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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #24: The Square Circle (Opening Scene from 99 River Street)

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I was struck by the interplay between Ernie and Pauline mirror the fight scene on the TV, but in reverse:  As the camera pulls back from the tight close-up of the fight to reveal that it occurred in the past, the camera steadily zooms in on the domestic fight happening in the present.  A feeling of constraint, whether it’s from the fights in a roped-off ring or in a cramped room with four wall, increases the feeling of being caught, with no way out.  Each fight - one with words and the other with fists - generates the same level of anxiety and stress, and Ernie loses both bouts.  But Ernie lives for another dream, in much the same way as Warren did in MGM’s 1949 noir thriller Tension, and like the hapless pharamacist, he’s stuck with a chilly noir fish wife, ex-showgirl Pauline.  


 


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24. 99 RIVER STREET: Showgirl Beats Contender By TKO

Ernie's eye twitches watching one fight while his wife rings the dinner bell for another.
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For the boxing scene in 99 River Street, 1953, director Karlson defines it for cinema by showing close-ups and angular shots as if one was right there or experiencing the punches.  Whereas for television, the boxing scene is seen head-on and in its entirety, no angular shots, framed in a TV screen, and sized small with the feeling of being distant from the action or being an observer.

 

Social class, upper and lower, and dreams of grandeur and wealth seem to be highlighted in the interactions between Ernie (John Payne) and Pauline (Peggie Castle).  Pauline is embitter about giving up her possible movie star career by marrying her boxer husband, Ernie, with promises of the good life and fame.  But, he is now not able to return to boxing and is considering opening a gas station.  Also, Pauline is 'temporarily' working to support them.  In the 1950s, the conventional marriage had the husband working and supporting the wife while she took care of the household.  Ernie's and Pauline's marriage is having problems and not following the convention for Ernie is not working and Pauline is.

 

Pauline is pretty brutal and insulting to her husband about his former boxing career in the scene.  She does not sympathize and does not offer any encouragement for his suggestion for buying a gas station.  Ernie tries to reason with Pauline but to no avail.  He comments about how 'real' her diamond-like bracelet watch is and she derides him that they are only rhinestones/fake and would have been real if she had not married him.  Ernie is anxious and confronted with the possibility that Pauline may leave him while Pauline is angry because she has been given a 'bum' deal and may look elsewhere.  The music acts as an agent of emphasis in Ernie's and Pauline's argument with each other.  The distance between the two characters is wide and not close indicating the break between them.  Shadows and angular shots of  the faces of Ernie and Pauline show anger, anxiety and pain.

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There is definitely a strong contrast between the styles of film and television in this clip from 99 River Street. And while the director may think he is providing a humorous contrast in favor of film, I'm reminded of what I always thought the first rule of advertising was: "Don't give free publicity to your competitors". Case in point: I generally don't watch commercials and usually mute the TV and either read something or surf the web. One time I glanced up and saw David Beckham taking to someone at a T-Mobile counter. I thought to myself "Beckham is promoting T-Mobile, huh." It wasn't until later when I saw the actual whole commercial, I realized it was for Sprint. Taken out of context, it looked like a commercial for a competitor. Here, perhaps Phil Karlson believes he is showing the vast superiority to film: it feels like real life, you can get in close and at angles not capable for television at this stage. You are IN the ring with the boxers who are pulverizing each other. Perhaps it's more real than if you had been at the fight off in the cheap seats.

 

Once the camera pulls back and we see the fight on television, we should feel that we are removed from that inclusion. We are not just out of the ring, but out the stadium. But here is where the Karlson is actually giving some good publicity to television: you can watch it from the comfort of your own home, the intimacy of experiencing something away from the crowd, and the ability to relive past events as if they're happening right now. Ernie sitting so close to the TV is supposed to maybe convey that unlike the ginormous figures on the screen that are larger than life, we have to sit up real close to see these smaller images and pick up on the details that are lost. But I think it's also demonstrative of that intimacy, that one-on-one relationship you can have with a television program where you feel it's being presented just for you. As we watch the knockdown in slow motion, we can go back and examine with greater detail something that may have happened so quickly originally, we might have missed it due to a distraction. Before the era of repeats, streaming video and DVR, the opportunity to watch something a second time must have been highly desirable. While the style of film is superior, it shows that both methods of entertainment had impressive advantages in their favor, and television would only continue to grow and make up for that gap in style.

 

The discussion between Ernie and Pauline is probably one that many couples have had both then and now. The idea of wanting more, the American dream where hard work and dedication pays off with wealth and the means to pursue your desires. Both Ernie and Pauline are seeing that their dreams are not coming to fruition. Ernie is no longer a prizefighter and has accumulated no wealth or power and Pauline is an ex-showgirl whose dreams of becoming a Hollywood star fade with each passing year. They've been sticking it out for four years, and now Ernie has a new dream of his own business, a gas station. Clearly Ernie has a desire to re-live his glory days, from his practical embrace of the television during his last fight to his belief that his old fans will flock to his gas station just for a chance to see him. Pauline, on the other hand, is quick to pull him down from the clouds, reminding him that he would be little more than a service boy for people who wouldn't give him a second glance. She has a desire for real jewelry, not the cheap costume stuff she is forced to wear. Dashed hopes and dreams, a growing sense of greed and avarice and a woman pushing her man into giving her what she desires are but a few of the noir pieces in this scene.

 

Also, just FYI, if you missed 99 River Street on Friday, it's currently available for streaming on Netflix.

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There is definitely a strong contrast between the styles of film and television in this clip from 99 River Street. And while the director may think he is providing a humorous contrast in favor of film, I'm reminded of what I always thought the first rule of advertising was: "Don't give free publicity to your competitors". Case in point: I generally don't watch commercials and usually mute the TV and either read something or surf the web. One time I glanced up and saw David Beckham taking to someone at a T-Mobile counter. I thought to myself "Beckham is promoting T-Mobile, huh." It wasn't until later when I saw the actual whole commercial, I realized it was for Sprint. Taken out of context, it looked like a commercial for a competitor. Here, perhaps Phil Karlson believes he is showing the vast superiority to film: it feels like real life, you can get in close and at angles not capable for television at this stage. You are IN the ring with the boxers who are pulverizing each other. Perhaps it's more real than if you had been at the fight off in the cheap seats.

 

Once the camera pulls back and we see the fight on television, we should feel that we are removed from that inclusion. We are not just out of the ring, but out the stadium. But here is where the Karlson is actually giving some good publicity to television: you can watch it from the comfort of your own home, the intimacy of experiencing something away from the crowd, and the ability to relive past events as if they're happening right now. Ernie sitting so close to the TV is supposed to maybe convey that unlike the ginormous figures on the screen that are larger than life, we have to sit up real close to see these smaller images and pick up on the details that are lost. But I think it's also demonstrative of that intimacy, that one-on-one relationship you can have with a television program where you feel it's being presented just for you. As we watch the knockdown in slow motion, we can go back and examine with greater detail something that may have happened so quickly originally, we might have missed it due to a distraction. Before the era of repeats, streaming video and DVR, the opportunity to watch something a second time must have been highly desirable. While the style of film is superior, it shows that both methods of entertainment had impressive advantages in their favor, and television would only continue to grow and make up for that gap in style.

 

The discussion between Ernie and Pauline is probably one that many couples have had both then and now. The idea of wanting more, the American dream where hard work and dedication pays off with wealth and the means to pursue your desires. Both Ernie and Pauline are seeing that their dreams are not coming to fruition. Ernie is no longer a prizefighter and has accumulated no wealth or power and Pauline is an ex-showgirl whose dreams of becoming a Hollywood star fade with each passing year. They've been sticking it out for four years, and now Ernie has a new dream of his own business, a gas station. Clearly Ernie has a desire to re-live his glory days, from his practical embrace of the television during his last fight to his belief that his old fans will flock to his gas station just for a chance to see him. Pauline, on the other hand, is quick to pull him down from the clouds, reminding him that he would be little more than a service boy for people who wouldn't give him a second glance. She has a desire for real jewelry, not the cheap costume stuff she is forced to wear. Dashed hopes and dreams, a growing sense of greed and avarice and a woman pushing her man into giving her what she desires are but a few of the noir pieces in this scene.

 

Also, just FYI, if you missed 99 River Street on Friday, it's currently available for streaming on Netflix.

 

Well Ernie is a fairly typical sports figure and one still common today and one could say people in general.   Note that after his wife is killed and he is talking to Linda he mentions how women treated him when he was winning match after match and how he was treated when he lost.   Ernie makes it clear he spent a lot of his earnings on women and living the good life.   I assume Ernie made some good money during his winning streak (his ex-manager didn't appear to be a thief).      Now if he would have saved 20% of so of those earning he would have had enough to purchase his own gas station or start another business after his boxing career ended.   Every athlete has to know his career will be short and end some day.     Therefore the situation Ernie found himself in after his career ended due to injury was based on his own poor decision making,  greed and lust.       This is unlike soldiers like the Dana Andrews' character in The Best Years of Our Lives,  who had no chance to make the type of money Ernie made struggling to make it in post WWII America.     

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The TV in this scene is showing a movie of the past. It just shows what happened. When the director includes Payne in the scene, he shows the pain (no pun intended) in real time. This isn't just a cold documentary, but real life. The crushed dreams and inability to see a bright future is evident. I kept thinking of Brando's line: "I could have been a contender." The minute Castle thinks she was a contender, Payne knocks her down as if he punched her. He's reeling from her punch his future, and he had to hit her hard.

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1.)  When we are actually viewing the boxing match,  we are inside the ring with the two fighters and the referee...the sound of the fight is loud and distinct.  The cutting is fast-paced.  When we are viewing the fight from the viewpoint of a television viewer,  the fight is in slow motion and there are no cuts; the sound , now through the the TV sets tinny speakers,  is low and unclear.   One major statement the scene makes on television over movies is when Ernie's wife shuts the TV off on him while the match is going on ---almost as if Karlson were saying that when you watch TV an outsider can ruin the experience for you as opposed to seeing movies in a cinema where no one (short of the projectionist) can shut off the film.

 

 

2.)  The relationship between Ernie and Pauline shows changing roles of men and women in films noir. Pauline is tougher than female characters un previous noir films.  Ernie is a new model of postwar male characters;  having trouble finding work; failure to live up to the middle class working male image.

 

3.)  Scene shows noir substance;  characters seemingly lost and adrift in modern postwar society with no direction. 

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99 River Street clip has layer upon layer of metaphors within in a few minutes...first- the boxing match on TV, then the boxing match that Payne is reliving while watching the boxing match on TV, the slow mo repeat of the boxing match, and finally the boxing match between husband and wife, and in each scene, it's Payne who is taking the blows. Still he is surviving.  Still he is hopeful.  Throughout it all, Payne is "really against the ropes, he's holding on now" but he takes it to the eye. The match affects his eyesight  -- he's still optimistic, still holding on to the view of the American Dream. The fake almost looks real, he remarks about the bracelet.  Idealism about the American Dream is almost real -- a gas station provides hope but his wife tells him just the way it is...you're just a servant. She's a blamer -- blaming him for her lack of success as a showgirl. But she believes she could have been a star...no you were just a showgirl, he reminds her. But in her worldview, she could have been a star and he could have been a champion.  It's a hope that have been fed by society, but the table is empty -- there's no food that they are feasting on at the dinner table, just some swill of coffee to wash it all down....their dreams were "clouds in their coffee", as Carly Simon once wrote.

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The "live" boxing matching seems much more Raging Bull (1980) than Night and the City (1950), right?

 

I also like how many times we see boxing within this clip. As msbella pointed out, we see the original "live" match, the TV version, the slow-motion version, and the version in which John Payne dukes it out, and loses, to his wife, Peggie Castle. I'm actually kind of surprised how he can keep on taking the same beating over and over and over and over again. Not only is Payne's character stuck in the past, he's reliving it, which seems to happen quite frequently assuming that Castle's character's fury wasn't a singular occurrence. The past, as we've seen in many of the films we've looked at, comes back to haunt our protagonist.

 

It would be interesting to see how the fed-up character Castle plays would react if Payne's character achieves his new goal. He has a vision to work and earn money, but perhaps the burden has been put on Castle for too long. I think this goes to show how noir traveled with people from the city to suburbia. No one is safe nowadays, even if you are a supposedly famous ex-boxer. Noir will find you in this world.

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I just have to ask: all of the people remarking on the fact that Ernie is "emasculated"--what is the equivalent of that for his wife? If Pauline is robbing Ernie of his masculinity, are there ways in which he is robbing her of her femininity?

 

In other words, if Ernie is being denied the American male dream of a respectable job and a dutiful wife, what is the female American dream? What is Pauline's ideal? What should she be aspiring to? Where does she draw her self-worth (aside from having a husband with high status)? Is her desire for money at odds with the American dream, or is it a grotesque extension of it?

 

I'm genuinely curious about what you guys think about this. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what life would look like for a happy guy, but I'm not so sure when I think about the "perfect" life for a woman.

 

I had a great-aunt who was in her "prime" during the 50s. She was an (awesome) teacher, and she took her job very seriously. In a conversation with my father, he expressed the opinion that, had she lived in this day and age, she would have probably preferred to stay single--working her job and traveling (she's been to more countries than anyone I've ever met). I sometimes wonder how economic realities and social niceties impacted the direction of her life, and what her version of a "perfect" living situation would have been.

 

This is a really good question. I want to say that in a patriarchy, the Dream has always been for men, with women used as an accessory to the Dream: sweethearts, wives, mothers, daughters ... simply ornaments, toys, rewards, and tools, with little true agency as humans in their own right. This was before my time, but it certainly seems that this was the worldview of the 50's that women later fought against.

 

But as someone else has said, women had to be willing participants for the Dream to work, and that was the sin of the femme fatale: she rebelled against being the pliable toy ornament, and wanted life on her own terms. So for me, film noir (perhaps unintentionally) was deeply feminist, casting a glaring spotlight into the dysfunctional nature of the Dream, showing that not all was happy in Picket Fence Land. Even though the femme fatale was punished in the end, for her, that small bit of freedom may have been worth the price.

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YOU MUST WATCH THIS SCENE!!!  Go 70 minutes into the film to see a three minute exchange between Brad Dexter and Evelyn Keyes.  It's only three minutes but it'll burn a hole in your head.  If only the rest of the film could have been as intense.  Both actors are at their very best and show how much they had to offer.  The hard boiled dialogue is awesome to hear.  I saw this scene a year ago on TCM and it's what made me fixate on film noirs.  Good movie with some great individual scenes scattered throughout. 

 

 

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We first see the fight as the filmmaker would have us see it, with all of the noir techniques- close-up, low angles, off-center compositions. We can feel the intensity and energy of the blows, the heat, and the agony of defeat. And then we see the panned-and-scanned T.V. version, which is real only for Ernie because he lived it, and relives it continually. Pauline is quite perturbed with his interest in the fight, using it as an excuse to bicker and belittle him. As much as her resentment stings it is no match for his own bitter disappointment and self loathing. In the post-war era films noir were often portraying a different "dark" side of human nature, along with murder and mistrust we are seeing more and more despairing, bleak individuals with low ambition who seem to believe less and less in the " American Dream" of the past generation.

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Pauline is so much more bitter about the life she's been handed, which seems very selfish I think. She lashes out at him for her low standing in life was because she'd married him. It isn't as if he forced her to do it, and it seems like he wouldn't stop her if she wanted to leave, he doesn't seem like the sort to hurt a woman anyway (though I can't say for sure I haven't seen the movie) It seems to me that no one is to blame for her unhappiness but herself and she refuses to see that. 

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In this scene Ernie is trying to figure out what he did to lose the fight while Pauline wants him to finish his dinner so she can get back to work. Ernie starts  telling her is plan for the future while she starts complaining about her like (which was her choice to marry a pug..).

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Pauline is so much more bitter about the life she's been handed, which seems very selfish I think. She lashes out at him for her low standing in life was because she'd married him. It isn't as if he forced her to do it, and it seems like he wouldn't stop her if she wanted to leave, he doesn't seem like the sort to hurt a woman anyway (though I can't say for sure I haven't seen the movie) It seems to me that no one is to blame for her unhappiness but herself and she refuses to see that. 

 

One needs to understand the time period;  Solid, well paying job opportunities were very limited for women.   The social convention was fora women to marry and for the husband to support her.    This husband wasn't up to the task.   He had dreams of a better future but no real plans to make them come true (e.g. where was he going to get the money to own his own gas station).    Note that it had been 3 years since that fight.    3 years of dreams and empty promises.     Of course Pauline could have been more supportive but I doubt that would have helped Ernie get a better job and make something of himself (he really wasn't very bright and didn't have any skills other then the ability to box). 

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Karlson puts the television in real disvantage here. We start the scene feeling all the fast movement of a boxing fight and end it observing a cold image that barely moves. Is like if he was pointing that the real emotion happens on real life, and only the cinema could bprovide it to you.

 

Ernie and Pauline are in fact talking about the society they were living it. Just like the former champ on boxing thats falls on the ground, people just can remember good moments in life because the reality here is not so good. Economical problems are a really issue and the future does not seems so bright from this point on.

 

Besides that, here we have the low-key lighting and the shadows that made noir a so particular way of telling stories on cinema.

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"Compare and contrast how director Karlson shoots and stages the boxing scene as a contrast of styles between cinema and television."

 

Karlson shows how awful TV when compared to cinema.  Karlson creates a cinematic fight scene that grabs us and pulls us into how the boxer is feeling.  You can see the blows coming, almost feel the pain Ernie is feeling.  It is quick and brutal, but as we pull back we and see that this is television sequence we are placed outside the ring.  We are no longer part of the match, but merely spectators.  Karlson seems to be saying, in cinema you can be part of the action, but in television you merely watch the action unfold.

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Pauline is the typical dissatisfied housewife in film noir.  She can't stand that Ernie is out of boxing and especially making the big bucks.  He says their financial situation will soon change, but she doesn't believe him.

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Pauline is the typical dissatisfied housewife in film noir.  She can't stand that Ernie is out of boxing and especially making the big bucks.  He says their financial situation will soon change, but she doesn't believe him.

 

Of course Pauline doesn't believe him because there is no way Ernie can turn his situation around.    How was he going to save the money necessary to start his own gas station?    Ernie made a lot of money while boxing and didn't save for his future.    I assume Pauline was willing to spend what he made.    Bottom line is that they both made major mistakes and this is why there marriage was where it was at.

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As Kim S notes, the opening shots are intense:

Plenty of resentment and go around here. The key word is in the title of the show - yesterday. The original first person POV makes the boxing all too vivid. As he sits, enrapt in the "big chair", his wife sits in the background. She took a back seat to boxing before and didn't mind, but boy does she mind now.
 

Being 'thrown in the ring' using 'cinematic' techniques bought to mind the perspective forced on the viewer in "Dark Passage" - although the shift to the tv footage distances the viewer fairly quickly. The fact that this is the fighter reliving his own experience is clear in action  (the man watching touching his scarred eye is perfectly timed with the image & physical memory is highlighted).

 

Thinking of film as a cultural artifact refelcting the time and palce where it was made, comments on the relationship to TV and film are interesting, similarly questions about TV and personal/shared memory could be explored using this scene as a starting point. The two charcters have very different meanings arising from the shared memory & past represened by the television footage.

 

Within the film shift from the 'cinematic' to the slow motion television footage from the past creates an interesting technique that has a similar narrative function to a flashback in a non-linear narrative. Except it's ordered more as a flashforward. To quote rather than repeat:

 

We are moved out of an immense experience of "now" (movie theater) to a distant experience of the past (television). As somebody else wrote "The art of the shot is lost".

The american dream crashes bloodily down on the ropes in the (symbolic?) constraint of the boxing ring. A dream of  a suitable good life may very well be running a gas station but it is apprehended as a downhill path by the one who put her beauty at stake for the imagined big money prize fighter. There is no turning back of age, so there she stands looking in to his smashed face, a reflection of her lost future. A hollow vision built on shallow and passing attributes, The show beauty and the knock out beast have a best before date. With a bit of luck, a success story, the american dream. Now shattered by overblown imagination, supported by a whole nations dreamy aspirations for the individual and the family. They are soon to be forgotten debris in the dead end street of crashed careers, exchanged by new contenders for the (materialistic) throne. All this very much caught by the bracelet bickering.

We have a feeling of dread, ignited by the woman, life is harsh, society grim and there is, when it matters, no way out. Or?

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Compare and contrast how director Karlson shoots and stages the boxing scene as a contrast of styles between cinema and television.

 

Karlson is trying to convince us that cinema has richer view, POV and viewer's stronger engagement. TV is no competition, even with slow motion. It can be technically more advanced, but it is cinema that touches our souls.

 

Discuss the scene's social commentary in the interactions between Ernie (John Payne) and Pauline (Peggie Castle).

What are some of the noir elements in this scene, either in terms of style or substance?

 

Dissapointment. Pauline is dissapointed with Ernie who was supposed to provide her with goods and a better life, Ernie is dissapointed with Pauline who does not support him enough. Once again unfulfillment, disillusionment and rejection. Pauline is angry and does not show love, but contempt. She will probably want to leave Ernie who still is hoping for turning of the tide. Pauline crushes his hopes and does not believe he will do any good. She accuses Ernie of not being able to overcome his not so glorious past. The man is literally castrated and the movie shows what a crisis in masculinity actually looks like. Once a puncher, now is permanently punched.

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