99 RIVER STREET
(director: Phil Karlson; screenwriters: from a story by George Zuckerman/Robert Smith; cinematographer: Franz Planer; editor: Buddy Small; cast: John Payne (Ernie Driscoll), Evelyn Keyes (Linda James), Brad Dexter (Victor Rawlins), Frank Faylen (Stan Hogan), Peggie Castle (Pauline Driscoll), Jay Adler (Christopher), Jack Lambert (Mickey), Eddy Waller (Pop Dudkee), Glenn Langan (Lloyd Morgan), John Day (Bud), Ian Wolfe (Walde Daggett), Peter Leeds (Nat Finley), William Tannen (Director), Gene Reynolds (Chuck); Runtime: 83; United Artists; 1953)
“It’s an absorbing film that explores the life of a boxer.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The motto for Phil Karlson’s hard-hitting film noir revenge story could be: The harder you get hit, the harder you have to hit back. The story is seen through the eyes of ex-prizefighter Ernie Driscoll (Payne), who could have been the heavyweight champ but got barred from boxing because of a severe eye injury. After four years of marriage to his beautiful wife Pauline (Castle) and three years removed from boxing, a bitterness has set in as his wife rides him for being a financial failure. His best pal is Stan (Faylen), who is a taxi dispatcher where he drives a cab. Stan offers him friendly advice on how to patch up his differences with Pauline, telling him to have a child and in the meantime to smooth things over with a gift of some candy until they could patch up things between them for good. Ernie’s also friendly with an aspiring actress, Linda James (Keyes), whom he meets regularly at the drug store to have coffee with and offers her encouragement on reaching stardom on Broadway.
When Ernie follows his friend’s advice and brings Pauline a box of candy at the floral shop she works at, he sees her kissing a man. This sets him off on a rage, even taking it out on Stan. What he doesn’t know is that his wife plans to flee to France with the man she’s having an affair with, a diamond thief and a murderer, Victor Rawlings (Dexter). He just killed the Dutchman in order to steal his diamonds. Victor’s fence is the owner of a pet shop, Christopher (Adler), who becomes upset with Victor for bringing Pauline along. The fence doesn’t do business with women and refuses to give him the $50,000 he promised for the diamonds.
Meanwhile back at the drug store where Ernie has retreated to calm down by drinking some coffee, Linda arrives and sees him in an agitated state. She tells him that she just killed her would-be producer, who promised her the part she was trying out for if only she would sleep with him. Linda drags him to the theater where the murder happened, and Ernie offers to help her discard the body. It turns out that she didn’t murder anyone, it was all the theater group’s idea of testing out her skills as an actress in this real-life audition to see if she would get the part. Ernie finds this stunt reprehensible and verbally lashes out at Linda and the group as phonies, and then punches the theater men around for humiliating him. They see this as a means of getting publicity for their play and take out a warrant on him for assault and battery.
Victor, upset that he lost out on on the cash, interprets what Christopher said to mean that he must get rid of Pauline. So he comes up with a diabolical plan to eliminate Pauline and please Christopher. He has Pauline call for her husband’s cab and have him wait for her in the bar next to where they are residing. Christopher then strangles her with her own scarf and dumps her body in the back seat of her hubby’s cab.
Warning: spoilers in next three paragraphs.
Ernie doesn’t discover the body until Linda comes back to his place to apologize for the selfish thing she did, as she wants to go with him to the police and clear him of those charges. When they get in the cab they discover Pauline’s body. Ernie is upset that his wife is killed and vows to get revenge. He suspects the killer is the guy she was kissing, so he retraces the address he went to pick up Pauline and soon discovers where the man lives. But once in the apartment, he’s jumped by Christopher’s enforcer, Mickey (Lambert), who came here on his own to steal the diamonds from Victor. But Ernie overtakes him and beats it out of him who Victor is, what he is up to, and what were his plans. The only problem is, that the police find his cab parked outside with the body and now want him on murder charges.
Ernie enlists Stan’s help in checking out if anyone is leaving NYC by taxi to go to Jersey City, as he learns that’s where Victor plans to sail from. Christopher’s gang also goes after Victor, as they know he needs a forged passport and the forger tells them where to find him. He’s now on Christopher’s hit list since he foolishly went back to the fence after killing Pauline and forced the money out of the fence in exchange for the diamonds.
Ernie simply wants him to clear his name of murder. Linda helps because she wants to square herself with Ernie and has fallen in love with the honest but ill-fated guy. It makes for a rousing climax, as Karlson is good at doing the revenge thing in a crisp and rugged way.
It’s an absorbing film that explores the life of a boxer. Boxing is seen as an honest way to earn a living as compared with theater people, who are used to lies being the norm. It begins with a boxing sequence in the ring showing the protagonist losing and ends with a chance for him to redeem himself outside the ring in a winner-take-all fight on the docks of Jersey City. It compares these two realities that Payne knows as the arenas he fights in to get the respect he craves in life after all his bitter disappointments.
REVIEWED ON 8/25/2001 GRADE: B+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/