February 8, 2011

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With little fanfare, MGM re-started its moribund DVD burn-on-demand service last month. MGM originally offered 27 titles through Amazon’s CreateSpace service in early 2010, only to encounter complaints about cropped aspect ratios. Then last November, it was quietly announced that they were switching to Allied Vaughn’s MOD technology, and making it available to a variety of retailers (now including Movies UnlimitedOldies.comScreen Classics, and Amazon). It’s unclear whether the original MOD titles released in non-anamorphic or cropped versions (like Cold Turkey), will receive updates, but to be safe, I’d stick to the new releases and check the Home Theater Forum for news. The initial release slate is 50, with “an expansion plan to release more than 400 new-to-DVD titles within the next 18 months” (press release here). The first batch of these were rolled out in January, so to get a sense of this promising new venture’s quality, I picked up director Phil Karlson’s caustic film noir, 99 River Street (1953).

(Note:  The For the Love of Film Noir Blog-a-thon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren, takes place Feb. 14th – 21st to raise money for the Film Noir Foundation‘s efforts to restore Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (1950). I’ll be contributing next week, so consider the following a teaser.  Donate here.)

Presented in a fine progressive transfer from a pristine inky black print, it’s clear MGM is taking their MOD program seriously this time around. [UPDATE: DVD Beaver found the transfer to be interlaced. I didn’t notice this in playback, but they’re always right about these things]. There are no extras. Amazon is offering it at a slight discount for $17.99, while the other sites have it pegged at $19.99.

Made a year after Karlson and lead actor John Payne teamed up for Kansas City Confidential (1952, where Payne’s ex-con is set up to take the fall for an armored car robbery), 99 River Street is a story of failure and provisional redemption. In this version Payne plays Eddie Driscoll, a washed up pug who ritualistically watches the highlights of his championship bout defeat, in which his eye was permanently damaged, hoping for a catharsis that never comes. Repeatedly shown in oblique angle close-ups, his right eye twitches like a maggot in a slab of beef. His wife Pauline, played with icy disdain by Peggie Castle, is a cinched-up former showgirl who yearns for the high life and sees an out in the machinations of  thief Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter).

Eddie’s meat-headed obsessiveness and Pauline’s extravagant boredom are set up in the opening sequence. It begins on the title bout, a barrage of low-angle jabs that ends with Eddie knocked bloody, his face caressing the bottom rope. Then Karlson cuts to a close-up of the TV, the announcers talking about “The Great Fights of Yesterday.” The camera then dollies back to get the full TV on-screen, then swiftly pans to left to Eddie. Now robbed of his physicality, this has-been still winces at every blow. Kalrson then cuts to a reverse angle, revealing the rest of the shabby room, with Pauline, ignored, seething at the dinner table. Their eyes don’t meet until she turns off the TV, finishing the announcer’s phrase, “Next week…Driscoll will be driving a taxi.” Her words drip with venom, and understandably so, but she ends up in the arms of Rawlins, a reptilian creep who seems to devour her whole with his eyes.

Enraptured with visions of escape from her working class life, Pauline falls for Rawlins’ sordid designs. His attraction to her becomes increasingly sadistic, which only become clear in rhyming images of her scarf, at the beginning and midpoint of the film.

The cuckolded Eddie does drive that cab, barely making ends meet, and hangs out at a diner with another failure, an out-of-work actress played by Evelyn Keyes with intentionally grating brilliance, whose whole life revolves around performance. Her overactive eyebrows eventually sucker Eddie in to be an unwitting co-star in an elaborate performance. It’s an incredible sequence that pivots on a long take, close-up monologue of Keyes re-enacting a murder she claims to have committed, which Driscoll believes to be real. Then the hoax is revealed – it was all an an audition to convince a play’s backers of her skill – and Driscoll’s subterranean rage bursts, knocking out the play’s director and a few of its producers. Keyes, staring at the camera, was acting out a murder for the audience, which is then revealed to be an act. She spends the rest of the film trying to make amends for this betrayal.

99 River Street is a tale of middling talents who can never catch a break, having to repress their natural skills just to get by. Without the physical outlet of boxing, Driscoll is a man in the process of mastering his rage and never quite getting there. In the final showdown, when Driscoll is facing up to the scummy Victor Rawlins, a voice-over intrudes for the first time in the film, as Payne, shot in the arm and fading fast, repeats the mantra, “I have to get him”. It’s the climax to all of those intrusive close-ups showing his decaying exterior,  a jarring device that peeks into the mind of a man who defines himself by his body.

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