Tuesday, June 14, 2011

99 River Street (1953) Phil Karlson

“There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.”

Frequently I find “frame-up” movies annoying and frustrating to watch, possibly because many of them are poorly done. But this is not one of those movies, and it’s a wonderful contribution to film noir.

John Payne, known more for his appearance in “Miracle on 34th Street” than anything else, plays a starring role as an ex-boxer. His unhappy and devious but beautiful wife is played by Peggie Castle (who had a short, unhappy life of her own). Payne is now driving a cab, and ends up driving into a world of trouble.

His performance is award-winning (although he didn’t win any :) He is short-tempered, likes to use his fists, and is a man whose self-image was based on his boxing ability.

Payne has a couple of pals, Frankie Faylen as the cab company dispatcher, and his old boxing manager, Eddy Waller (named “Pop” of course), in a very small role. Payne is also acquainted with an aspiring Broadway actress, Evelyn Keyes. Faylen puts in his usual solid performance and Keyes is fantastic.

She is wonderful and luminous throughout the movie but two scenes in particular stand out. The first is her re-enactment for Payne as to what happened when she met a producer for a part (it includes a great twist). And the second scene is towards the end when she gives an amazing seductress performance in a cafĂ©.  
The bad guys are played with equal aplomb by Brad Dexter, Jack Lambert, and Jay Adler. Dexter is sinister, Lambert is double-crossing bad, and Adler pulls the strings. They’re all violent and you’ll see a lot of punching, slapping, and knock-outs throughout the movie.

One of the more humorous lines is made by Elam near the end. A previous encounter between Elam’s karate chops and Payne’s fists left Elam a little bloodied. Later on Elam gets the drop on Payne and brings him to Adler who asks who this is. Elam answers that “it’s one of the guys that beat me up.”

A gum-chewing passport forger is played by Ric Roman, and look for Ian Wolfe, the ubiquitous character actor, in a small role in the theater.

Writing credits are shared among Harold Essex, George Bruce, Harold Greene, Rowland Brown, and the uncredited director and star, Phil Karlson and John Payne.

The musical score is dramatic and enhances every scene (Arthur Lange and Emil Newman) and the cinematography (Franz Planer) is beautiful in black and white with creative camera angles, many of which shoot up at the characters. Watch for the pre-Mrs. Robinson leg image with Castle and Dexter. And also look for a beautiful, long shot of the final fight at the harbor.   

The action is fast-paced and the plot is clever. Beginning and ending with a boxing match, the movie is neatly tied together with the voices in Payne’s head replaying his last official fight.

Here are a few parting, wise words from John Payne: “When you get clipped on the chin, that’s exactly when you have to keep your head.”