Thursday, December 29, 2011

Guest Review Double Feature: 99 River Street in The Naked City

By Philip Schweier

John Payne is in for the fight of his life in 99 River Street (1953) when he plays Ernie Driscoll, a former boxer turned cabbie. It seems the boxing commission barred him from fighting due to an eye injury, and now, four years later, he’s driving a cab in New York City. He’s got dreams of owning a gas station, maybe starting a family.

Pauline Driscoll (Peggie Castle), however, has other dreams. She was a showgirl who, with visions of the good life, hitched her wagon to Ernie, only to end up working in a flower shop. This is why she’s taken up with Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), a low-life crook. Together, they conspire in a jewel heist that goes wrong, and their intended victim ends up a little dead. Further complicating matters is their intended fence (Jay Adler) backs out on the deal when women are involved.

Rawlin’s sees Pauline as the opportunistic liability she is, and sets Ernie up for her murder. But Ernie’s already got the cops out looking for him. Why? Well, it’s kind of a funny story. Ernie’s friend Linda (Evelyn Keyes) is an actress, and following an audition, she comes running to Ernie – who’s just learned his missus is catting around on him – with a tale of accidental murder. He accompanies her to the theater where, after watching a performance of how the director ended up on the floor, he agrees to dispose of the corpus delecti.

Psych! He’s not dead. It’s all part of her audition! Isn’t that a hoot? Wait, Ernie, why aren’t you laughing? It’s funny!! Isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Ernie proceeds to take out his growing anger on the theater folk, who afterwards swear out a warrant for assault and battery as part of their publicity strategy. Only when a boxer uses his fists in such a way, the stakes are higher. So Ernie’s decided to leave town and resume his boxing career wherever he can find it. That’s when he and Linda find Pauline’s body in his cab.

Ernie’s knows his wife’s lover is behind it, but without even knowing his name, he’s got little chance to find him. Aided and abetted by Linda, he sets out on the thin trail. Unfortunately for Rawlins, he not only got Ernie on his tail, but also his fence whom he has coerced into following through with the deal. The fence wants him dead, but Rawlins is the only one who can clear Ernie. Ernie and the fence converge on Rawlins before he leaves the country for a final showdown.

99 River Street is an excellent crime thriller, and possibly could have been much better received had it featured an A-list cast. Evelyn Keyes has a couple of moments to really shine, one in the theater gag, the other when she enters a riverfront dive in search of Rawlins. I highly recommend it.

Fans of the CSI franchise will enjoy The Naked City (1948), a police drama that follows the basic procedure as Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his younger partner, Det. Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) investigate the murder of Jean Dexter, a young woman whose life seem to be less on the up-and-up that most of her friends realized. A “person of interest” in the investigation is Frank Niles (Howard Duff), whose iron-clad alibi for the murder is negated by the various lame-brain excuses he offers the police.

Okay, turns out he didn’t do it, but I’m not going to spoil it by revealing the whos, whys and hows. It’s not an earth-shattering conspiracy of epic proportions. In fact, it would be a nothing crime if it weren’t murder. What is not nearly so important as the how: how the police chase down one flimsy lead after another, often ending up in dead ends, often struggling against the frustration at the layers of deceit and misdirection provided by those involved.

Unlike many cop movies of its day, The Naked City isn’t full of square-jawed detectives serving and protecting the citizens of New York City. The lead cop is Barry Fitzgerald, and a more unassuming son of the auld sod you’ll never find. But he is not the star of the film. The star is the city itself, New York City; “Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders…” No, wait, that’s Chicago.

It’s New York, N.Y., it’s a wonderful town. Producer Mark Hellinger makes his point in the opening narration (in lieu of credits) that the city is presented in all its unkempt, ill-bred, bright light, glorious demeanor, as immigrants rub shoulders with bankers on the El, as children play in the fire hydrants on a hot summer day while cops take a brief respite from murder and mayhem to watch. The city lives and breathes by its citizens, each one as vital as the red blood cells that provides life to the larger body.

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” It’s not a great story; what makes it great is in the telling.


rockfish said...

Great reviews! Are any of these available on dvd (please don't tell me just on wankers archive dvd-rs... that means a mini-doc or commentary with erdhman is a no-hoper)...

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Criterion has released The Naked City to DVD, but as for 99 River Street it's available only as a "wanker" dvd-r (through the MGM Limited Edition collection at You might want to haunt and see if it's listed among its film offerings -- that's where I first saw it (but it's also made the rounds of TCM, too).

Cry Danger got a restoration from the Film Noir Foundation recently but whether or not it's going to make it to DVD is anybody's guess. It was previously issued on VHS (via Republic Home Video) and there are some used versions of it available at Amazon.