Friday, April 29, 2011

99 River Street (1953)

Crime pictures don’t come much tougher than Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street. They also don’t come much smarter, better acted, or more suspenseful. In short, they don’t come much better.

99 River Street is the nighttime odyssey of an ex-boxer turned cabbie named Ernie Driscoll (John Payne). The night begins pretty badly, with Ernie watching a television program recounting his last fight—a fight where he not only got beat, but suffered a career-ending injury to his left eye. It’s bad enough for Ernie to watch a replay of the worst moment of his life, but his no-good, ex-showgirl wife Pauline (Peggy Castle) is watching it with him. Sensitive soul that she is, she takes the opportunity to remind him what a deadbeat he is. She married a guy on his way to the top, she complains. Now she’s stuck with a loser driving a cab and talking about opening a gas station.

Ernie drives Pauline to work—suffering an ass-chewing the whole way—and then he heads to a coffee shop before his shift starts. While he’s there he runs into his friend Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), a struggling actress. She’s on her way to an audition for a big part. Ernie wishes her luck. Nice girl. One can’t help but note the contrast with Ernie’s wife. He probably notes it, too, but he wants to make his marriage work. To smooth things over with Pauline, he buys an expensive box of candy and takes it over to the florist's shop where she works, but when he gets there he catches her with another man, a hood named Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter). Turns out Rawlins has just pulled off a big jewel heist. He’s ready to leave town with Pauline.

Things have just begun and one of the pleasures of 99 River Street is the way the plot complications keep coming. Ernie’s in for one hell of a night: murder, multiple betrayals, police dragnets for two different crimes, a carload of gangsters, and more ass-kicking than anyone can keep track of. The script by Robert Smith, from a story by George Zuckerman (reworked by Karlson and Payne) is a brilliant example of the “long dark night” subgenre of noir.

I love the Long Dark Night. An ordinary man with pressing problems discovers one night that his entire life has come to a head. The sun has gone down, and his world is about to fly apart. Maybe he will survive this night, and maybe he won’t, but either way everything is about to change. As Ernie Driscoll crisscrosses nighttime New York City, dodging cops and gangsters, having his heart broken over and over, he’s forced to face down his demons and summon strengths he didn’t know he possessed.

Phil Karlson was one of noir’s great directors. His impressive list of credits includes Scandal Sheet with Broderick Crawford, Kansas City Confidential and Hell’s Island (both with Payne), and the early corruption drama The Phenix City Story. Any noir fan will probably have their favorite Karlson movie, but 99 River Street exemplifies what was best about his work. It’s exciting and completely unsentimental. Karlson was a master of action, and this movie is his masterpiece of brutality. It begins with a savage boxing match and ends with a white-knuckle slugfest on the docks. In between is a cavalcade of slappings, beatings, and gun fights. In a genre known for ass-kicking, 99 River Street is an ass-kicking nirvana.

Yet it’s also an incredibly well-acted drama. Payne is one of noir’s great underrated performers. A former pretty-boy song-and-dance man, he matured into a perfect lead for the mean streets. His fleshy face and stocky build belied a subtle voice and dark, mournful eyes. His support here could not be better. Evelyn Keyes, another underrated noir performer, is perky, sexy and funny as Linda. She has two big scenes (one in a theater and one in a seedy bar) that will leave you wondering how she managed to avoid a huge career in movies. The beautiful but tragic Peggy Castle (an alcoholic who eventually drank herself to death) is wonderfully mean as Payne’s no-good wife, and she’s matched perfectly with Brad Dexter as her hoodlum boyfriend. Dexter’s one of my favorite supporting players in noir, a cool, understated actor with blue eyes that are intense and soulless at the same time. He’s best known for his brief turn as the corrupt private-eye in The Asphalt Jungle, but this is his best performance. He’s so smarmy you can barely wait to see Payne beat the shit out of him.

It can be tricky to define film noir for newcomers to the genre, but here’s a pretty good shorthand for beginners: 99 River Street.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Criminal Element

Starting today, I'm beginning a regular gig over at Macmillan's new crime and mystery website I'll be contributing regular essays on noir, crime fiction, and the like.

To kick things off, I take a look at the long but foggy history of Amnesia Noir. Guy Pearce wasn't the first noir antihero with a bad memory. The roots go back to noir's early days where amnesia plots were a staple. Check out my essay at

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Interview with Elaine Ash

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to work with editor Elaine Ash on a story I had published at Beat To Pulp. Elaine has an unforgiving eye for soggy phrasing, but she's also incredibly encouraging when she likes something. Both are good qualities in an editor.

She's been a real cheerleader for me, and when I told her that I had a novel coming out next year, she suggested we do an interview to talk about the experience so far.

Check out our conversation at her Ashedit's Blog.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Burial Arrangements

What do you do when a robbery goes bad, and you end up with your father's dead body in the back of a van? To find out, read my new story "Burial Arrangements" over at Popcorn Fiction.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sidney Lumet 1924-2011


That's an impressive body of work by any measure, and Sidney Lumet--who died today at age 86--leaves it behind as a legacy that any film lover should cherish. He's most associated with the gritty golden days of the 1970s, but he actually preceded most his peers (Scorsese et al) by a number of years, having made his directorial debut in films with the masterpiece 12 ANGRY MEN in 1957. He'd begun even earlier than that, in the wild days of live dramatic television in the fifties (an understudied but rich period). That Lumet could be a player in those days, have his greatest success in the 70s, and then show up as late as 2007 with a neo-noir as intense and terrific as BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD is a testament to a rich talent and the kind of career that we will probably never see again.

Lumet was prolific, which is a virtue in and of itself but one that always exposes weaknesses. While his talent lay in teasing out great performances from actors working from a solid script, he was usually defeated by a poor script. His visual style was brilliantly utilitarian, but--again--it didn't do much when the material was weak.

And yet, even saying that much merely points to his two greatest strengths: Lumet was a perceptive reader for his writers and a sensitive viewer for his actors. He favored character-based drama that pitted strong personalities and weak personalities against each other--always with the understanding of how this power dynamic changed hands depending on the vicissitudes of the plot (this might also help explain why he seemed so drawn to crime). Better than almost anyone out there, he knew how to interpret good material. I think my favorite of his films is 1982's THE VERDICT, a brooding drama about an alcoholic lawyer trying to redeem a life wasted on the bottle. With its brilliant script by David Mamet and the beautiful central performance of Paul Newman, it is Lumet at his best: smart, empathetic, and emotionally visceral.

This was a director.