(Warning: possible spoilers ahead)
Ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) could have been a contendah—in his final bout, he was seconds away from becoming the champ—but those glory days are behind him now; he’s been banned from fighting, and also suffers from an injured octive nerve that could result in permanent blindness if he ever thinks about setting foot in the ring again. He now drives a hack for a living, and is married to Pauline (
What Ernie doesn’t know, however, is that Pauline—fair-weather bitch that she is—is involved with another man, a scumbag criminal named Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter) who used Pauline to obtain a cachet of diamonds ($50,000) from a wealthy—and now quite dead—“Dutchman.” Ernie discovers Pauline’s infidelity when he runs into the two of them outside her shop, and becomes enraged to the point where…well, let’s just say he’s not ready to work and play well with others. After blowing off to both his dispatcher pal Stan Hogan (Frank Faylen) and actress Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), Ernie arranges a “time out” for himself while he thinks over what course of action to take.
Rawlins had a deal with a criminal mastermind answering to “Christopher” (Jay Adler) to fence the diamonds, but Christopher backs out of the deal when he learns that Pauline is involved—Christopher, it would seem, doesn’t “get involved in deals with women.” Rawlins is determined to get the $50,000—and the method he uses to obtain the fee soon entangles both Ernie and Linda in a not-so-easily-escaped-from web.
99 River Street (1953) is a first-rate film noir from the stables of director Phil Karlson, and I was sorry to see it didn’t make the cut to be viewed a few Fridays back when TCM offered up a mini-tribute to the man responsible for cranking out some grade-A noir. Based on a story by George Zuckerman, the screenplay (by Robert Smith, with uncredited contributions from both Karlson and star John Payne) takes a few twists and turns that at first glance seem unnecessary (there’s a great sequence that involves Keyes’ character that will definitely have you wondering “Where the hell is this going?”) but on hindsight are integral to the film’s plot. Payne, who you may remember as the leading man in many of 20th Century-Fox’s musicals in the 1940s (Tin Pan Alley , Sun Valley Serenade )—not to mention the wily attorney who helps Kris Kringle beat an insanity rap in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)—took a career path similar to that of Dick Powell’s beginning in the 1950s and recast himself as a tough guy in westerns and noirs. He was a real favorite of director Karlson’s; the two men first teamed up in 1952 for Kansas City Confidential and after making Street, reunited for Hell's Island in 1955. Of the three films, I think Confidential is the best—though Street contains Payne’s strongest characterization; at first glance, you barely recognize him since he’s watching old footage of his last bout and his face has been lacerated into a bloody pulp. Ernie Driscoll is a noir hero you can’t help but root for; it’s like his world has caved in on him all as once and even though he has some anger management issues (well, he is an ex-boxer—you can’t expect him to be a creampuff) he’s a likeable, straight-arrow guy. (Payne’s tough-guy standing would later serve him well in the underrated oater Silver Lode  and The Boss ; he would later achieve some cathode ray tube success as the star of The Restless Gun [1957-59], a TV Western based on the James Stewart radio western The Six Shooter [1953-54].)
Evelyn Keyes is a wonderful partner for Payne’s hard-luck Driscoll; as Linda James she steals a lot of the scenes in Street (her antics in the waterfront bar whose locale is the film’s title are fantastic) with just a small dash of humor and you just know the two of them will end up together before the closing credits roll because she proves to be the most loyal of Ernie’s friends, “staying in his corner” even at great risk to her life. Towards the end of the movie, she volunteers to coax Rollins out of the bar he’s holed up in by trying to seduce him, and gets a little batting cage practice by seductively dancing with one of the dive’s patrons (Dick Rich). Their tango is going well until the man’s better half (TDOY fave Claire Carleton!) returns from her trip to the powder room, prompting this nice exchange:
MAN (gulping hard): Wife.
LINDA: Goodbye now…
And of course, no self-respecting noir would be complete without the participation of some great character actors, including Dexter, Faylen, Castle, Adler, Jack Lambert, Glenn Langan, Eddy Waller, Ian Wolfe, Peter Leeds and Gene “M*A*S*H” Reynolds. (You’ll also spot OTR vet/Baldwin sister Helen Kleeb as the secretary in the theatre scene.) Sadly, 99 River Street is not available on DVD (a major crime in itself) but can be viewed—with limited commercial interruption—here at Hulu (it's also available at Fancast); a generous doff of the TDOY derby to Raquelle at Out of the Past ~ A Classic Film Blog for the heads-up.