There is a shot in Phil Karlson’s “99 River Street” in which Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), a one-time pugilist of some renown forced into a hardscrabble life as a cab-driver with pitiful dreams of owning a gas station and a wife, Pauline, who looks at him like the loser he’s knows he’s become, re-enters his old boxing gym. He looks in the mirror. The Poignant Looking Yourself In The Mirror Scene is over-used, to be sure, but this is one of its finest renderings in cinematic history. In that moment, Ernie sees the man he used to be and the man he wishes he still was even though he knows that he won’t be that man ever again. It’s a shot that could work to explicate the post-athletic days of any sports star, frankly, but works just as well in the context of this tough little noir, one that boils over with raucous characterization and a superb rendering of the desperation that can drive anyone – men and women – to craziness.
John Payne gives a tenacious performance as Ernie, down and out and disgusted with himself, putting on a happy face behind the wheel of his taxi even as he simultaneously grits his teeth. The film opens, in fact, with a purposeful sleight of hand, showing him in the boxing ring in the midst of his fighting days, slugging it out for a championship. But then...the camera pulls back. It’s merely a TV show that replays The Great Fights of Yesterday. Now he’s a has-been, if not a never-was, considering he didn't win that fight on TV and lost his one chance at the title, pretty much a given if he’s starring in a noir film. “I could’ve been champion,” he tells his wife and Peggie Castle’s retort is dripping with so much venom it practically drips off her lips and poisons the screen. TKO.
If Ernie can barely hide his rage, Pauline flaunts hers, openly deriding her husband as a ninny, a loser. She married him to be there when he went big, but when he didn’t, she lost interest, and now she’s two-timing him with a thief, Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter, his smile so ill-omened it'll put a chill down your spine), who plans to sell off a smattering of jewels for a hefty price to fund their escape to paradise. Ernie seethes when he learns of this betrayal which leads him directly into hot water when Linda (a magnetically screwy Evelyn Keyes), a woman at the coffee shop he haunts, less his femme fatale than his slippery accomplice, enlists him to help dispose of the dead body of the Broadway producer she’s unintentionally murdered, the one who wouldn’t recognize her dreams.
Linda’s plea for help is a show-stopping sequence, relayed intensely in close-up, a monologue filmed like an actress making her reel, which is precisely what it is, revealed as an audition of which unwitting Ernie has no idea he’s part. When he realizes he’s been made a chump, that Linda killed no one, that he was just an involuntary scene partner, he blows his stack and tosses haymakers at everyone in his way, roughing up an entire theater production. He’s angry in this moment, sure, but also...content. He’s back in the ring even if he’s still in public and it’s where he always wants to be, his craving finally filled.
But this unleashing of the sweet science in the sourest terms gets the cops on his case and Linda, feeling pangs of guilt if not also attraction, agrees to help him even as Ernie’s wife’s dead body winds up in the trunk of his taxi and all sorts of nefarious characters in league with Rawlins come calling. And as the situation spirals, Ernie is paradoxically renewed with a sense of purpose, taking out years of frustration on the goons closing in on him and climbing back into the metaphorical ring for one last slugfest.
Noirs typically aren’t supposed to end happy, of course, and so the happy ending of “99 River Street”, with Ernie grinning cheek to cheek as the proprietor of the gas station of his dreams and Linda as his girl, feels all wrong, like it’s pretend, a scene they’re playing, as if getting to that place where we really want to be, to quote poet laureate Bruce Springsteen, is no different than precisely how it looks in the context of this conclusion - that is, too good to be true.