Pickup on South Street (1953)

PickupOnSouthStreet

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.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

ToKillAMockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird – 1962

Director – Robert Mulligan

Starring – Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, Phillip Alford, Mary Badham, and Robert Duvall

Upon starting this film,  I was under the mistaken impression that it was a completely different trial/courtroom movie.  Apparently, even though I had already seen it, not to mention the fact that it came out well over 30 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, I was confusing it with the 1996 movie A Time To Kill.  While I suppose there are similarities in the central themes of justice and race relations in the south, A Time to Kill, and To Kill A Mockingbird are two very different films.

To Kill A Mockingbird, is told entirely through the eyes and experiences of the trial lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem, and is more a tale of decency and acceptance than it is a courtroom pot-boiler.  The trial itself only takes up a small portion of the film, yet we can feel it’s influence throughout the entire story.  Characters that we meet through the course of the story exemplify the lessons and virtues of  the civilized behavior that the Atticus Finch character (the trial lawyer played by Gregory Peck) tries to teach his children.

This innocence and down home decency that the story is filtered through does, unfortunately,work against the emotion of the storytelling, and taints it a little bit.  Every plot twist and nuance is given a sort of ho-hum, boy howdy, type folksy quality that the story can never quite get beyond.  The unwavering goodness of the father figure, played in true 1950’s American style, never seems to get angry, or make a miss-step.  The good guys always wear white hats and the bad guys black hats, so they can be easily distinguished from one another.

On the plus side, it did function as a rather nice sort of fairy tale, much like one of the American Tall Tales.  Only instead of how Paul Bunyan  created the Great Lakes or hearing about how Pecos Bill roped a tornado, we learned how the Civil Rights movement quashed racism and bigotry, and how little kids are looked over and protected by the Boo Radleys of the world.  Operating on this level, To Kill a Mockingbird is an enjoyable film with just the right amount of heartbreak and joy.