfest on the docks. In between is a cavalcade of slappings, beatings, and gun fights. In a genre known for ass-kicking, 99 River Street is an ass-kicking nirvana.
Yet it’s also an incredibly well-acted drama. Payne is one of noir’s great underrated performers. A former pretty-boy song-and-dance man, he matured into a perfect lead for the mean streets. His fleshy face and stocky build belied a subtle voice and dark, mournful eyes. His support here could not be better. Evelyn Keyes, another underrated noir performer, is perky, sexy and funny as Linda. She has two big scenes (one in a theater and one in a seedy bar) that will leave you wondering how she managed to avoid a huge career in movies. The beautiful but tragic Peggy Castle (an alcoholic who eventually drank herself to death) is wonderfully mean as Payne’s no-good wife, and she’s matched perfectly with Brad Dexter as her hoodlum boyfriend. Dexter’s one of my favorite supporting players in noir, a cool, understated actor with blue eyes that are intense and soulless at the same time. He’s best known for his brief turn as the corrupt private-eye in The Asphalt Jungle, but this is his best performance. He’s so smarmy you can barely wait to see Payne beat the shit out of him.
It can be tricky to define film noir for newcomers to the genre, but here’s a pretty good shorthand for beginners: 99 River Street.