New York After Midnight: 99 RIVER STREET (United Artists 1953)

The trio that brought you KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL – star John Payne, director Phil Karlson, and producer Edward Small – teamed again for 99 RIVER STREET, and while it’s not quite on a par with their film noir classic, it’s crammed with enough sex’n’violence to hold your interest for an hour and a half. Karlson’s direction is solid, as is the cast (including a knockout performance by Evelyn Keyes), and the camerawork of the great Austrian cinematographer Franz Planer gives it a wonderfully brooding touch of darkness.

The story itself is highly improbable yet highly entertaining: ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne), once a heavyweight contender now reduced to driving a cab, is married to ex-showgirl Pauline (the delectable Peggie Castle), who’s two-timing him with crook Victor Rawlins (slimebag Brad Dexter ). Ernie catches them making out through the window of the flower shop Pauline works at, and his PTSD is triggered. Then when his friend, struggling actress Linda Jordan (Keyes) sets him up as a patsy so she can nail an acting job, Ernie explodes and beats up the play’s producer and crew!

Meanwhile, Victor and Pauline try to sell a load of hot diamonds to fences Christopher and Mickey (Jay Adler, Jack Lambert ), but they balk at dealing with a woman – that and the fact Victor killed a man during the heist. So the dirty douche strangles Pauline and dumps her body in Ernie’s cab. The cops are already looking for Ernie after his meltdown at the theater, and that old familiar noir downward spiral rapidly escalates as Ernie, with the help of Linda, races to find the killer at large and clear his name…


Payne does a fine job as the guy who’s taken one too many blows to the head, and although things like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries aren’t specifically mentioned, it’s obvious Ernie’s troubles go deeper than just financial or marital. Good as Payne is, Evelyn Keyes totally stole the show for me as Linda. The scene where she tricks Payne into believing she’s murdered someone had not just Payne’s character fooled, I was totally taken in! Later, she impersonates a drunken floozie in a sleazy waterfront gin joint while trying to lure Dexter’s Victor out in the open. Keyes, best known as Scarlet O’Hara’s little sister Suellen in GONE WITH THE WIND and her years at Columbia (making, among other films, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK , A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE JOLSON STORY, and JOHNNY O’CLOCK), never really got a chance to strut her stuff, and she certainly delivers the goods here.

DP Franz Planer makes the backlot look and feel like New York After Midnight. The veteran’s career stretched back all the way to 1919 in his native Austria-Hungary. Leaving war-torn Europe in 1937, he came to America and worked on films both large and small. Planer’s name doesn’t get mentioned a lot in the film noir conversation, but he was the man behind the camera on gems like the aforementioned FACE BEHIND THE MASK, THE CHASE, CRISS CROSS , and CHAMPION . Perhaps it’s because his other work overshadows his noir efforts: among his resume you’ll find classics such as PENNY SERANADE, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, ROMAN HOLIDAY, THE CAINE MUTINY, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S . He was working on SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE when that film was shelved due to the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe; it proved to be his last job, as Planer himself died a year later.

After 99 RIVER STREET, the trio of Payne, Karlson, and Small went their separate ways, though they worked together in various combinations on occasion. Pairing this film with KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL would make a dynamite film noir double feature, perfect examples of what can be accomplished on a low budget with little money and a whole lot of talent before and behind the cameras.

The Perfect Crime Film: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1952)

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My friend Rob suggested I review KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL awhile back, and I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a film noir lover’s delight, packed with tension, violence, double-crosses, and a head-turning performance by John Payne in the lead. Made on an economical budget like the same year’s THE NARROW MARGIN , director Phil Karlson and George Diskant create a shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere brimming with danger at every turn.

I knew Payne mainly from his 40’s musicals and his idealistic lawyer opposite Maureen O’Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, but he’s a revelation here as Joe Rolfe, a florist truck driver who’s set up as a patsy by a gang of armored car robbers. He can dish out (and take) beatings with the best them, and delivers the tough-talking dialog with aplomb. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL helped Payne shed his lightweight image, and he went on to do other dark crime films and rugged Westerns. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them!

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The plot isn’t overly complex: ex-cop Tim Foster. aka ‘Mr.Big’, hires three hoods to commit “the perfect crime”, a meticulously planned robbery in broad daylight. He insists all four of them wear masks so no one knows the other’s identity except himself. Timed to the last second, the caper goes off without a hitch, and Foster gives the goons each a torn-in-half king playing card, telling them he’ll contact them after the heat dies down to split the loot. Rolfe is grilled by the police, but ultimately let go when his alibi checks out.

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But he’s lost his job, and the now destitute Rolfe discovers there’s a 25% reward for finding the missing $1.2 million stolen in the robbery. Getting a hot tip from his bartender buddy, Rolfe flies to Tijuana and shadows Pete Harris, a degenerate gambler who may have been involved. He confronts Harris and beats the truth out of him, and is about to accompany the crook to Barados when Pete’s gunned down by the Mexican police at the airport. Rolfe then decides to impersonate Harris, since the gang have never laid eyes on one another.

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There he encounters Tony Romano and Boyd Kane, and after a suspicious Romano tosses his room, learns the pair were in on the heist. Foster is also at the resort, and we learn why he planned it all: after being forced to retire for backing the wrong politician, Foster plans to swerve the crooks and collect that  reward himself. Complicating things is Helen, Foster’s law student daughter, who arrived on the plane with Rolfe and is romantically interested in him.

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The violence is both realistic and graphic. I found the scene where Rolfe has Romano in a stranglehold, shoving a pistol under his chin, particularly brutal. Editor Buddy Small, son of producer Edward, keeps things tight, and Diskant’s black & white photography shows why he was one of the great noir cinematographers. Phil Karlson learned his craft directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram, and made some solid 50’s noirs, including the ferocious THE PHENIX CITY STORY . He later remade KID GALAHAD with Elvis Presley, did a pair of Dean Martin/Matt Helm flicks, and the classic 1973 WALKING TALL. His career is well worth a look for film fans.

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KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL costars four of the screen’s baddest bad guys. Veteran Preston Foster gives heft to the role of Mr. Big, Jack Elam plays the chain-smoking Harris, oily Lee Van Cleef is womanizer Romano, and Neville Brand is chilling as the gum-chewing Kane. Pretty Coleen Gray rounds out the cast as Foster’s daughter Helen. Some of the plot elements here were reworked into Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut RESERVOIR DOGS; much as I liked that film, I think KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL surpasses it. Thanks for the recommendation, Rob!

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