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With: John Payne, Evelyn Keyes, Brad Dexter, Frank Faylen, Peggie Castle, Jay Adler, Jack Lambert, Glenn Langan, Eddy Waller, John Daheim, Ian Wolfe, Peter Leeds, William Tannen, Gene Reynolds
Written by: Robert Smith, based on a story by George Zuckerman
Directed by: Phil Karlson
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 83
Date: 10/02/1953

99 River Street (1953)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Boxed In

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the 1950s, Phil Karlson directed series of very tough, violent film noirs, but few of them are as tough and violent as the superb 99 River Street. Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) is a washed-up boxer who was on the verge of becoming champ until he injured his eye in the ring. He's married to the gorgeous Pauline (Peggie Castle), who was hoping for the good life, and now spends her time being angry and disappointed. But she has chosen a way out; her new lover Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter) is a thief who has just stolen a batch of diamonds and hopes to trade it for enough cash to skip town. Meanwhile, Ernie decides to help a friend, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), an actress hoping for a break on Broadway. Through a complex series of circumstances and coincidences, the cops are soon hunting Ernie for an assault and battery charge (which is real) and a murder charge (which is false).

Unlike most noir heroes, who usually make a bad decision at some point, Ernie is mostly innocent; he never consciously makes a choice to enter the underworld. On the contrary, his dream is to save up enough money to open a gas station! His mistake came years earlier when he confused the adoration of his female fans -- like Pauline -- for the real thing. ("When I was a kid I thought I'd grow up and meet a girl who'd stick in my corner, no matter what. Then I grew up," he says.) Pauline betrays him, his career betrays him, and his own brute strength betrays him. When he loses his temper, he has the power to kill, and thus his assault and battery charge could result in some real, hard time.

99 River Street is notable for its frank, brutal violence, which doesn't stop at images of men smacking around women. Andrew Sarris wrote that one of Karlson's themes was the outbreak of violence in a world controlled by criminals and the corrupt. The film opens on an absolutely astonishing boxing sequence, close-up, ringside and off-kilter, that Martin Scorsese surely studied before he made Raging Bull. Karlson continues this low-angle violence throughout, and even echoes certain key shots over the course of the film. Many small moments further establish his agenda, such as when Rawlins simultaneously takes a belt of liquor and slugs a man in the jaw. In another scene, Linda plays out a lengthy post-murder scene in panicked close-up, with no cuts or cutaways.

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