99 River Street
August 12th, 6:30pm
The Pacific Film Archive, Berkley
Unavailable on DVD.
"It's dangerous to cross the street or to park your cab in front of a florist shop," opines Ernie Driscoll, the protagonist of the rarely shown, but wonderful film noir, Phil Karlson's 99 River Street (1953) which screens at the PFA as part of its United Artist: 90 Years film series. The film co-stars John Payne and Evelyn Keyes. Keyes gives a multifaceted and sexy performance, but the film belongs to John Payne. Payne gives a surprisingly complex performance as an embittered ex-boxer, Ernie Driscoll, who simmers with barely controlled rage.
Modern film viewers typically only know Payne as Maureen O'Hara's love interest in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. Payne started out his long film career as a contract player at 20th Century Fox in the late 1930s. Studio head Daryl Zanuck, as with most of the male leads at Fox, picked him for his dark good looks. One, because Zanuck always hoped to recreate the success he had with Tyrone Power, and, two, brunette leading men created a striking visual contrast with Fox's blonde leading ladies. Like Warner's Dick Powell, Payne recreated himself from light musical comedy heartthrob to film noir tough guy to survive in post World War II Hollywood.
Eveyln Keyes goes after her man in 99 River Street
In 99 River Street, Payne's Driscoll drives a cab, dreams of owning a gas station and argues constantly with his beautiful, but shrewish, wife, Pauline (Peggie Castle), who married him when he was poised to become the champ. Unbeknownst to him, she has plans to move on. She's tied up in a jewel theft and with the handsome thief, Victor Rollins (Brad Dexter). When Driscoll arrives at the florist shop that she works at, he sees her in the arms of Rollins. He drives off, infuriated, and a short time later, her murdered body turns up. After a series of dizzying plot twists, Driscoll finds himself hunted by the police for Pauline's murder and, in turn, he becomes the hunter. He must find Rollins in order to clear himself before Rollins either leaves the country or Rollins' cohorts in crime gun Driscoll down. His friend, Evelyn Keyes' struggling actress, Linda James, eager to help him puts herself in considerable danger.
Excellent writing, both in terms of plot and dialogue, as well as great performances by the leads, elevates this low budgeted thriller into an entertaining and suspenseful drama. Especially worthy of note are the differing relationships that Driscoll has with wife Pauline and friend Linda. Pauline married him when he verged on greatness but now berates him for his failure. Clearly, she traded her beauty for his potential success and wealth which never materialized. His ever present anger stems from both the fear of losing her and from his own impotent frustration over the turn his life has taken. In contrast, he and Linda have an easy going rapport. He encourages his friend in her struggle for success and helps her, no strings attached, when she needs him. Through these two relationships, the audience sees that life has beaten Driscoll down, but there still seems to be hope that he can somehow turn things around. The suspense of the film comes from both his physical peril- will he be imprisoned or even executed for his wife's murder, and from his emotional/spiritual peril, can he over come his cynicism and despair to find some kind of happiness and meaning in life again?