99 River Street (1953)
Today in the NY Times David Mamet says that "There is little more beautiful than a fighter’s face. Audrey Hepburn was the face of beauty, but if wisdom is knowledge perfected by suffering, the fighter’s is the face of wisdom." A bit romanticized, sure, and written to promote his (rather good) fight film Redbelt, but his phrase seems particularly apt after seeing John Payne's battered face in Phil Karlson's mournful 99 River Street (1953). Made a year after Karlson and Payne teamed up for Kansas City Confidential (where ex-con Payne is set up to take the fall for an armored car robbery), River Street is another story of failure and provisional redemption. In this version Payne is a washed up pug, his eye permanently damaged after a brutal beating that he re-watches ritualistically on TV, 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, 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 a slick conman (Brad Dexter).
The cuckolded Payne drives a cab and hangs out with another failure, an out-of-work actress played by Evelyn Keynes, whose whole life revolves around performance. Her overactive eyebrows eventually sucker Payne in to be an unwitting co-star in an elaborate audition of a murder scene. It's an incredible sequence that pivots on a long take, close-up monologue of Keynes re-enacting a murder which Karlson initially presents as factual. Then the curtain is raised, the hoax revealed, and Payne's subterranean rage bursts. Keynes, 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. It's a far more sensitive handling of an audience's implication in screen violence than anything in Haneke's Funny Games.
As a tale of failure it is also a tale of redemption, so amid some gorgeously drawn matte shots Payne gains some shreds of wisdom in his life - he's not the self-abnegating sensei that Mamet celebrates, but a man in the process of mastering his rage. In the final showdown, when Payne is facing up to one of the men who has screwed up his life (although his wasted life is never less than attributed to Payne's own frailties), a voice-over intrudes for the first time in the film, as Payne, shot in the arm and fading, repeats the mantra, "I have to get him". It's a jarring device - and a rather beautiful one, giving us a peek into the interior world of a man made up of exteriors, whose whole life is built upon physicality. So he gains his modest slice of success - a filling station - but one wonders what he'll do if he catches his final fight on TV again.
There's an excellent piece by Jia Zhangke up at GOOD magazine. It's a very informative look into the development of his career as related to the state of Chinese politics.