Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Noir City Northwest: 99 River Street (1953)/Framed (1947)

I didn’t do it, y’unnerstand? It was Noir City Day 4! The whole thing’s a set-up!

Phil Karlson is a treasured name among noir aficionados because he made spare, no-nonsense films. He also knew how to get strong performances out of actors like John Payne, a song-and-dance man who might otherwise have been remembered for freezing his charms off with Sonja Henie in Sun Valley Serenade. Karlson was savvy enough to see the caged animal lurking underneath Payne’s nice guy exterior. (A new DVD of an earlier Karlson/Payne collaboration, Kansas City Confidential, streets today.)

That trapped rage comes to the fore in 99 River Street. Payne plays an ex-boxer now reduced to driving a cab and about to have a night worse than any he spent in the ring. His wife leaves him for a two-bit jewel thief planning to make Payne a pawn. Payne’s only ally is a struggling actress (Evelyn Keyes) who causes problems of her own.

Some implausible plot twists go down easy thanks to Karlson’s slick direction. The real gem here is Evelyn Keyes, getting to display several styles of acting in one role. It’s a bravura performance. Ms. Keyes is profiled in Dark City Dames by festival programmer Eddie Muller, a book I expect all of you to read.

Eddie described 99 River Street as the cinematic equivalent of a Gold Medal paperback, but I’d say Framed is a better fit for that bill. Drifter Glenn Ford arrives in town and promptly lands in stir, only to find himself bailed out by Janis Carter and her cheekbones. She’s setting him up as part of an embezzlement scheme, but a strange thing happens halfway through the movie: the patsy gets wise. The devious script by Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle) has Ford and Carter each trying to one-up the other as the cops draw closer. Great fun.

I’m looking forward to the next three nights in the festival more than ever now that temperatures in Seattle are expected to hit the high nineties. Dark alleys may be dangerous, but they’re also cool.