Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) coulda been a contender, he had one shot at the boxing title but thanks to an unfortunate wound over his eye which led to an unanticipated knockout, that chance slipped through his gloves and now he has been forced to find work as a taxi driver. He wouldn't mind so much, he still has plans to run his own gas station, but his wife Pauline (Peggie Castle) is less than satisfied with this arrangement and what she regards as his pivotal role in the thwarting of her showbusiness ambitions, and tonight, after watching the footage of his final fight on television, she tells him what she thinks of him in no uncertain terms. He then goes to work in a sour mood, but in conversation with his boss he strikes a good idea to save his marriage...
As we were plainly in film noir territory, it was safe to say this evening was not going to work out too smoothly for poor old Ernie, who as played by Payne was a man all too well aware of his failures in life and bottling up the aggression that he used to great advantage in his matches, it's only a matter of time before it explodes. But will this cause Ernie to act rashly, or even criminally? When he buys a big box of candy to take to Pauline as a peacemaker, his mood has lifted, but as he parks his cab outside the florists where she works, he is enraged to see through the shop window she is in an embrace with another man. Not any old other man, but Brad Dexter, the seventh member of The Magnificent Seven who everyone forgets!
If it had been Yul Brynner or Steve McQueen then he could perhaps understand it, but Dexter's Victor Rawlins character is obviously a total heel from the first time we see him, manipulating Pauline (who is no angel, granted) into the diamond heist he has become a main mover in. The scene was set for a night of turmoil, and Payne demonstrated a far grimmer side than his original breakthroughs as a musical star would ever have indicated, though when you knew that he had been a boxer in real life to make ends meet in leaner times, then you could understand why he was able to throw those punches so effectively. Perhaps he was looking to go the James Stewart route, from light leading man to anguished brooder in these noirs he made?
If that was his intention, then he proved he had that in his arsenal, and Payne was the reason much of 99 River Street was so compelling as Ernie was by no means completely sympathetic for we could tell he had a great capacity for violence. Another reason this was unexpectedly gripping for what was after all a modest B-movie was down to its director, Phil Karlson, a cult filmmaker if not a household name even at his height thanks to his skill with delivering a pacey thriller, of which this assuredly was a very solid example. He and Payne had just joined forces on another cult B-thriller, Kansas City Confidential, part of Karlson's run of muscular suspense and action pieces so admired by vintage movie buffs to this day. Here we understood that Ernie was just one step away from descending straight to Hell.
Part of that was the stark, black and white photography that was so redolent of the dangerous world of a city after dark in the movies of this era, not quite the end of the classic film noir period but not far off as the genre played itself out and a new style of thriller emerged. Mostly it was the plot the hero finds himself in, as he is framed for murder and has to stay one move ahead of the police who are eager to finger his collar for the crime, all the while hunting down the man he knows is responsible, that sense of getting to the heart of a truth not everyone is willing to see an overarching theme in Robert Smith's screenplay (which was worked on by both Karlson and Payne). Ernie was aided in his quest by B-movie queen Evelyn Keyes, as actress Linda who makes him lose his temper and spends the rest of the film making up for it; Keyes was quite a personality and that translated to her better roles, this one in particular as her drunk act proved. By the time Payne is left to punch his way through his dejection and injustice, literally, you feel as if you've lived every second of his hard times. Music by Arthur Lange and Emil Newman.