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99 River Street | Blu-ray Review

99 River Street Blu-ray CoverThe plight of the failed boxer, and the gladiatorial viciousness of the sport itself, are themes forming an unheralded, even invisible substrata within the muddied waters of film noir. Iconic classics like Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950), Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1945), and Robert Wise’s phenomenal The Set-Up (1949), among others, all feature or are accented by the concept of the failed boxer, men chewed up and spit out as empty husks of masculinity once they’ve met their sell by date or become the victim of cruel circumstance. They’re an easily understood shorthand nod to failure, and fit uniquely into noir’s archetype of bruised masculinity. Director Phil Karlson (who would direct Dean Martin and Elvis Presley vehicles by the 1960s), was responsible for a couple B-grade noirs through the 40s and 50s, many which have fallen into obscurity, the exception being his 1952 calling card, Kansas City Confidential. But Karlson reunited with his leading man John Payne only a year later, casting the tall everyman as a dilapidated ex-boxer turned taxi driver with some anger management issues in 99 River Street. Though a bit rough around the narrative edges, it’s a bit too peculiar not to be deserving of a better reputation.

Former boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne) has resorted to working as a Manhattan cab driver because his skull can’t sustain any more trauma. The change of profession has taken an extreme toll on his marriage to trophy wife, Pauline (Peggie Castle), who has been having an affair with jewel thief Victor (Brad Dexter). But on the eve of her plan to run off with Victor, Ernie discovers her infidelity just as Pauline gets cold feet when she finds out a few people were murdered when the jewels funding her escape were acquired. As Ernie storms off the job uttering anguished threats, her corpse suddenly shows up in the back of his cab, and he’s soon pursued by the police. Thankfully Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), an aspiring theater actress who owes Ernie a favor, wheedles her way into assisting the cabbie as he tracks the real killer before the police can nab him.

What’s initially remarkable about 99 River Street is how notably weathered Payne appears in comparison to the previous year’s Kansas City Confidential. With a crew cut and some facial scars accompanying his hangdog expression, it’s an uncustomary performance from Payne, still best remembered as milquetoast love interests in items such as Miracle on 42nd Street or Dodsworth (although another underrated item is Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet, 1956). Notably, his Ernie Driscoll isn’t very sympathetic, a brutish, leering slab who bemoans his failed career and loveless marriage but resorts to bursts of anger and violence with his long suffering wife played by a beautiful yet cruel Peggie Castle (whose bad blondeness sometimes echoes Gloria Grahame). It’s not hard to see why she chooses to screw him over, and her unfortunate demise somehow garners the most empathy, especially considering the misogynistic code of honor amongst jewel thieves, apparently, in the early 50s.

The usually over-the-top Evelyn Keyes provides some moments of unintentional comedy (though nowhere near the heights of her birthing sequence in Losey’s The Prowler) as an annoying woman desperate to achieve success on Broadway, which provides Robert Smith’s (Sudden Fear, 1952) screenplay with a hokey and convenient turning of the tables scenario to explain her commitment to helping Ernie.

Disc Review:

Kino Lorber releases the title under their Studio Classics designation, presented in 1.37:1 remastered HD, which enhances the work of DP Frank Planer (who would lens none other than Wyler’s Roman Holiday the same year, and was responsible for a variety of classic noirs, such as The Chase and Criss Cross), who captures early 50s Manhattan as a lonely yawn of diners and dashing cab rides. Picture and sound quality are worthwhile, and there’s even audio commentary available courtesy of film historian Eddie Muller.

Final Thoughts:

A romantic tinged noir focusing on unabashed wash-outs and sell-outs, 99 River Street is a lot less hopeless than it initially seems on the surface, and is an enjoyable, minor genre gem.

Film: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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