99 RIVER STREET: can he get off the canvas of life?

Evelyn Keyes and John Payne in 99 RIVER STREET
Evelyn Keyes and John Payne in 99 RIVER STREET

Film noir tends to be about guys with bad luck, but nobody would trade their luck with Ernie Driscoll, the anti-hero of 1953’s 99 River Street.   Driscoll was leading in a championship boxing match before a fluke cut ends the fight and his pugilistic career.  Now he’s driving a hack, and his highest aspiration is to open a gas station.  But the wife he adores hurls hurtful invective at him constantly.  At the same time, she’s cuckolding him with a hood.  If that weren’t enough, he gets framed for a murder.  And, mid-movie, he even gets set up by the Good Girl!

Ernie’s rotten misfortunes evolve into urgent desperation.  He has to try to prove his innocence by tracking down the Real Killer while driving around with the murdered corpse in his cab.

Ernie Driscoll is played by one-time pretty boy leading man John Payne, now 41 one years old with a lot of mileage on him. Payne is excellent as a guy who has the boxer’s determination to get off the canvas no matter how many body punches that he takes.

Payne’s co-star is Evelyn Keyes, who plays a Good Girl would-be actress.  Keyes makes the most of a showy role.  Her “acting scene” on a darkened theater stage is one of the movie’s highlights.  And her character gets to pretend to be a boozy floozy who lights her cigarette in the most suggestive manner possible.

The rest of the cast is similarly excellent.  Peggy Castle plays Ernie’s bitchy and slutty showgirl wife – and she’s suitable insufferable.  The ruthless robber who seduces Ernie’s wife is played by Brad Dexter (the good guy that nobody remembers in The Magnificent Seven).   Frank Faylen plays Ernie’s best friend and cab company owner.  Jay Adler plays the fence with baleful eyes.  And Jack Lambert steals scenes as a gunsel with a mean streak; Lambert makes the best use of his naturally high forehead, pronounced cheekbones, downturned mouth and glinty eyes, turning his face into the embodiment of cruelty.

There’s also a classically photographed noir scene where Lambert’s hood peers into bar where Keyes is dancing unaware.

John Payne and Jack Lambert in 99 RIVER STREET

(Odd and irrelevant factoid: there have only been two Hollywood features with  “Tripoli” in the title – and John Payne starred in both.)

99 River Street plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and can be streamed on Netflix Instant Video and Amazon Instant Video (free on Amazon Prime).

John Payne in 99 RIVER STREET

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