powered by AFI
To sing the song of noir - it's not as easy as it once was, when critics like Raymond Durgnat and Paul Schrader were busy cataloging and specimen-boxing the newly recognized and coolest of all American film genres as if it were a breed of black butterfly that had long lived on our streets and yet somehow escaped our notice. Nowadays, the genre lies beyond even the seductions of nostalgia; the original tropes (fedoras, femme fatales, Venetian blinds, pudgy handguns) are no longer pungent enough even for TV commercials, and the Jim Thompson-rediscovery school is garnering yawns on the straight-to-video indie shelf. If anything, noir style has become a campy joke - witness the ads for the HBO sitcom Bored to Death, and the gory mock-up of Sin City. We're living in a decidedly post-noir world.
Or are we? Perhaps repurposing noir as a clich is old hat by now - not a bad thing - but the original noirs remain, despite formidable culture-rehash odds, the most resonant school of movie to have ever emerged in America - a half-century or more after the fact, the then-disregarded classics of the genre sit high on our trophy shelf while the huge hits of the 1945-'60 period - think Forever Amber (1947), Jolson Sings Again (1949), The Robe (1953), White Christmas (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), etc. - are more or less forgotten. Further proof arrives almost monthly in the form of high-profile, reverent DVD packages - noirs represent a huge, profitable percentage of today's archive releases, while the expensive films listed above and dozens like them lay dormant in the vault. Our hunger for the real noirs of the postwar era has, it seems, only grown with time.
Phil Karlson's 99 River Street (1953) is a perfect example - a neglected, un-canon-ized nitty-gritty indie (made by the long-running, low-budget Edward Small Productions) that stalks unceremoniously through a world of black-hearted bad news and spiraling fate, where the meaningful heyday of the war and its homefront promise has given way to lostness and bloodletting. Karlson was one of the genre's principal architects, but not because he indulged its iconic ingredients, like expressionist "noir" lighting. He didn't - instead, Karlson's best films play like raw, sweaty documentaries of a society on the brink of madness. Here, John Payne plays a failed heavyweight boxer now driving a New York cab, much to the bilious chagrin of his ex-showgirl wife, played with selfish venom by Peggy Castle. Nearing explosion once he finds out she's cheating on him with a snake (the utterly slimy Brad Dexter).who we know is a homicidal jewel thief, Payne's mug gets suckered by a flighty, narcissistic actress (Evelyn Keyes) into helping her dispose of the body of a Broadway producer's she killed in self-defense - until it's revealed that the whole thing was a ruse to prove the actress's chops in front of the theater's investors. At which point, Payne decks every single one of them, nearly kills Keyes, gets the cops on his tail, and then discovers his wife's body in his cab's backseat, strangled and dumped by her oily boyfriend.
There's more - the screenplay (worked on by four writers, including Karlson and Payne) is woven like a web, and the wonderful thing about noir is that the intricate fatalistic plotting isn't just clever entertainment but meaningful. The tighter the story's noose pulls, the more it expresses a philosophical, proletariat truth about American life in the mid-century - its broken dreams and capitalistic fears and wounded pride. The powerful mistrust that radiates from 99 River Street (and most noirs, and all of Karlson's) isn't just story-stuff, it's social commentary. It's an EKG of the class struggle, as the little men who fought WWII struggle in lousy jobs to pay the rent, while opportunists and thieves lurk in the backrooms twisting the system and getting rich. The lure of "making it big," either in show business or sports or crime or anything, is a lie that Payne's disgusted Everyman spits at in virtually every scene.
Karlson's film is also a masterpiece of 1950s casting. Payne is so well known as the idealistic lawyer in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) that seeing him here, scarred and stupid and ready to beat everyone to a pulp, can be a shock. And Keyes is disarmingly perfect as an overweening, princessy drama queen - make no mistake, her character is the lousy over-actor, not Keyes. But the movie is otherwise filthy with unforgettable, vividly convincing character bits - Frank Faylen's savvy taxi dispatcher, Jay Adler's soft-spoken but menacing pet shop owner/diamond fence (Adler was brother to both Luther and Stella), Jack Lambert's lizard-eyed thug, Eddy Waller's skeptical fight trainer, Harry Hines's boxing-club hanger-on, Dick Rich's fat and horny bar patron, Paul Bryar's cagey bartender, and on and on. The world of the film is so densely inhabited by craggy, non-movie-star faces that you could tell it was a priority for Karlson - to lend this cheaply-made programmer a sense of pulsing reality that he couldn't get shooting almost entirely on a studio lot. (The jazzy New York rhythms are there, thanks to the cast, but there's no visible location shooting.)
Believe it we do. This may be the '50s, but in 99 River Street, when people get hit, they bleed. Just like life. More than that, though, is the salient, darkling thrust of noir at its best - a vision of what was happening in America beneath the merry Eisenhower surface, and in a sense is happening still.
Producer: Edward Small (producer (uncredited))
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: Robert Smith (screenplay); George Zuckerman (story); Phil Karlson, John Payne (uncredited)
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Art Direction: Frank Sylos
Music: Arthur Lange, Emil Newman
Film Editing: Buddy Small
Cast: John Payne (Ernie Driscoll), Evelyn Keyes (Linda James), Brad Dexter (Victor Rawlins), Frank Faylen (Stan Hogan), Peggie Castle (Pauline Driscoll), Jay Adler (Christopher), Jack Lambert (Mickey), Glen Langan (Lloyd Morgan), Eddy Waller (Pop Durkee), John Day (Bud).
by Michael Atkinson