99 River Street (1953) Phil Karlson

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). She’s unhappily 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 up 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. You feel sorry for Eddie. he’s hot headed, flying off the handle, fight’s 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 gets complicated when his cheating wife 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),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. 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, Eddie, that 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 blooded 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,. They team up together in an effort to find Rawlins before he skips town, and clear Rawlins of the murder. 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 who 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 Greenwich 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.

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18 comments on “99 River Street (1953) Phil Karlson

  1. “99 River Street” is a dandy. Karlson was tops at his craft.

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    • John Greco says:

      Exactly Patricia, Karlson was a solid dependable craftsman. His 1950’s work was as hard hitting as they come.

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  2. KimWilson says:

    Karlson made some truly gritty and brutal films. So much so that they came out almost like documentaries. His Phenix City Story is shocking to watch.

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  3. John Greco says:

    Kim,

    PHENIX CITY STORY is a nasty shocking film. I would imagine audiences in the 1950’s found it a film hard to take, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL is another tough one.

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  4. Paul says:

    This sounds like something I need to get my hands on. Thanks for the blog. I look forward to finding this movie one day.

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  5. John,
    You’ve written another stellar review here. I haven’t seen the film nor do I recognize any of Karlson’s other titles that you mention at the beginning. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to see one or two sometime.

    Thanks for bringing up the films short run. Do you think it was the violence that turned the 50’s audience off? The star recognition should have been enough of a draw.It’s too bad that it wasn’t given a chance initially, a longer theater run but you’ve done everything you can here to get us motivated, curious enough to find it.
    Page

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    • John Greco says:

      Thank you, Page. Some of Karlson’s films mentioned pop up on TCM now and then. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL is IMO the best of the group. If you like crime films, you need to look out for these. As for why the film died a quick death, at least in New York, I’m not sure. John Payne was no John Wayne when it came to star power. And by the 1950’s Payne’s star power, whatever its glow, was dimming, otherwise he would not have went into TV. Keep in mind, all of these films from the 1950’s that Karlson did were programmers, b-films,made to fill theaters in between bigger studio productions, so maybe that had something to do with it.

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  6. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I did see this awhile back on TCM, and when you call it a “forgotten gem” you’re absolutely right. The films like this that Karlson made in the early 50s were practically the last gasp of film noir before it discovered itself and are tremendously unpretentious and enjoyable. John Payne is a shock as such a cynical, hardened (but still basically nice–his coarseness is a reaction to undeserved hard knocks–he could have been a contender!) character, as you said, a far cry from his more soppy roles at Fox in the 40s. Like you, I also thought Keyes was quite good, a real change from her weak, gullible character in “The Prowler.” After Karlson went on to more commercial projects, this kind of movie continued with films like “New York Confidential,” “Al Capone” (which you mentioned in your memoir at True Classics), “Underworld USA,” and “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond,” some of which you’ve written on. Don’t know what you’d call these movies and Karlson’s and maybe “The Killing” as a class–late B-noir?–but it seems there’s a retrospective in there somewhere.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D. – I love all those films you mentioned though they vary in quality. There were plenty of others, like MAD DOG COLL, THE PURPLE GANG,PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER all made in the late 50’s or early 60’s. For me, they were just pure gangster films, low budget but still good. PAYNE was very good, far cry from his musical root and as you said Keyes was alo very good.

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  7. The Lady Eve says:

    John, I had little awareness of Phil Karlson till I saw “The Phenix City Story” a few years ago. That’s also extremely violent and brutal but affecting. I’d seen “Five Against the House,” but Karlson’s name hadn’t registered with me when I saw it. Encouraging to know “99 River Street” is in TCM’s library – I’ll keep an eye out for it on the schedule.

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    • John Greco says:

      THE PHENIX STORY is very brutal. It’s documentary style I think adds quite a bit to all. If I remember correctly the film is based on an actual incident. I think you will like some of his other 50’s work.

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  8. Enjoyed your review, John — I’ve always thought 99 River Street was a great minor noir. John Payne and Evelyn Keyes shine in their roles, but I also appreciated the smaller parts, especially those played by Peggie Castle and Jay Adler. I’ll have to dust this one off — I haven’t seen it in a while and your write-up has inspired a re-watch!

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    • John Greco says:

      Could not agree with you more. I thought Adler was especially good but Castle and Brad Dexter were both good also. Thanks!

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  9. Sam Juliano says:

    I remember this film well John, and I commend you for framing it’s artistic worth. It was hard-hitting, violent and atmospheric, and both Payne and Keyes turned in memorable performances. Karlson, like Dassin and others was a master at replicating life on the streets, and the film is wholly riveting. Great to hear this was another you managed to see on the big screen, in your Brooklyn neighborhood to beat. I musch appreciate too the historical evolution of the film in this terrific essay.

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    • John Greco says:

      Glad you are in agreement with this film. Karlson had some good years in the 1950’s, making a nice series of crime films. One correction, I never saw this on the big screen. Even for me in 1953 I was a bit too young for this kind of film. I was still into Mickey Mouse and Bambi. The first time I saw this was last year when it was on TCM. Since then, I picked up the DVD.

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  10. John Payne is a great, versatile actor. I always enjoy watching his films …
    Great review !!!

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