Tuesday, February 28, 2012

99 River Street (1953)

After having lost a fight for the Heavyweight Boxing Championship very badly, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) has had to stop with the only thing he's ever been good at, or risk going blind. Ernie's a cab driver now, and even though he's clearly unhappy with his new place in life and carries a frightful amount of pent-up rage inside, it's just as clear that he might well learn to cope with life as a normal working stiff in the long run.

His wife Pauline (Peggie Castle) is a bit of a different story, though. She feels betrayed by Ernie's failure, resenting him as much as her work in a flower shop. Unbeknownst to her husband, Pauline has begun an affair with the gangster Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), who has promised to take her away ride after he has finished a very lucrative job.

Exactly on the day the couple's flight is supposed to happen, things begin to fall apart. First Ernie realizes that his wife has been cheating on him for some time (and can obviously barely keep himself from going after Victor and Pauline with his fists), then the people Rawlins wanted to sell the jewels he stole on his big job to back off from the deal.

Through the expected complicated and slightly surreal plot contortions, Ernie soon becomes implicated as Victor's accomplice, hunted by the police, used by the people Victor was dealing with, and suspected of the murder of his wife (a murder he did not commit, but clearly would have liked to). Fortunately, and quite unlike many film noir heroes, Ernie has friends willing to help him clear his name, like the up-and-coming actress Linda (Evelyn Keyes) to whom our hero owes some of his problems.

I often have a hard time seeing 50s noir movies like Phil Karlson's 99 River Street as part of the same genre as their brethren from the 40s. Too large are the differences in aesthetics (the stark contrasts between shadow and light in the older movie have turned into the flat and often bright lighting in the newer ones, just as an example) and in philosophy (the older films being again much starker, more pessimistic and nihilistic in their world view, with happy ends that seem especially implausible, while the newer ones are on the surface more brutal, but also much cleaner in their morals and ideas). I rather wish the 50s movies (I am generalizing here, of course) had their own genre name, like "hard-boiled crime movie".

99 River Street's director Phil Karlson's is known as one of the better directors of the 50s style of noir, but the film at hand seems to stand directly on the line dividing both ways of noir. On the aesthetic level, Karlson sure isn't the type of director doing complicated or showy things with lighting or blocking, but the seeming bluntness and flatness of his style often hide some intelligent directing decisions. Karlson (at least in my experience) is a director whose films thrive on very controlled editing rhythms and camera movement that is much less sparse than it seems at first glance. The director also has a lot of trust in the abilities of his actors, using the close-up less as a rather trite dramatic device but to show as much of his actors' emotions as possible. Payne and Evelyn Keyes give Karlson the performances he deserves, based on the strange fluctuation between theatricality and naturalism that is so typical of acting in the 50s, yet still intense and believable in the larger than life way close-ups always suggest.

Karlson's direction and the acting combine to give the film a feeling of hardly constrained tension. For most of the film's running time, Payne is close to an explosion. His character shows a propensity for violence that makes him a somewhat uncomfortable protagonist, even in a film whose happy end pretends he's much more clean-cut hero than he actually is; it's not a stretch to imagine him actually killing his wife, which (I suspect) would have been the 40s noir way to go about this plot.

It's not as if 99 River Street's plot were very clear or simple, though. Like the old style noirs did, Karlson's film uses chance, and random, cruel twists of fate as if to demonstrate a universe that's not just indifferent to Ernie's plight but actively malevolent, giving him one bad, and sometimes more than just slightly surreal (especially in the scene - coming out of nowhere - where Linda convinces Ernie to help her get rid of a dead body, only to end in the reveal she's been playing him as part of an audition), roll of the dice after the next, with  some improbably trustworthy friends and his ability to fight through his problems the only things that are on Ernie's side - characteristically for the ideology of the 50s, all things Ernie's worked hard for.


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