Still from the 1953 film 99 River Street

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Ten minutes into the 1953 low-budget noir film 99 River Street, washed-up ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), about to be framed for the murder of his unfaithful wife, wanders into a drugstore to buy a pack of cigarettes. The drugstore is the kind of evocative locale that classical Hollywood films are so good at creating, where you can drop by for a cup of coffee, a box of candy, or a glance at the newspaper, where you can chat up the waiter or wait for one of the regulars to show up. In this case, bursting in with a flurry of enthusiasm, it’s striving actress Linda James (Evelyn Keyes). She’s finally gotten her big break, she tells Ernie: a famous writer is interested in having her star in his new play! At last she can leave behind TV work (horrors!) and be a true Broadway star. All she has to do is convince the producer that she’s right for the part. She’s about to meet him that very evening at the theater.

Watching the film for the first time last year, my alarm bells immediately rang out. A producer meeting an aspiring actress alone at an odd time? It’s not a hotel room, but it’s hard not to think of Harvey Weinstein and innumerable other Hollywood predators. But I figured I must be reading too much into it. This was a movie from 1953, and while of course the same behavior occurred then, there was no way that a film of that era, I assumed, would acknowledge it. 

And yet a frazzled Linda returns to the drugstore only a few scenes later, looking for Ernie. She pulls him outside and, distraught, confesses that she’s killed a man. She needs Ernie to come to the theater to help her. Once there, they see the body of a man collapsed on the stage, and Linda proceeds to recount the events that led to his murder. The scene is remarkable. In one shot for the latter half of the scene, Evelyn Keyes paces around the stage, the camera moving closer and closer to her tear-stricken face. 

Linda: I came here at nine o’clock to keep my appointment, and he was sitting there behind the desk.

Ernie: Who is he?

Linda: Waldo Daggett, the producer. The desk light was on, here. I felt there was something strange about it, but I couldn’t think what it was. It hit me later, but then it was too late.

Ernie: What hit you later?

Linda: That we were alone in the theater. He said, “Sit over there, my dear.” So I did. And then he said that he had no doubt that I could act the role satisfactorily, and the fact that Mr. Morgan wanted me was in my favor too, but putting me in the play was going to make it difficult to finance, because I was an unknown, none of the backers had ever heard of me. I got excited, I came over here to plead with him. I said, “Mr. Daggett, oh Mr. Daggett, I want this role desperately. I’ll work night and day. Nobody in theater will give you the performance I’ll give you. I’ll make it my whole life.” And then he got up, and he came around the side of the desk toward me. He said, “Ms. James there is a possibility I could give you this role, but if I do it’ll be a gamble, a longshot.” And then he said, “When a man bets a longshot he’s entitled to a big payoff.” The payoff he wanted was me. If he put me in the play, it would be because of. . . personal reasons. It would be because . . . when he first saw me this afternoon he’d felt this strong physical attraction. I began to stammer. I said, “You know how badly I want this role, please don’t put it on that basis. I don’t care about the money: I’ll work for anything you want to pay me. I’ll work for nothing.” And then he put his hands on me. His fat, sweaty hands. I said “Don’t, don’t, please don’t.” I began to fight with him. He was so much stronger than I. There was a poker on the stand, and I hit him. Hard. And I hit him. I hit him. I didn’t know what I was doing. I hit him, I hit him, I hit him.

Ernie: Stop it, Linda!

Linda: I killed a man!

Ernie: You couldn’t help it.

Linda: I could have run away and I didn’t. 

I had to pause the film at that moment. Here was the endemic reality of sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood revealed on the screen. The account might have come from Ambra Gutierrez or Mira Sorvino or so many others. Sure it was displaced from the movie world to the theatrical one, but it was there – fully represented: the producer with physical and economic power and the ability to exploit the life’s dreams of actresses. All of the emotions were there too: the survivor’s shame, disgust, and self-questioning. And, most powerfully, the scene was told in the woman’s own voice, without any minimization of the horror. In the last year writers and critics have looked for the pre-history of Me Too in past films like Stage Door, often expressed in subtle or coded ways. But here everything was out in the open, pulling back the veil on the predations of the Hollywood system.

But then I continued watching the film. Ernie bends down to pick up the corpse, and the body rolls over and gets up. The house lights go on. Voices call from the audience. It turns out we’ve witnessed not a panicked disclosure, but an audition. The producers have asked Linda to perform this scene for a hapless bystander, Ernie, to see if she’s convincing. She’s passed with flying colors! They shake her hand, offer her the role. Only Ernie is enraged: what has Linda put him through? He storms off.

How then do we grapple with this scene from today’s vantage point? Should we champion it for representing, for a brief moment, the reality of sexual assault within the theater world, or criticize it for ultimately dismissing that suggestion? On one level, the film is insidious. It acknowledges sexual assault only to turn its disclosure into a performance, a con. Linda is just making it up, just a really good actress, as so many survivors of sexual assault have been accused of doing and being over the years. And the ultimate victim in the film, of course, is a white man: Ernie, whose sympathies have been entrapped by the theatrical wiles of a duplicitous woman. As the summary of the film included in its production files concludes: “For the second time that night he had been made a fool of by a woman!” – first his unfaithful wife, and now the actress Linda. 99 River Street thus winds up negating the reality of sexual assault and casting a falsely-accusing woman as perpetrator and a gullible man as victim. It recapitulates the absurd logic of rape culture: you’re making it up, and anyway it was your fault. 

99 River Street is ultimately not Linda’s story, but Ernie’s, not a story of a woman grievously wronged by a man, but that of a man mildly irked by a woman. The film winds up centering male hurt feelings, as in recent articles that attempt to rehabilitate Al Franken or John Hockenberry. Indeed, for the rest of the film Linda needs to make amends to Ernie for her act of imposture. As she says, “I was a heel, selfish, ruthless, ready to cut anyone’s throat to get on Broadway. Well, Ernie, I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself.” The film thus punishes women for acting out – literally acting, in the case of Linda, or acting on their desires, in the case of Ernie’s wife. Women’s sexuality and power is only possible when it’s in the service of a man, as when Linda eventually redeems her theatrical skills by using them to seduce a mobster in order to aid Ernie, who she ends up married to at the end of the film. 

Yet the scene, divorced from its context, remains strikingly powerful. And 99 River Street – both the film and the critical reaction to it – serves to encapsulate the various strategies that we’ve seen deployed in the backlash to the Me Too movement – from denial to willed blindness to mockery. Above all, it reveals that these defensive strategies proceed from a profound sense of discomfort: a discomfort with the emotions of survivors and with the feelings of guilt or complicity they elicit on the part of witnesses or viewers. For reviewers at the time, and for many viewers today, the scene is, on many levels, too much – too much for the rest of the film to handle, too revealing of the predatory atmosphere of Hollywood, too true to the feelings of survivors. There’s still a shock in seeing it, as if scenes like this, so rarely represented, are even today somehow transgressive: obscene, embarrassing, even dangerous. While the film’s plot ostensibly encourages us to distrust women and reports of sexual assault, the scene itself works against that conclusion, forcing us to confront Linda’s traumatic emotions. Indeed, the scene is played for the audience – Linda is almost looking directly at us as she makes her disclosure.

We don’t often get scenes like this in films. Rape – and the threat of it – has been a constant motif in film history, often used to consolidate the idea of whiteness against a supposedly predatory racial other, as in Birth of a Nation, or Stagecoach and The Searchers. Yet to acknowledge – even if only fleetingly – that the threat is not Out There but in the center of Hollywood or Broadway, and to focus on a woman recounting her own experience at length, remains rare. Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail provides a helpful counterpart. In that film, the main female character Alice similarly kills her would-be rapist. Yet while the scene is represented in the film, she never gets to tell her story like the character Linda does. Indeed, after the attack, Alice is repeatedly silenced – by her boyfriend, by a blackmailer, and by the police. The film perhaps unintentionally acknowledges just how silenced survivors are, but it does so only by further silencing the survivor. Not so in 99 River Street, where the purported survivor’s emotions are on full display and in her own words.

The boldness of the film emerges even more strikingly when compared to its source text, the George Zuckerman “novelette” Crosstown, published in Cosmopolitan in 1945. Zuckerman himself was no stranger to subversive films, as he went on to write the screenplay for Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, but the novelette is drastically different from 99 River Street. While Crosstown likewise has Linda pretend that she killed a man to demonstrate her worth as an actress, the context is entirely different. Linda hails Ernie’s cab and eventually confesses to having just murdered her husband in revenge for his cheating on her with her younger sister. Ernie returns to her apartment with her, bends down to look at the body, and the supposed corpse comes alive. Ernie ragefully storms out only to be pursued back to his own apartment by an apologetic Linda, who discovers that, humiliated by the experience and by his own wife’s infidelity, Ernie has just murdered his wife. End of story.

The novelette thus does not contain the larger conspiracy narrative of the film, which develops Ernie into its hero instead of its victim/villain. But more importantly, the context of sexual assault is an addition. So, in fact, is the whole “casting couch” scenario; in the novelette Linda does not seem to be trying to get a part, but simply to show off her skills as an actress.

From the standpoint of the plot structure, therefore, the threat of rape is not necessary. Should we then celebrate the director Phil Karlson for smuggling in this scene? Against the restrictions of the Hays Code, the film includes a representation of the reality of sexual assault pervading the entertainment industry, even if it ultimately walks it back. And though the producers in the film are cleared of sexual assault, they still come off badly, forcing Linda into this humiliating performance and not caring at all about Ernie’s emotions in response. 

Indeed, Phil Karlson is a master of representing material that would usually be censored. In his subsequent film, The Phenix City Story, he momentarily dramatizes the reality of racist terrorism in the Jim Crow South. The film, a ripped-from-the-headlines account of corruption in Phenix City, Alabama, ostensibly tells the story of a returning G.I.’s fight against the criminal gangs that have turned Phenix City into a den of corruption. But the context – 1955 Alabama – and Karlson’s choices lend an unmistakably racial subtext, as Ellen Scott has analyzed in her book Cinema Civil Rights. As in 99 River Street, one scene in The Phenix City Story stands out for its horror: the murder of a black character’s nine-year-old daughter as revenge for his standing up to the gang. The scene, not based, like much of the rest of the film, on real events, is strikingly violent for a film from 1955: the girl’s blood-covered body is thrown from a car. Indeed, it almost recapitulates the notorious scene from Birth of a Nation in which the Klan, treated as the heroes, dump the lynched body of a black man on the porch of a house. While The Phenix City Story treats this crime as horrific, the authorities in Phenix City do not; when the murder is called in, the bored and blasé police officer, munching on a sandwich, calls out “Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid on the Patterson lawn; go check it out.” Released the same year that white men in Mississippi murdered Emmitt Till (as Ellen Scott points out), a film ostensibly not about race represents the horrid reality of violence against African-Americans, as well as the completely indifferent response from the authorities. 

Phil Karlson, therefore, does have a track record of trying to buck the censors. That’s something the New York Times’s otherwise highly negative review of 99 River Street acknowledges: “It is interesting to ponder how Mr. Karlson managed to slip some objectionable scenes past the production code. Maybe it was just artistic license.” Yet when I looked at the Production Code files on 99 River Street at the Academy Film Archives, I discovered to my surprise that Linda’s graphic narration of her sexual assault is not mentioned at all. The censors have concerns about a couple of suggestive lines of dialogue, and they demand that a few fistfights be trimmed (“the manner in which Ernie repeatedly smashes Mickey in the face throughout these scenes is excessively brutal”). But not only does Linda’s disturbing scene not come up, but on a page of check boxes about potentially salacious content, for the question about rape – is it “shown,” “indicated,” or “not shown”? – the box for “not shown” is checked. Technically this is correct, as no rape actually occurs in the film, but especially on first viewing the film goes beyond “indicat[ing]” attempted rape in the verbal explicitness of the scene. 

The makers of the film also apparently didn’t try to hide the content of that scene from the censors. Here’s how the filmmakers summarize it in the synopsis: “Linda reveals she has killed a man – the producer to whom she has gone to audition. He had made unwelcome advances and she had picked up a poker and clubbed him . . . . Linda relives the tragedy in horror-filled words.” While “unwelcome advances” is euphemistic, this is a pretty accurate description of this scene and the affect associated with it – indeed, a much more accurate description than basically any critic’s review of 99 River Street.

For almost every reviewer – professional or amateur – overlooks the full context of this scene. That’s the case in recent reviews, like Michael Atkinson’s in Sight and Sound: “Payne’s mug gets suckered by a flighty, narcissistic actress … into helping her dispose of the body of a Broadway producer she killed in self-defense. That is, until it’s revealed that the whole thing was a ruse” and in the initial reviews when the film premiered. It’s also the case in amateur reviews; of the 38 user reviews on IMDB.com, only two mention that sexual assault comes up – one says, “One day, when Linda tells him she’s in trouble because she’d accidentally killed a theatre producer who was being too forceful in making advances to her, he agrees to help.” “Being too forceful in making advances” is pretty minimizing but at least makes some gesture towards what’s going on in the scene. The others omit the scene entirely or say things like “Earlier in the film Keyes had tricked Payne into believing that she had killed a man during an argument.” 

This near-total blindness to the context and emotional impact of this scene illustrates how, both in 1953 and today, audiences often refuse to see the reality of sexual predation even when it’s represented for us. It’s there but not acknowledged, an “open secret,” like the for-so-long ignored accusations against the likes of Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. If the film represents but then undercuts the reality of sexual assault, the responses to it deny even that first fleeting acknowledgement; like the powerful men and women protecting Harvey Weinstein, reviewers and censors either don’t see or dismiss the evidence placed right before their faces. 

If the reviews and reactions to the film stopped there, we might say that the final effect of 99 River Street was dangerous – that the film’s walking back of Linda’s assault is mirrored by the reviewers’ and censors’ blindness to the scene itself. But the reviews also betray a profound discomfort with Linda’s speech. One review from 1953, from the Boston Globe, does mention the scene: “Evelyn Keyes plays the lead and one of her most embarrassing assignments is to portray, as an actress, a near seduction and consequent killing so that the hero thinks it is real. She doesn’t spare a single horror. I can even now hear the laughter of the teenagers, who don’t like to have their feelings harrowed by phoney emotion.”

This passage’s tortuous logic reveals the strategies long used to minimize the emotions elicited by survivors’ accounts. It presents the scene as a “near seduction” – a grotesque distortion – and by critiquing Evelyn Keyes as “embarrassing,” the review doubles down on the idea of sexual assault as only a performance. Now we have an actress unconvincingly playing an actress performing a scene of fictional assault. Yet the review also seems to acknowledge the emotion that the scene provokes: horror. But like in the film itself that emotion is revealed but then erased; the laughter of the audience members transforms the uncomfortable emotion of “horror” into a joke, into something “phoney,” much as the laughter of the producers in the film after Linda’s performance obscures the convincing account of sexual assault that comes before. Laughter and mockery substitute for horror. Yet that laughter also expresses a discomfort felt by the witnesses to a survivor’s testimony that cannot be completely dismissed. 

That discomfort manifests itself, above all, in critiques of Evelyn Keyes’ acting in the film, the one throughline appearing in most 1953 reviews. “A terrible actress,” according to the Washington Post. “Acting as if she were animated by electric shocks,” says the New York Times. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter concur, in uncannily similar language: “Miss Keyes is allowed to overplay her part”; “Karlson does allow Miss Keyes to overact painfully, her scenery-chewing at times drawing snickers.” These critiques must be referring to the scene of sexual assault; it’s Evelyn Keyes’s big showpiece in the film, where her emotions and acting are keyed to the highest pitch. All but one of the reviewers thus seem to want to critique that scene while not acknowledging that it even occurred. 

These reviews deploy two common attacks on survivors: denial and, in the form of the “snickers” of the audience, shaming. But what’s really disturbing here is the emotions of Evelyn Keyes’s performance: her pain and suffering. They’re excessive; she’s excessive. She “overplay[s]” and “overact[s]”. This despite the fact that, to my eyes, that criticism is entirely unwarranted – the scene is incredibly powerful, and the emotions she’s displaying are completely appropriate for someone who has just experienced trauma. Her performance is certainly not restrained, but it shouldn’t be, given the context, and her acting style seems to be a conscious choice – Keyes is capable of playing more reserved roles, as in The Lodger (1951).

In other words, as so many survivors have been told, Keyes is being criticized for reacting in the wrong way – too little emotion, or, in this case, too much. For the emotions the scene evokes, for both her and for the audience, are uncontrolled ones. Horror, laughter – these are autonomic responses, responses that are difficult to control or feign, despite the reviewers’ insistence that they are “phoney.” The reviewers’ reaction, therefore, is to try to put Evelyn Keyes back in her place, under the director’s control. Sure, she overacts, but that was because Phil Karlson “allowed” her to, as both the Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviewers mention. The reviews take away Evelyn Keyes’s agency, just as in the metaphor of “acting as if she were animated by electric shocks” – her emotions are not hers, but products of an outside force.

Whether intentionally or not, the film focuses audiences on our reactions to allegations of rape or sexual harassment, and the reviews of it demonstrate that the discomfort is generated above all by displays of a survivor’s unrestrained emotion – by anger, by fear, by horror. As the backlash to Me Too and the effort to rehabilitate abusers or harassers like Louis C.K. makes clear, actually having to confront survivors’ experiences, actually having these emotions laid bare, seems too much for many men (and women), who need to silence, critique, or control women in the same way reviewers attack Evelyn Keyes’s performance. As the film demonstrates, and as the last year has confirmed, it’s one thing to acknowledge or condemn rape in the abstract; it’s quite another to pay attention to and sit with women’s voices and feelings. It’s quite another, in other words, to believe women. And while 99 River Street opens up a space to confront the audience with Linda’s uncomfortable feelings of horror, shame, and fear, it cannot quite fully bring itself to do so. 

Jesse Schotter is Associate Professor of English at Ohio State.  His book Hieroglyphic Modernisms was published by Edinburgh University Press.