The action in 99 River Street takes place over a single night, giving the film a propulsive quality.
Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street opens right in the middle of the action, with two boxers (Hal Baylor and John Payne) pummeling each other like there’s no tomorrow. One strikes a mighty blow, sending his opponent flying to the mat, with a slow-motion replay underlining the brutality of the punch. But we’re not at a boxing match: We’re in the living room of Ernie (Payne) and Pauline (Peggie Castle) Driscoll, and Ernie is obsessively watching a television re-airing of the bout that ended his career. Due to an eye injury, Ernie not only lost that fight, but has been forced to abandon the ring for a steady gig as a cab driver. He’s not happy with his lot, and it doesn’t help that, while his wife is undeniably beautiful, she’s also a bit of a bitch and has had enough of his inability to move on with his life.
Ernie has a cup of coffee with a driving buddy, Stan Hogan (Frank Faylen), who gives him some very 1950s advice on how to solve his marital problems. Ernie also has a brief discussion with actress Linda James (Evelyn Keyes, playing a refreshingly tomboyish character to contrast with Pauline’s frigid glamour), who’s up for her first big role on Broadway. Acting on Stan’s advice, Ernie returns home early, bearing a big box of candy, only to see his wife embracing another man: the jewel thief Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter). That pushes Ernie over the edge, and soon we see that he still likes to solve his problems with his fists—something easier done when the victims are civilians rather than other boxers.
But Ernie’s troubles have just begun. He’s set up for his wife’s murder (her corpse is left in his cab), and rather than calling the police like any sensible person would do, he decides to take matters into his own hands, with Linda by his side. Actually, she’s often leading the way as he endeavors to track down the real killer (still wearing his cabbie uniform, which makes him look like a cross between an ice cream man and a cop). The action in 99 River Street takes place over a single night, giving the film a propulsive quality that sweeps the viewer past some real improbabilities in the plot and purple passages in the dialogue.
Franz Planer’s cinematography is distinctively noir, with lots of great night shots plus some cheesecake shots of Pauline, a striking mirror shot of Ernie, several completely ridiculous fist fights, and a big finale on the waterfront. 99 River Street also includes some more unusual elements that keep things slightly off balance, including an all-night pet shop run by a fence (Jay Adler, brother of Luther and Stella) who feeds puppies with a baby bottle, quite a lot of detail about how a cab dispatcher in 1953 did his job, and a long monologue by Linda that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.
99 River Street is distributed on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an informative and entertaining commentary track by Eddie Muller, a.k.a. “the Czar of Noir,” and trailers for this film and four others. | Sarah Boslaugh