Sunday, January 18, 2015

Recommended!: 99 River Street (1953)

The Noir City festival is in full swing in San Francisco, exhibiting a variety of classic movies and lesser-knowns in the noir genre. The subgenre of crime movies, spotlighting desperate heroes and femmes fatales in shadowy black-and-white urban nightmares, enjoys a strong popularity today (clear in the large and enthusiastic audiences attending Noir City screenings), but like many classics they can be difficult to find on line. Pleased as Jaman is to connect you with whole new worlds of viewing on line, we're going to be the first to tell you that not everything ever made can be streamed. And older movies can be especially hard to find, given that the studios don't see much value in making them available (an oversimplification of a very complex issue, but we're willing to bet you've had a hard time finding that obscure, known-only-to-you classic anywhere on line).

Happily (and maybe surprisingly), one of our favorite noir classics can be found on Netflix & Amazon. 99 River Street is the story of washed-up boxer Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) whose wife becomes involved with a murderous jewel thief (Brad Dexter). When Driscoll is accused of his wife's murder at the thief's hands, he tracks the thief down aided only by a desperate but resourceful stage actress (Evelyn Keyes).

On paper a fairly straight-ahead yarn, 99 River Street is delivered with both knowing grace and high impact by Phil Karlson, a tough-guy but left-leaning auteur who churned out a number of tough, gritty crime movies during this time. There's something genuinely unsettling about the night-time settings of this movie. You share each character's desperation, and when violence does break out, as is usual with Karlson, it's sweaty, genuinely dangerous. Karlson's as good with actors as he is with noir atmosphere; John Payne (who enjoyed a second wind post-Miracle on 34th Street in a number of 50s thrillers) is a believable and rootable antagonist. Dexter played a number of heavies in this period, but no other movie took as much advantage of his soft-spoken menace or his moray eel teeth as this one. And Keyes is just dynamite throughout a number of challenges to the actress, including a gorgeous monologue that Karlson lights as starkly as Bergman.

The whole thing is well worth your time, whether you're an afficionado of classic films or a movie modernist ready to be surprised by just how tough a mid-50s movie can be. 99 River Street is a prime example of the film noir celebrated by Noir City (who've shown it at least once in their 13-year history), and as entertaining a picture as you'll find from any year, in any genre.

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