A cousin of 1947’s The Set-Up, and belonging in the same canon as similarly great boxing-inspired films (Body and Soul and Raging Bull come to mind), Phil Karlson’s 1953 noir is a fantastic film and great companion piece for his even better 1952 thriller, Kansas City Confidential.
It’s hard to not see the influence that 99 River Street may have had on a myriad of films, including Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. In a climactic scene in Karlson’s film, ex-fighter turned framed-murderer Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) dukes it out with his nemesis on a poorly composited-
-ship. Internal diegetic sound resounds. The memories of his past fight. His voice in his head reminding him of his ultimate failure. Kind of reminds of the deli scene in Aronofsky’s flick.
Influence aside, 99 River Street is just a well-made film. Karlson echoes Ernie’s early defeat in the ring with a later near-defeat outside of the ring visually:
It’s a nice comparison, and a smart way to use the chains. The only flaw in this ending is a voiceover the hits the nail too much on the head.
Other frames and scenes further the mood. A faked murder in the theater recalls the look of Hitchcock’s Stage Fright from three years earlier. The shot below is a well-timed cut to a wide-shot from a few subsequent mediums. It’s also a sly POV that isn’t revealed until well after-the-fact.
A sexy frame-within-a-frame, trapping the man as a nice inside joke (between female legs):
Karlson has a great feel for traditional composition as well. Here is Ernie in a car with a few thugs just before the climax. Karlson starts outside looking in through the windows:
He then cuts inside the car:
Firstly, the camera placement is spot-on with both shots simply in terms of the best angle for dramatic effect. Shot 1 gives us Ernie (he’s frame left there) separated physically from his captors and weights the frame towards them. Shot 2 again crowds Ernie to the left, but also encloses the space even further. We’re sitting on the dashboard there. In both shots it’s clear that there’s no escape for our protagonist.
There’s another beautifully blocked moment in the bar, concurrent with the above action, that echoes the tricky POV in the theater:
Linda (Evelyn Keyes) sits at the bar and looks to the back:
Logically, we get a shot to what she looks at. A man, sitting alone in a corner:
But not so fast. The camera starts to pan…revealing Linda again at the bar:
I love stuff like this. It’s a false POV and more of Karlson’s camera trickery that throws us for a momentary loop amidst the moodiness of his man-in-trouble/mistaken-identity noir.