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John Payne

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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Black and Blu: “Kansas City Confidential”

Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)

The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”

Who were those masked men?

Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.

The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.

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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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