There’s a moment toward the climax of 99 River Street when Evelyn Keyes dances up to psychopath Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter) and lights her cigarette with his. It’s the dirtiest moment in a 50’s film I can remember, and I wondered how it got past the censors. The New York Times reviewer latched onto moments like this and called the film,
“. . . one of those tasteless melodramas peopled with unpleasant hoods, two-timing blondes and lots of sequences of what purports to be everyday life in the underworld . . . It is interesting to ponder how (director Phil) Karlson managed to slip some objectionable scenes past the production code. Maybe it was just artistic license.”
As usual with these low-budget genre films, the Times got it wrong. Karlson was an expert at making tough, violent little pictures – the year before he had scored with Kansas City Confidential, a crime drama starring John Payne and Coleen Gray – and 99 River Street is considered by many to be his best film. In his 2011 essay on the director for Criminal Element, author Jake Hinkson describes the film as “a pitch-perfect example of the Dark Night of the Soul, the noir subgenre wherein a character wrestles with his or her demons over the course of a single treacherous night.
John Payne teams up again with Karlson to play ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll, and for 80 or so minutes, he does have a truly terrible night. A few years earlier, his promising career was cut short by a bad punch that sent him to the mat and nearly blinded his right eye. Now he drives a cab and promises his wife Pauline (Peggy Driscoll, as the epitome of the worthless spouse) that things will get better. This is noir, so you can bet your sweet life things won’t get better but much, much worse.
The evening begins as Ernie drops sulky Pauline at her job in a flower shop, then heads to the local diner to have a cup of coffee with his dispatcher boss and loyal friend Stan (Frank Faylen). He stops to chat with aspiring actress Linda James (Keyes) and to wish her luck at an upcoming audition for a Broadway murder mystery. Then he scrapes together the five dollars he needs to buy a really big box of candy for Pauline, drives to the flower shop – and discovers her making out with Rawlins.
Things go downhill from there.
For a while, I thought the complex plot would inspire giggles, but it twists and turns beautifully as the problems pile up for our sadsack hero-with-a-violent-streak. Did he trade in one duplicitous tramp for another? Will he be framed for murder? How many times will he get coshed on the back of the head?
It all culminates in a series of tense scenes at the docks where you’re never sure till the end who, if anyone, will come out on top. Made independently on a tight budget, the film looks beautiful thanks to cinematographer Franz Planer, a true genius who shot two Audrey Hepburn classics, Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, neither of which I particularly like, and some films I really do like: the classy Philip Barry/Katharine Hepburn comedy Holiday (1938), Criss Cross (1949), the really cool noir starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne de Carlo, and the cult children’s classic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953).
There are a couple of scenes that must be mentioned, for they add layers of artifice to the already stylized theatricality of noir in a unique and compelling way. The film opens with a fight sequence as Ernie comes close to knocking out his opponent, who then rallies at the last minute and pummels him into submission. As the fight is called by a doctor who enters the ring and confirms Driscoll’s eye damage, the camera pulls back to reveal that Ernie is actually watching a program on his TV about great fights of the past. We’re actually five years in the future and Ernie is still wallowing in his loss.
Later, Ernie, having discovered his wife’s infidelity, wanders enraged back to the diner where he encounters Linda, who frantically pleads for his help. In a truly amazing scene, she coaxes him back to the theater where her audition was to be held, only to show him the dead body of her director lying on the stage. She claims to have killed him and, in a frank monologue beautifully rendered by Keyes, explains how her “audition” was nothing but an excuse for sexual assault.
Ernie is enormously touched by her plight, seeing echoes of his own rage that was ignited by illicit sexual heat in Linda’s reaction, and he vows to help her. At that moment, the theatre lights come up, and the “corpse” jumps to his feet. The whole thing was a stunt, an audition meant to convince the reluctant producer sitting in the audience that Linda has what it takes to play the role.
As I watched the scene play out, I couldn’t help picturing how I would write about it – how theatrical bordering on the absurd the whole situation was. That Ernie would find himself facing off against not one, but two femmes fatales in one night seemed over the top! And then to have the whole thing revealed to be a piece of theatre . . . I found it just brilliant.
Payne, a not-so-favorite actor, is great here, fighting through the night to control his temper and his fists, with little success. The question of his fate is up in the air until the very end: if Ernie can realize that he’s got at least two terrific people on his team, he just might make it out okay, despite the odds. And yet, on a Dark Night of the Soul such as this, it’s nearly impossible to think straight.
* * * * *
Crime Wave was the first of four films directed by Andre de Toth in 1954. The previous year, the one-eyed director had also made four, including the 3D classic House of Wax, starring Vincent Price. Released by Warner Brothers, it’s another example of how you don’t need a lot of money to make a noir, but it sure helps to have the talent behind and in front of the camera that this one has.
For most of its 74-minute run, Crime Wave plays like a poor man’s Les Miserables. Gene Nelson plays ex-con Steve Lacey, a good man with a good wife (Phyllis Kirk, who had played the heroine in House of Wax), a good parole officer (James Bell), and a decent job repairing airplanes. His life is turned upside down when three prisoners he knew in San Quentin escape and begin a crime wave of robbing gas stations as they drive south through California. In L.A., one of their jobs goes wrong and Gat Morgan (Ned Young) is shot. He separates from his two partners and heads to Steve’s apartment, where he has arranged for a former cellmate Otto Hessler (Jay Novello) who was once a doctor and is now a drunken veterinarian to meet him there and patch him up.
Steve has gone straight and wants nothing to do with Gat or his cronies. But fate has a way of bringing a good man down. You know, once a con, always a con . . . And it doesn’t help that the head of homicide, Detective Lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden) is going full Javert on Steve, determined to blame him for everything.
Hayden plays Sims unlike any other character I’ve seen him do: sort of a precurser to Joe Friday of Dragnet but without any soul – or so it seems. Nelson and Kirk provide the heart, and as the cops and crooks close in on them, you find yourself caring about what will happen to this poor shmuck and his wife.
Shot by veteran cinematographer Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Blonde Venus), the film makes terrific use of its Los Angeles locations and never stops moving, especially in an exciting car chase at the climax. There’s a semi-documentary feeling to the scenes where the cops do their business, while the Laceys and their captors are caught up in the sprawling shadows of L.A.. Another low-budget gem well worth catching.