We don't for a minute believe in any of the shenanigans displayed in Phil Karlson's 1953 film noir, 99 River Street -- it's all formula: stereotypical characters snarling at one other across the breadth and width of a dark and rainy city. But the film, implausible as it might be, is cleverly designed, enlivened by narrative surprises, and gloriously acted. 99 River Street reminds us that film, on one level, is a waking dream and that part of the pleasure in watching movies like this is the unreality itself, the fact that the hero's suffering and the sneering evil that he encounters is all part of an abstract pattern, a kind of sinister arabesque in which leering faces peer out at us from within a labyrinthine pattern that both amuses and appalls.
Playing out more or less in real time, 99 River Street follows the misfortunes of a washed-up boxer, unhappily married to a blonde bombshell ("a former show girl", the hero helpfully reminds her), hacking to earn a living. The protagonist drives a "Radio Cab" and his dispatcher, formerly his trainer and, now, his boss, is situated at the center of the intrigue, a sort of clearing house for the narrative -- the dispatcher, in fact, is played like a variant on the loyal sidekick perfected by Walter Brennan; he literally drives the plot by dispatching the hero's cab to the locations required bythe film's plot. The story is too complicated to reprise in detail and, in fact, like many films of this type contains riddles -- for instance, how does the thug beaten up by the ex-boxer and, then, carefully locked in a closet escape to later menace the hero later on the waterfront? Probably, there was an explanation buried in all the velvety shadows and menacing threats, but I didn't hear it. The former boxer, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) discovers that his wife is unfaithful. He doesn't know that her lover is a member of a gang that has stolen $50,000 worth of diamonds, the criminals nonplussed by the fact that their weary, cynical fence (brilliantly played by Jay Adler) refuses to buy the purloined gems. The crooks murder Driscoll's errant wife and stuff her corpse in the hero's cab, planning to pin a variety of misdeeds on the former pugilist. The cops are after him anyway after a brawl in which Driscoll assaulted about a half-dozen men working as partners to produce a Broadway murder mystery. (Driscoll maybe isn't as loyal to his show girl wife as he claims -- another woman, Linda James, played by Evelyn Keyes, lures him to a theater on Broadway with the claim that she has murdered a man who tried to rape her on the so-called "casting couch". In fact, she is merely acting a part, demonstrating her chops as a thespian to the show's putative director and his associates -- they are hiding in the wings to watch her deceive the poor sap of a cab-driver. He is, in fact, completely hoodwinked, his naivety in this regard matching his misunderstanding of his cheating wife -- he is persuaded he can save the marriage if he gets her drunk, feeds her candy, and begets a child on her. But his is not a propitious night to delude the poor hack and he lashes out, beating everyone in sight. Thus, the fact that the cops are after him.) Characters careen around New York City knocking one another unconscious and engaging in fistfights. Ultimately, everyone gathers on the pier at 99 River Street in Jersey City for a big showdown. By this point, the actress has apologized to the disgruntled cabbie, love is in the air, and after some more beatings and car crashes everything turns out for the best. The two signature scenes in the film are about acting -- in the first sequence, the wannabe Broadway actress deceives the cabbie with her bravura turn of phony hysteria; this is brilliantly done -- Keyes demonstrates that she is acting a woman who is acting, without any particular competence, a part (it's meta-acting) and she is spectacularly over-the-top. Later, in the dockside dive, Keyes has to pretend to be drunk and horny to delay a bad guy from escaping with a stolen passport on a tramp steamer. She dances by herself, incidentally seduces a bar-fly, and, then, suggests a sado-masochistic liaison with the villain, keeping him in the bar long enough to implement the big battle at the end. Keyes' overt instances of acting, her guilefulness, are poised against the pug's inability to act -- he can't restrain himself and doesn't conceal his hurt feeling: when he gets mad, he simply solves things with his fists. The boxer's dull belligerence is a counterweight to the florid acting by the leading lady -- she contrives fake emotions to get out of trouble; the boxer just stolidly broods until he explodes and beats everyone around him to pulp. The film is beautifully shot, with elegant moving camera in some cases, and vivid statuesque framing -- in one case, the beautiful show-girl is shot stretching her body upward, clad in a skin-tight dress, as she strains for something on a stepladder; in other shot, Karlson shows the show girl's lover framed by the woman's gams, right between her thighs, as she rearranges the backseam on her stockings. As I have suggested, the film's thematic impulse is to highlight acting and the movie is filled with ultra-expressive close-ups. Whenever Karlson cuts to a close-up, he has someone contort their lip or smile in a smarmy manner or arch an eyebrow -- people's faces in Karlson's close-up are baroque theaters for extravagant grimaces and yearning looks. The opening boxing scene, which turns out to be a TV rebroadcast of Driscoll's last fight, was heavily mined by Martin Scorsese in Raging Bull and its very effective. The fact that the scene doesn't occur in the past, but the film's present, as a TV broadcast, highlights Karlson's commitment to real time -- what happens in this movie happens across the course of a single evening, from about 10:00 pm until just before dawn in this city of dreadful night.
The new Kino-Lorber blue-ray DVD of 99 River Street has a bonus track featuring audio commentary by Eddie Mueller. Mueller's work is exceptionally witty and informative. He speaks knowledgably in a jazzy underworld lingo and this audio track is a film noir work of art in itself. It's worth the cost of the DVD in itself.