99 River Street (aka Crosstown, 1953)
Directed by Phil Karlson
Produced by Edward Small
Screenplay by Robert Smith
Based on the short story “Crosstown” by George Zuckerman
Cinematography by Franz Planer
Edited by Buddy Small
Music by Arthur Lange, Emil Newman
World Films (Edward Small Productions)
Distributed by United Artists
(1:23) Kino Lorber Blu-ray
You could certainly be excused for watching the first 10 minutes of 99 River Street, dismissing it as just another “coulda been a contender” flick about a down-and-out fighter trying to cope with life outside the ring, but if you stop there, you’ll miss one of the most neglected film noir firecrackers of all time.
Ex-fighter Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) sits in his apartment watching himself on television, one of those “Fight Classics” programs featuring Ernie’s fight against the heavyweight champion from three years earlier. Ernie is soundly beating the champ until Ernie gets a cut on his eye, which stops the fight and ends his career. Now he’s stuck in a dead end job as a cab driver with a wife named Pauline (Peggie Castle, below, left) who’s fed up with his low-paying wages, longing for the finer things Ernie will never be able to give her.
So what, right? We’ve only seen this set-up about a zillion times in countless other movies and TV shows. What makes 99 River Street worth your time? The film is filled with twists and turns, excellent performances, really nasty villains, and some of the most brutal fight scenes (and not necessarily in the ring) in film noir.
The brutality of the film is hinted at early on as Ernie watches his championship bout on TV. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were watching a real fight with real punches: noses get crushed; heads jerk from the impact of gloved fists. We know we’re going to see much more fighting, and not in a boxing ring. And we do.
Yet the brutality isn’t just physical. Not only does Pauline hold nothing back in telling him what she thinks of him, but Ernie takes a lot from his friends as well. When Linda (Evelyn Keyes, left), an aspiring actress friend, pleads with Ernie to help her out of a jam she’s in and Ernie discovers he’s been duped, it’s almost as powerful as a barrage of blows to the face.
It isn’t long before Ernie gets framed for a crime he didn’t commit and the way the story plays out is both convoluted and engaging. Karlson throws lots of memorable characters our way and gives us a prime noir leading man who’s frantically trying to make sense of it all before he loses everything.
Director Phil Karlson’s aggressive storytelling style refuses to allow the viewer to sit complacently. (That aggressive style is certainly on display in the poster below!) He keeps things moving quickly with increasing momentum, a trademark of many of the director’s films. (For more on Karlson’s career, read the excellent article “Phil Karlson and the Cinema of Ass-Kicking” by Jake Hinkson.
99 River Street rises above the expectations of a low-budget movie and should be included on any list of memorable film noir titles. You can (and should) pick up the Kino Lorber Blu-ray, where you’ll hear Eddie Muller’s commentary, but if you want a teaser, here’s Eddie’s intro and outro to the film from its showing on Noir Alley last year. Enjoy!