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99 River Street

Kino // Unrated // June 21, 2016
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 28, 2016 | E-mail the Author
"There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time."

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Sixty two bouts. Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) made it sixty two bouts without ever being knocked off his feet in the ring, he's up on the cards for #63, and with the beating he's giving Sailor Braxton, the guy's all of another round or two away from being crowned the new heavyweight champ. It's all over with a life-threatening stray cut: this fight, his career as a boxer, his future.

With yet another roll of her eyes, Pauline (Peggie Castle) turns the TV off. It's not that she was worried about the impact that this 'Greatest Fights in Boxing History' retrospective or whatever would have on her husband; it's just another reminder to Polly that she bet on the wrong horse. This one-time showgirl thought she was marrying some kind of sports hero, both on their way to certain stardom. She instead lives in a tiny apartment, toils away in a flower shop, and is anchored to a lowly cab driver. Ernie has a bad habit of wallowing and brooding, sure, but he aspires to something more than just another hack in a yellow taxi, saving up in the hopes of someday soon buying a filling station. Polly sneers at how low Ernie sets the bar for his dreams and is out the door. It's a night that starts badly enough and quickly gets a hell of a lot worse.

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I'm not going to spell out the plot of 99 River Street. A big part of the appeal is how it feints with a right and then connects with a left hook, so the less you know going in, the better. Let's just say that there's a struggling actress (Evelyn Keyes) with an unrealistic eye towards Broadway stardom, a diamond heist gone wrong, a hell of a frame-up (plural, even), and Ernie stuck with a fare that's not exactly breathing.

On the surface, 99 River Street may look as if it's simply stringing together one cliché after another: the boxer whose best days are long behind him, a femme fatale or two, a man wrongly accused who's desperate to clear his name as the police are in hot pursuit, a sap trying to leave his past behind by starting over at a gas station... Forget about all that. It's not about those individual pieces and parts; it's about the execution. 99 River Street is teeming with surprises, every last one of which are well-earned rather than clumsy attempts at yanking the rug out from under the audience. Several different schemes crash head-on into one another, and even with as many plot strands wind up being woven together, it all remains entirely clear and comprehensible: more than I can say about other convoluted films noir. The direction by Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential) is full of inspired touches, beginning with the unexpected reveal that the opening battle royale is a retrospective on TV rather than something in the here and now. 99 River Street screams ahead at a breakneck pace. Delivering blow after bloody blow for the better part of its 83 minutes, the violence on display here is brutal enough to make me wince more than sixty years after the fact. Far and away the film's greatest asset is its cast: Jack Lambert pitch-perfect as ever as the heavy, Frank Faylen's trainer-turned-cab-dispatcher who never turned his back on his favorite fighter, the achingly gorgeous Peggie Castle as the former showgirl willing to do whatever it takes to get back on top, and Evelyn Keyes positively chameleon-like as she adapts to whatever precarious situation is hurled her way. John Payne is particularly exceptional in the lead role. The burden of having everything he knew and loved suddenly snatched from him...the combustible fury he barely keeps in check...his self-destructive streak...his reluctance to stick out his chin for himself or anyone else: all of that is deeply felt through Payne's facial expressions and physicality.

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Kino Classics has brought more films noir to Blu-ray that I would ever have dreamt possible, with this latest wave also featuring Hidden Fear and Edmond O'Brien's Shield for Murder. 99 River Street ranks among my very favorites in that long list, and despite some misgivings about the presentation, this release very much comes Highly Recommended.

The flipside of the case may exclaim "newly re-mastered in HD!", and a Kino rep has posted that this master was struck last year, but borderline-nothing about 99 River Street suggests a recent transfer. The image is soft and woefully lacking in fine detail. Film grain is poorly resolved. Contrast falls well below expectations. I don't have MGM's MOD DVD from 2011 handy to do a direct comparison, but if the differences between the two are significant, that probably says more about the mastering of the DVD than the merits of this Blu-ray release. On the upside, speckling and wear are kept to a minimum. As lackluster as 99 River Street looks on Blu-ray, falling significantly short of the marks set by so many other recent film noir releases, it's still entirely watchable. At no point did I find the presentation to be a distraction nor did it diminish my appreciation for the film itself. This isn't the release I'd hoped it would be, but I'd still say it ranks as good enough.

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99 River Street is pillarboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and given the lean runtime and limited video-based extras, it follows that the film arrives on a single-layer Blu-ray disc.

Presented in two-channel mono, this 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio is adequate but unexceptional. Dialogue is rendered reasonably cleanly and clearly throughout, and the effects and score come through without any noteworthy issues either. Light crackling and pops are frequently audible, though only for a few seconds of 99 River Street's runtime are they particularly intrusive. It's unlikely that anyone will be dazzled by the clarity and fidelity of this lossless track, but I'm not left with any significant complaints.

Commentary aside, there are no other audio options.

  • Audio Commentary: C'mon, his nickname is the Czar of Noir, and he founded the Historical Boxing Museum; is there anyone the world over more qualified to speak about 99 River Street than Eddie Muller? This is such an outstanding commentary track, striking that perfect balance between being well-researched and an infectiously fun listen. There are entirely too many highlights to list: why John Indrisano played the referee in practically boxing movie for a decade and a half, the title of "99 River Street" only coming along a couple of months prior to its release, how the film was originally intended to be shot on location in New York, a bungled PR campaign that had the cast smiling with boxes of candy, the way in which camera placement reflects one character's power over another, and star John Payne optioning the rights to Moonraker years before James Bond premiered on the big screen. Muller was good friends with leading lady Evelyn Keyes, noting that what may seem to some as wild overacting is a deliberate portrayal of an aspiring actress who's not especially talented. As much as Muller loves the film, he's not blind to its flaws or less inspired aspects either. If you pick up 99 River Street on Blu-ray -- and you absolutely should -- then this audio commentary is an essential listen.
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  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): Along with a two minute trailer for 99 River Street, Kino Classics has included trailers for Hidden Fear, Shield for Murder, and He Ran All the Way.

The Final Word
Of course, I wish that 99 River Street could have been lavished with a spectacular new transfer from the original camera negative. Still, I'm so thrilled that the film has made it to Blu-ray at all that its lackluster presentation doesn't come as any real disappointment. Eddie Muller's exceptional commentary track elevates an already highly recommended release that much further.
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Highly Recommended

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