Saturday, June 20, 2015

Summer of Darkness: 99 River Street(1953)

Ernie Driscoll is having one hell of a bad night. It gets off to a bad start when a televised repeat of one of his old boxing matches ignites an argument with his wife. It gets worse when he finds out his wife is seeing another man, continues to worsen when an acquaintance comes to him for help in disposing of the body of her would-be rapist, and hasn't even reached its nadir when his wife's diamond-thief lover tries to frame him for her murder. Yes, Ernie is having a rough night, and his simmering rage threatens to explode at any moment.

Ernie Driscoll is a noir hero who doesn't know he's living in a film noir, and in fact wants desperately to avoid that fate. His wife is the one in the film noir, his acquaintance wants to be in a film noir, but Ernie wants to live in a simple slice of life melodrama. He wants to live quietly, driving a cab while reminiscing about his golden years as a boxer. Regaling friends and coworkers with his plans to open his own filling station. Enjoying the camaraderie of an all-night diner and his fellow cabbies, buying chocolates for his wife and trying for children. It's only when the complications pile on too high that Ernie embraces his inner two-fisted hero and begins spouting lines like "There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time."

Yes, it turns out Ernie was born to be the world-weary hero of a film noir, and he takes to it naturally. To the film's credit, and what makes its plot work, is that the film never lets Ernie completely off the hook through his dark night of the soul. Sure, Ernie is the victim here, but it's easy to sympathize with the wife of a man so disappointed in his own life, who is so bottled up and quick to use his fists on the people who don't deserve it. The film never implies that Ernie ever beat his wife, but living with a man that full of rage couldn't have been a cake walk. It's easy to see why she might find comfort and romance in the arms of another man, even one as dangerous as Mr. Diamond Thief.

The film takes some twists and turns and features dozens of complications I haven't mentioned here. The film's surprises are worth experiencing on their own, and my sympathy for Ernie quickly turned into surprised laughter at how much punishment the film kept throwing his way. Ernie's journey from aggrieved hero of a melodrama to two-fisted hero of a film noir is so smooth, and seems so natural a fit for the character, that it becomes a bit difficult to buy into the film's convenient happy ending. It's hard to believe Ernie will be a success with his new wife and filling station, not when we've seen how comfortable and, dare I say, content he was pummeling men to within an inch of their lives. Not when we've seen what became of his previous marriage. Ernie may have consciously switched genres, but the shadows of Noir Country have a long reach.

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