Pickup on South Street – 1953
Director – Samuel Fuller
Starring – Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter
Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is an unapologetic genre movie, and I don’t mean that in a negative way! To the contrary, Pickup on South Street is a breath of fresh air. Unlike Pickpocket, a film which was comparable in terms of subject matter and timeframe, Fuller’s story about a New York pickpocket who happens upon the wrong mark is a much more fully realized piece of work (though that isn’t meant to discount the value or impact that Pickpocket has had). Not only does the film know exactly what it is and what it’s trying to be, but it gains strength from that knowledge. Where Pickpocket was an art film experiment, Pickup on South Street is a brazen, brash, grab you by the throat type of thrill ride that never lets down.
The movie opens on a crowded subway train car, where we see Candy (Peters) getting her valuables lifted by our main character, Skip (Widmark). She doesn’t notice, unfortunately for him, the couple of policemen that are watching Candy, do see the exchange, although they are too late to catch him before he gets off the train. It turns out that Candy is the unwitting courier for a sensitive piece of microfilm that the Communists are anxious to get their hands on. Now, Skip has the whole police force as well as some very determined Communist agents on his tail, willing to kill to get that film back.
Some of the beauty of this film resides in the acting of the three leads, Widmark, Peters, and Ritter all give life to some fantastically textured characters. Skip is a three-time loser destined to be caught again, but determined to continue his life of crime, Candy is a pretty young lady, who acts boldly, but isn’t the brightest bulb around, and Moe is the stoolie, selling information in order to put money away for a fancy funeral (if she doesn’t, who else will?). Hearing these three con, bribe, and be caught by one another is where the magic of the film lies. Truly the film is fueled by the witty and cutting dialogue, especially Widmark who has a talent for playing characters with nothing to lose or gain. It’s a wonder I’ve only recently heard of this guy (He played the fantastic villain in the original Kiss of Death), but now that I have, I aim to seek out more of his body of work.
New York hasn’t appealed to me this much on-screen since I first saw Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or Walter Hill’s The Warriors. The nights are black, and the shadows are long, yet it seems familiar and somehow comfortable. The characters know their surroundings, and act appropriately in them, yet even though the sets are limited they never grow old or boring.
My one criticism of the film would have to be in the last 10 minutes of the film. The way Skip ends up (his attitude towards how things end up, and towards himself, Candy, and the police) seems a little tacked on, and un-natural. I suppose despite the subversive nature of the characters ambivalence towards the threat of communism, the film was still produced in a time where a very definite stance (anti) on communism needed to be taken if only for political reasons.
All in all, Pickup on South Street is a fantastic film that deserves attention. Richard Widmark and Samuel Fuller are each also deserving of attention, and I look forward to seeing more from both in the future.