There are worse things than murder. You can kill a man one inch at a time.
Last week I recommended Kansas City Confidential, a 1952 collaboration between Director Phil Karlson, Producer Edward Small and Actor John Payne. They re-teamed very successfully the following year to make this week’s film recommendation: 99 River Street.
Payne is compelling as ultra-hard-luck Ernie Driscoll, a former boxer turned cab driver. In the opening scene, which is a pre-Raging Bull master class in how to convey the violence of boxing on film, Ernie is on the verge of becoming champion when he gets a bad break. And the bad breaks keep coming for the rest of the movie, in his marriage to his ice-cold beauty of a wife (Peggie Castle, at her best), in his friendship with a manipulative aspiring actress friend (Evelyn Keyes, on fire here), and in his battles with some ruthless jewel thieves who want to destroy him for reasons he can’t understand. His only consistent source of support is his former manager, a dispatcher at his cab company (played sympathetically by Frank Faylen, who played a cab driver in many Hollywood films and apparently got promoted).
If this film noir/gangster melodrama deserves one adjective it’s brutal. There are many scenes of physical violence, filmed with unusual realism (My favorite is Payne’s torture by and knock down drag out with a karate chopping jewel thief played by tough guy Jack Lambert). The emotional violence is even more pronounced, particularly in a long, gripping sequence in which Driscoll is played for a chump by a group of “theater people”. The tragedy of Payne’s character is that while he once was a master of his violent nature, frustrations and failures have led him to become a slave to it, preventing him from being happy in his achingly simple new life ambition of moving from hack work to becoming the owner of a filling station. Payne and Karlson are well up to the challenge of bringing across Driscoll’s emotional flaws and vulnerabilities, while at the same time making him completely credible in the many physical confrontations of the story.
The movie also gives the audience a fine bunch of criminals to root against. Brad Dexter (the guy from The Magnificent Seven whose name few people can recall) is both scary and smooth as the jewel thief who frames Payne for a terrible crime. Lambert exudes the menace that served him so well in his decades as a heavy in films and on television. Eddy Waller is even scarier in a different way as a criminal who has a kindly manner but in fact is a cold-blooded killer. The final, extended confrontation at 99 River Street of the protagonists versus the villains is thrilling and satisfying.
The only weakness of this movie is the final two minutes, a tacked on “where are they now?”-style epilogue that is too upbeat and pat given the tone and content of the rest of the film (The otherwise perfect Sideways had the same flaw). It was unlike Karlson to pull a punch, but it doesn’t diminish 99 River Street as a gritty, gripping piece of cinema.
The 1952 heist movie Kansas City Confidential is a highly entertaining film noir/gangster melodrama
This week and next I will highlight two collaborations of actor John Payne, director Phil Karlson and producer Edward Small, who had an impressive run of modestly-budgeted, high quality films in the years after World War II, a period when many movies merged elements of film noir with the traditions of the gangster melodrama (See for example my previous recommendation, I Walk Alone). This week’s recommendation is the first of their collaborations: 1952’s Kansas City Confidential.
At one level, this is a superb heist film (which allegedly influenced Quentin Tarantino’s conception of Reservoir Dogs). A masked criminal mastermind half-recruits, half-bullies three lowlifes into pulling off an armed robbery. All of them wear masks and thus are unknown both to the police and to each other. The mastermind instructs them to hide out until the money is laundered, and gives them a secret method of identifying each other when the time is ripe for the payout. Meanwhile, an ex-con, ex-GI (Payne, playing two noir archetypes in one!) who was at the wrong place at the wrong time gets pinched by the police. He escapes their clutches and decides to pursue the gang, though whether he wants them brought to justice or just desires a piece of the pie is not immediately clear.
This film is proof-positive that you don’t need much money to make a solid, entertaining film, and the complete lack of pretension to anything else is one of Kansas City Confidential’s charms. The script has some satisfying twists and moments of delicious tension. All the performances are very good, particularly Jack Elam as a twitchy, chain-smoking criminal, Preston Foster as an embittered ex-cop with both a brutal and a soft side, and Payne as a cynical tough guy out for some sort of redemption. The camerawork, particularly in the first half, is striking, with effective use of close-ups and lighting to let the actors act and the dark mood to suffuse the audience. The film’s viewpoint is bleak: The cops are not much better than the criminals, to extent that they are even different people at all.
John Payne’s career is almost a noir story in itself. He was originally an upbeat singer and dancer in light-hearted films and was also of course a star of the heartwarming Miracle on 34th Street. But a few years after the war he changed into a tough actor with great physical presence and a clipped style of delivering dialogue. He was very smart about the film business as a business (and shrewdly cleaned up a packet in Hollywood due to wise investments) and may therefore have grasped that the war shifted filmgoers’ taste toward darker movies that would begin to supplant sunnier fare. Whatever the reasons for his transformation, he was very effective both as a smiling song-and-dance man in love with the All-American girl as well as in the hard bitten roles he later took on. Truly, an actor of significant range.
Happily, Kansas City Confidential is in the public domain and you can therefore legally watch it for free here at Internet Archive.