Wednesday, March 31, 2010
An Inch At A Time
I’ve recently returned from visiting family in Bethesda for a few days. That’s right, I actually left Los Angeles for a brief period and I had a very relaxing time too. Yes, I missed a few things here in town but that’s ok—these days, it feels like any time I head off I’m going to miss something so I may as well suck it up and realize how important it is to see family and, what the hell, breathe in some clean air as well. It was a little cold, but still nice. I had a good time though it did get me to think about how certain family members will never be into film like I am but that’s just the way it is. There are plenty of things I don’t know about and when I look at my sister’s giant bookshelf it’s hard for me not to feel a little envious of everything that she’s been able to store in her brain. But while I was flying back home on a very crowded American Airlines flight (and no thanks to them for the fees to check baggage) I was listening to the Beatles on my iPod and I found myself fixating on the famous lyric, “Nothing’s gonna change my world” and all I could think was nothing is going to change my world, at least nothing’s going to change the way I am when it comes to all this. Maybe someday I’ll be able to take my sister to some glorious screening somewhere here at the Academy or the Egyptian and give her a taste of it all. But maybe not. And that’s ok. You know, let it be and all that.
Anyway, I’m back in town with a few days to spare for the annual Film Noir Festival at the American Cinematheque and, speaking of movies set at night in black and white, the evening before I flew out I made it over to the New Beverly for what turned out to be a pretty incredible double bill of films directed by Phil Karlson and starring John Payne, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and 99 RIVER STREET. Hard to say which one I liked more—truthfully, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, about a guy falsely fingered for a bank robbery in, of course, Kansas City, and sets off to find the guys who set him up, may have been slightly better but 99 RIVER STREET from 1953 was the one that I got more of a genuine charge out of and found much more purely enjoyable, the one that made me sit there smiling as I thought about how much I loved these movies and thrilled that I found a new one I liked so much. Containing a hard-hitting noir atmosphere, enjoyable actors, healthy doses of pure 50s pulp and sleaze as well as a story that for a while didn’t let me know where it was going combined with one of those great all-in-one-night scenarios that might be impossible but feels absolutely perfect nevertheless it provided me with a very tight 83 minutes of pure bliss. If it’s not the best film noir that you’ve never heard of, well, it certainly belongs on the list.
I don’t even want to give away too much of the plot (Story by George Zuckerman, Screenplay by Robert Smith) since I knew next to nothing about it going in and, as things turned out, that was the ideal way to see it. Anyway, former boxer Ernie Driscoll (MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET’s John Payne, also the star of that night's KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL) is several years after his final fight—the one that almost got him the championship—forced him to retire, making a modest living as a taxi driver and dealing with his unhappy, bitter wife Pauline (Peggie Castle), who spits out things like, “I’d have been a star if I hadn’t married you!” When trying to make up with her after their latest fight he discovers her having an affair with the shady-looking Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter, later one of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) who is mixed up in some kind of diamond heist ring and getting Pauline involved as well. Also in Ernie’s life is the friendly Linda James (Evelyn Keyes) a struggling actress possibly on the verge of her big break when she comes to him with a big problem. Something then happens, something Ernie definitely wasn’t expecting. Maybe someone even turns up murdered. I’m not going to say.
The harsh pulp tone oozes out from the screen, providing bursts of violence that go further than you’d expect from a film of this vintage along with a few particular shots of Peggie Castle, playing Driscoll’s wife, emphasizing her legs enough so we know that they do indeed go all the way down to the floor in a way that makes me want to nervously glance around to see if anyone knows that I’m watching this thing. The boxing element is given to us right up front with a close-up look at Driscoll’s last fight making us know the guy before he’s said a word—this particular sport seems like the only one that sad sacks like Driscoll are ever mixed up in during these movies, so everything good and bad that happened are his fault and his fault alone, with all maybe left in the end is him saying to himself that he once had a real shot at being champ. Now all he has left is a cab, a beautiful yet bitter wife and the entire mean, dark city of New York surrounding him as he tries to remind himself and anyone around him, “The harder you’re hit, the harder you have to hit”. All he wants is to save up enough to own a gas station someday--hey, as goals go it worked out just fine in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. As played by Payne the character is recognizably human and likable but just looking in his eyes we can see how close to the edge he is—the way he repeats “Where would he go?” to a thug he’s just gotten the upper hand on making it sound more of a threat each time reminds us of what he’s capable of. As well-meaning as this guy actually trying to make a bad marriage work ultimately is (When he hopefully says, “Let’s try to make the best of it,” to his wife she spits back, “What would it get me?”) it’s not hard to imagine that with a few slightly different plot turns in the long dark night of his life he might turn out to be not such a nice guy after all.
More than a lot of noir films that can seem a little tossed together even while it can still be pretty cool to get lost in their mood for a while 99 RIVER STREET seems made by people who clearly know how to straddle that line between dreamlike and rationality, between behavior that is ridiculous (an offer to quickly get rid of a body, for one thing) and surprisingly human, particularly in one character’s complicated response after someone close to them turns up dead, no doubt thinking about how even if they weren’t responsible you can still sometimes “kill somebody an inch at a time.” And it’s also subtly yet nastily clever at times, particularly in the payoff of how someone expresses a desire to ride in a certain cab’s back seat. For a film set all over one night the plot (which I wish I could discuss more but I won’t) covers a lot of ground, continually adding new elements that feel right at home in this genre yet nothing about it ever feels like it’s cheapening its own story just because this was a B Picture—even the main crime figure behind the whole diamond scheme comes off as logical on his own level. One section late in the film slightly recalls some of the plotting from near the end of THE BEDROOM WINDOW—maybe Curtis Hanson remembered this one or maybe such things just come with the territory. Photgraphed by Franz Planer the sinuous feel of the blacks and silvers that emanated from the print screened at the New Beverly were so potent that it made me want to believe that I could step out into this world and into my own story of double-crosses, empty late-night streets and wisecracking bartenders. The only thing that could make it any better aside from a few extra shots leering at Castle would be a scene set at an all night automat, just for the atmosphere. Also the man behind things like 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE and SCANDAL SHEET among many others, Phil Karlson’s direction has the effect of being blinded by the flashbulb of a photograph taken by Weegee at the exact same moment you’re being punched in the face, continually moving things forward through its long night. It all culminates in a climax that correctly ties in the plot with the own internal struggles of the lead character in a way that is ferocious, invigorating and hugely satisfying.
Gazing at that eye of his in a mirror as he thinks, “I coulda been the champ,” John Payne presents a surprisingly complex look at a decent guy just about at the end of his rope in life—he seems tough enough to be the boxer that he once was and is still a likable guy as well but there’s a darkness to him that makes us wonder how far he might actually go. As for Evelyn Keyes, I probably can’t reveal just how amazing she is in this film, particularly in one long speech she has at a crucial point. She pulls off showing two distinct sides of the kind of woman Driscoll says he’s found himself up against his whole life—the one who he once thought would stick in his corner no matter what (the boring innocent in these movies, usually), but “then I grew up,” he says, and the ones he thinks have always been playing him for a sucker. Keyes has a particularly amazing moment involving a pair of cigarettes, the sort of business that’s usually only done by the fun bad girl in one of these movies. Peggie Castle, with a sour expression and great legs, is enjoyably nasty as Payne’s wife and Frank Faylen—recognizable to anyone on the planet earth as Ernie the cab driver in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE has a slightly similar role here playing Payne’s boss at the cab company. The whole film seems to be populated by actors familiar from this world and they all fit right in perfectly.
I can’t say that 99 RIVER STREET is the ultimate hidden noir masterpiece or something that’s going to win over anyone who isn’t already into the genre but it is a movie that reminds me of how damn good these hidden away titles can be sometimes as I sit in my seat thinking, boy, I love movies. It’s fun, it’s nasty, it’s plotted as tight as a drum and the black and white imagery is so potent that you could almost get the stuff on your fingers. Naturally, it’s not on DVD but you can find it on Hulu, so enjoy. I’m very aware that writing about this film has nothing whatsoever to do with my trip to Bethesda, but the experience of seeing it that night in the mean streets of Los Angeles did stick in my thoughts while I was far away from it, surrounded by family that maybe I could never adequately explain my enthusiasm for this sort of thing to. But it stayed in my mind anyway, reminding me that the search to find films out there that will surprise me this much, no matter what the genre, will probably never end as long as I don’t want it to.