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Evelyn Keyes

Blu-ray: ‘99 River Street,’ ‘Shield for Murder’ and ‘Hidden Fear’

99 River Street99 River Street (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), released in 1953, is one of most underappreciated film noirs of the 1950s and arguably the greatest film by Phil Karlson, the toughest film noir director, and certainly his most beautifully brutal, a film driven by the fury of a man who is tired of being life’s punching bag. Karlson developed the film with John Payne, the former star of musicals and light romantic comedies who remade himself as a tough guy star. They had worked together in the lean, mean, twisty cult film noir Kansas City Confidential (1952), a film that inspired Quentin Tarantino, and hatched the story for this follow-up together.

The film opens on a boxing match shot Weegee style: spare, bright, all close-ups and hard light on our boxer hero, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), getting one of the fiercest beatings I’ve seen in a classic Hollywood film. The kicker to this prologue is too good to spoil, but suffice it to say that it is just one of the inventive storytelling inspirations that both enlivens the film and informs the character. Ernie was once a contender and while he still relives that fight in his head, he’s rolled with the blow and come up with a new plan. Not so his wife (Peggie Castle), who hitched herself to this rising star in anticipation of the high life and ended up in a crummy apartment and a job slinging drinks at a cocktail bar. She’s got plans and it involves a sleazy thief (Brad Dexter, playing it with an arrogant, greedy twinkle) and a fortune in jewels that his own arrogance has made worthless. He needs a patsy and Ernie is his guy.

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99 River Street: Bare Knuckle Noir

99 River Street (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

Phil Karlson is, to my mind, the toughest of the film noir directors. Films like Kansas City Confidential (1952) and Phenix City Story (1955) gives us heroes who get knocked around by life and come up for more. 99 River Street (1953), arguably Karlson’s greatest film and certainly his most beautifully brutal, is a film driven by the fury of a man who is tired of being life’s punching bag.

The film opens on a boxing match shot Weegee style: spare, bright, all close-ups and hard light on our boxer hero, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), getting one of the fiercest beatings I’ve seen in a classic Hollywood film. While Scorsese never acknowledged it specifically as an influence on his Raging Bull boxing scenes, the inspiration is obvious. The kicker to this prologue is too good to spoil, but suffice it to say that it is just one of the inventive storytelling inspirations that both enlivens the film and informs the character. Ernie was once a contender and while he still relives that fight in his head, he’s rolled with the blows and come up with a new plan, driving a cab while saving for a new, more modest dream. Not so his wife (Peggie Castle), who hitched herself to this rising star in anticipation of the high life and ended up in a crummy apartment and a job slinging drinks at a cocktail bar. She’s got plans and it involves a sleazy thief (Brad Dexter, playing it with an arrogant, greedy twinkle) and a fortune in jewels that his own arrogance has made worthless. He needs a patsy and Ernie is his guy.

Along with the working class milieu and the blue collar loyalty of his dispatcher buddy Stan (Frank Faylen in upbeat form) and still-idealistic young actress Linda (Evelyn Keyes), a buddy from his coffee-shop breaks, Karlson gives this brawny noir a shot of theatrical flair that joins it, if only momentarily, with a rarified sub-genre of noir where the exaggerated melodrama of theater and actors gets tangled in the “real world” of troubled characters, personal betrayal and criminal threats. Linda, so wrapped in her own dreams, twists the knife in wounds she has no idea even exist when she pulls Ernie into her world of make-believe, but redeems herself by using her talents (and putting herself on the line) with a performance in the theater of life.

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The Prowler – The High Cost of Living a Lie: DVD of the Week

The Prowler (1951) (VCI) has been one of those acknowledged classics of film noir that many have had to take on faith for far too long.

Van Heflin as Webb Garwood casing the joint

All but absent from TV screenings since the early days of cable TV, never released on VHS and previously unavailable on DVD, The Prowler has been almost impossible to see, something of an orphan thanks to being independently produced outside the studio system by Sam Spiegel (using the credit S.P. Eagle) for his own company, Horizon Pictures. Prints were wearing out, original elements lost or destroyed and no studio was there to step in and preserve the film until the Film Noir foundation partnered with the UCLA Film and Television Archive to restore the film from the best materials they could find anywhere. The result is manna from noir heaven: a nearly stellar edition of film that, until a couple of years ago, was relegated to rare TV prints and even rarer repertory revivals of a sole, increasingly overworked circulating 35mm print.

Directed by Joseph Losey for Spiegel as he was also making The African Queen and scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (behind front Hugo Butler), The Prowler (which was produced under the working title “The High Cost of Living”) is a classic of working class envy, restless resentment of the “bad breaks” that arrogance and assumed entitlement get you and the brutal opportunism of a former golden boy willing to do anything to get what he’s sure is due him.

Van Heflin, an actor who (3:10 to Yuma excepted) hasn’t impressed me much, is, in a word, brilliant as Webb Garwood, the small town sports hero who sabotaged his future. Now he goes through the motions of public service as a beat cop while he looks through the windows of opportunity along his beat. What he finds is a woman left alone every night by her radio deejay husband. Evelyn Keyes is lovely young wife Susan Gilvray, married to the disembodied voice on the radio who signs off every broadcast with “I’ll be seeing you, Susan,” which starts out as a lover’s promise and ends as a threat. Using the implied authority of his uniform to insinuate himself into her home, ostensibly to follow up on a prowler scare, we see Webb worm his way into her life.

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