In the 1950’s film director Phil Karlson put out a series of solid crime dramas including, “Scandal Sheet,” “Five Against the House,” “Tight Spot,” “The Phenix City Story” and two works with John Payne, “Kansas City Confidential” and “99 River Street.” Karlson made his way up from Poverty Row working with the Dead End Kids (Live Wires and Bowery Bombshell) and Charlie Chan (Dark Alibi) to working on “B” features for the big Hollywood studios. In the 1960’s Karlson worked with Elvis (Kid Galahad), Glenn Ford (A Time for Killing), also a couple of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm films before hitting box office big time with the south’s version of Harry Callahan, “Walking Tall,” the story of Buford Pusser, a Southern lawman willing to break the law in order to fight injustice.
In “99 River Street,” former boxer Eddie Driscoll (John Payne) is now a cab driver scraping by with a job and an unsatisfied ex-showgirl of a wife, Pauline (Peggie Castle), unhappy working in a flower shop to help make ends meet and unhappy being married to a “pug.” Eddie was an up and coming boxer, everyone knew who he was, winning more than 60 fights without a knockdown until the night he goes up against the current champ and ends up with a deep cut above his eye and the doc calling the match over. Now Eddie is driving a cab, just another guy on the street, with a wife who is fed with the low rent lifestyle.
We have all seen films about former boxers who almost made it to the top and spend the rest of their lives talking about their careers, what was, and what could have been. Not Eddie Driscoll, he’s too bitter, too much of a hot head who thinks he wasted his life in the ring. His big dream now is to open his own gas station, even telling Pauline, he could make almost as much money doing that as he could boxing. Right!
You feel sorry for Eddie, he’s hot headed, flying off the handle, fighting with people who are trying to help him, yet there is a sense of sadness and tragedy in his character that continues to make you root for the guy.
The plot is complicated, a cheating wife who hooks up with a trigger happy punk jewel thief named Vic Rawlins (Brad Dexter), who after a robbery finds out the fence for the jewels, a guy named Christopher, Jay Adler in a great performance, who was set to exchange the stolen gems for cash now won’t go through with the deal because trigger happy Vic killed someone during the burglary, and he also brought a woman, Pauline, into the mix. Christopher does not like mixing woman with business. So Rawlins attempts to fix the problem by killing Pauline, setting up Eddie to take the fall by dumping her body in his cab. Into this mix comes, Linda, (Evelyn Keyes) an aspiring actress and steady customer of Eddie’s. As part of an audition for a role in a murder mystery on Broadway, she has to convince someone, she selects Eddie, she murdered the producer of the show and needs his help to get rid of the body. Though deep in his own marital problems, Eddie agrees to help her. When he finds out Linda’s story of murder is phony, just part of an audition, the hot blood ex-boxer decks one of the producers who then decides to call the police and press charges as part of a publicity stunt for the play. Even though he was played for a chump by Linda, she the one who knows his is innocent of killing his wife and they team up together in an effort to find Rawlins before he skips town and clear his name. With Linda’s help, and friendly cab dispatcher Stan Hogan (Frank Faylen), Eddie goes about trying to get to Vic before getting caught himself by the police or the thugs who want to kill him.
“99 River Street” is one of the most brutal, viciously violent and tough crime films of the early 1950′s, a practically forgotten gem that even upon its initial release came and went into theaters in a flash. In New York, it played for two weeks at the RKO Palace on Broadway, then a week exclusively at the RKO Albee in Brooklyn before being regulated to the bottom half of a twin bill at neighborhood Loew’s theaters throughout the city and then disappeared. From the opening scenes when we see Eddie in what would be his last fight, blood splattered all over his face, to the final brutal fight between Eddie and Vic this film does not hold back its punches. Character actor Jack Lambert plays Mickey, a hard ass enforcer for Christopher, has some of the most violent scenes in the film, including a brutal fist fight with Eddie that ends with blood streaming down Mickey’s face. In a later scene Mickey grills Eddie emphasizing each question with a heavy chop across the back of Eddie’s neck. Then there is the aforementioned final fight scene between Eddie and Vic Rawlins with Eddie, though wounded by a gunshot, brutally landing heavy punches on Vic before being forcefully pulled off by the police.
The cast is made up of a broad range of “B” movies actors all who are at the top of their game. John Payne, best known as Maureen O’Hara’s love interest in the Christmas classic, “Miracle on 34th Street,” spent much of his early career in musicals like “Sun Valley Serenade,” “Hello Frisco, Hello,” “Weekend in Havana” and “Tin Pan Alley” before changing his image moving on to westerns like “Santa Fe Passage” and “Silver Lode” and noirish crime films like “The Crooked Way,” “Slightly Scarlet” and “Kansas City Confidential.” In the late 1950′s Payne switched to TV with his own series, “The Restless Gun” which ran for two seasons. Evelyn Keyes has one of her best roles, in particular a steamy scene at a riverfront bar where she attempts to seduce Vic wearing a form fitting tight white sweater and a sexual come on that would melt a Titanic size iceberg. Keyes had a prominent role in another terrific noir film, Joseph Losey’s “The Prowler” just a few years earlier. The supporting cast consists of some the nastiest thugs to corrupt the screen from Jay Adler’s Christopher, as a meek pet shop owner in the Village by day and a professional fence at night. Working as his enforcer is the previously mentioned Jack Lambert who feeds milk to a cat one moment and is a violent thug the next. Brad Dexter is wonderfully underhanded and sleazy as Vic Rawlins who hooks up with Peggie Castle’s Pauline as Payne’s philandering wife, fed up with cooking and ironing for a chump cab driver. Frank Faylen, best known as Herbert T. Gillis, Dobie’s father in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” plays what he does best, a regular Joe. It’s probably the least interesting part in the film but that is no reflection of Faylen.
In the end the film confirms a man can start all over again, despite some really bad breaks and some over whelming odds. A dream, a job and a good woman prove there are always possibilities ahead.