99 River Street (Blu-ray Review)20 Jun, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars John Payne, Evelyn Keyes, Brad Dexter, Frank Faylen, Peggie Castle.
With apologies to some sleeper that I either haven’t seen or undervalued, Phil Karlson’s movies started getting really good (on, of course, a seductively sleazy “B” level) around 1952 with Scandal Sheet (adapted from a Sam Fuller novel) and Kansas City Confidential. The latter was the director’s first of three collaborations with lead John Payne when Payne was reinventing himself after a career of Fox musicals (and even Miracle on 34th Street) into the star of low-budget independent productions renowned for their notably high contusion quotients. This one from 1953, the second of those three, trades in 34th Street’s miracle for a few bludgeoned internal organs on River and other urban locales.
One of 99 River Street’s occasional outlandish moments comes right the beginning, when we have to accept Payne in televised archival boxing footage as a onetime heavyweight champ who just missed successfully defending his title. Even if the actor is in unquestionably good physical form for someone who’d been, say, the male lead in The Dolly Sisters eight years earlier, he’s more suggestive of an in-shape pug on the order of Robert Ryan in The Set-Up than a front-line champ who’d probably have been able to date comely Copa hatcheck girls. On the other hand, his character (now driving a hack) is married to a chippie played by Peggie Castle, who was mighty hot in those days. Not that Mrs. Ex-Champ is happy about her more recent lot in life, which is living on taxi tips and in what appears to be a cramped apartment.
Like a lot of home releases that have bonus voiceovers from Alan Rode or (in this case) Eddie Muller, the Blu-ray commentary here is infinitely more fun than a lot of movies, so what you get here is almost a twofer. Muller’s same-name father was a well-known boxing writer, so his son is hip to when something takes place here that’s unswallowable or cliché boilerplate, as when he questions why film history is so jam-packed with boxers (and, for that matter, characters in other professions) whose idea of nirvana was owning a filling station. There were even more of those than the ones who longed for that chicken ranch, and Payne is among them — though he gets sidetracked here when the fallout from a partially botched jewel robbery scores a direct hit on his already rocky home life.
This is because itchy wife Castle has taken up with a heist perpetrator played by Brad Dexter, and you don’t have to have seen as many movies as Muller to have the conditioned response of, “Now, here comes trouble” whenever Dexter shows up on screen (even playing a good guy in The Magnificent Seven, he stood out the least). Castle smells the potential money from Dexter’s thievery, but then he has to go and louse up the fencing component of his caper. No spoilers here, but this doesn’t bode very well for Castle, and soon Payne finds himself pursued by New York’s finest. The limited pool that can aid him consists of taxi-stand colleague Frank Faylen (in a cabbie milieu for the millionth time) and an aspiring actress played by Evelyn Keyes.
Though someone with Broadway star-lust isn’t usually a major focus in this kind of knuckle-buster, Keyes fits in better than anyone would predict — a different brand of femme noir lead when you think of, say, Liz Scott, Jane Greer, Barbara Payton, Gloria Grahame, Peggie Castle (for that matter) or almost any grime queen of the era you could name. Playing an aspiring actress who, like Payne’s pug, isn’t quite skilled enough to make it all the way professionally, Keyes is remarkably down-to-earth here for the genre, brandishing a down-to-earth trait that that the actress really knew how to project (see also 1951’s The Prowler — and, in fact, you should see it just on general principles). Even in the one long scene here (again, no spoilers) where her performance almost lands in our laps, it turns out to be a trick that Karlson and the Robert Smith script are playing on us.
Nothing else here is very playful. Muller is terrific on the commentary explaining the film’s plethora of two-shots in which one character is subordinate (both visually and psychologically) to a more dominant person in the image — “subordinate” being defined as someone who’s about to get slapped around or murdered. For a project shot on a quickie budget — the AFI Catalog for the 1950s lists the production date as “March” of ’53 — Street is nicely crafted, with Frank (aka Franz) Planer cinematography that was resume-situated between 1948’s Letter from an Unknown Woman and 1959’s The Nun’s Story (talk about potential whiplash injuries). And on a consumer note, he shot River not long after The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. (which has just also come out on Blu-ray, from Mill Creek).
There are a few hoked-up bits here that compromise the rest but not in any truly serious ways because we aren’t, after all, talking about Henry James but the cinematic equivalent of those kind of lurid paperbacks I used to sneak in the third grade while drinking vanilla cokes at Tremont Drugstore. In fact, I had seen Karlson’s Tight Spot and 5 Against the House in theaters log before I turned nine, so I was a Karlson fan in general not too long out of my personal gate (and the more tawdry, the better). The Phenix City Story is, of course, noir nirvana.
For the record, the third and final Payne-Karlson picture was 1955’s color noir Hell’s Island — the least of the three, perhaps, as Muller opines, but one I still like for the Mary Murphy negligee stuff and the big bounce down a mountain taken by wheel-chaired heavy Francis L. Sullivan at the end (now, that is a spoiler). Unlike River Street and Kansas City Confidential, the Murphy sex-teaser isn’t on Blu-ray (nor has it ever been in any official home form), but I’ll never forget when it played on of my local 2,700-seaters in a VistaVision/Technicolor double bill with Bob Hope’s The 7 Little Foys. Nothing so far this year can touch that demented pairing for a fun night at the movies — unless someone wants a combo, say, of Everybody Wants Some! and Weiner (I’m talking about contrasting entertainment value, but the last wouldn’t look bad on a marquee, come to think).