Pickup on South Street (1953)

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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.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

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Angels With Dirty Faces – 1938

Director – Michael Curtiz

Starring – James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan

You can officially mark this down as the definitive moment where I witnessed my first James Cagney movie.  Unfortunately you can also mark this down as the start of my apathy towards the much lauded actor.  His performance as a tough as nails, streetwise hoodlum, with a soft spot for anyone willing to lavish him with attention didn’t do much to impress me.  His, and Pat O’Brien’s performances as the old friends who went down very different paths, were nothing more than caricatures of cartoon renditions of the saintly priest and the hair-triggered gangster.

This movie’s patchwork of stereotypes and cliches stretches the  audience’s ability to suspend disbelief to the breaking point.  We are to believe that the cause for their very different outcomes is because, as kids one of them (Cagney) was too slow running from the cops, got caught, and was sent to juvenile hall.  This started him on the road to a life of crime, debauchery, and inevitable inprisonment.  O’Brien, on the other hand, feels guilty for his friend getting caught and apparently turns into a one note, billboard for piety.  He and Cagney meet again, years down the line and resume their unquestioned friendship where it left off, cracking jokes and talking about old times.

The obvious moral tone of the film is, at times, too much to take seriously.  Ham-fisted attempts at showing the folly of the youth that admires the gangster, and the weakness of the girl who falls in love with him, is never dealt with in a realistic way.  The stakes are always set in stone for Cagney’s character,  he is either going to prison, or to the grave, maybe both.  In terms of the stakes of the dramatic action, there is no question that this will happen, there is no other outcome.  His gangster character, and also for that matter the priest character, aren’t even written as people who make conscious choices, both are just a facts of life,  forces of nature.  There is no decision making done by either of these two.  The director, Curtiz, seems to be simply setting us up.  The movie is billed as a rolicking action movie, with gangsters and guns on the poster, but ends up being an overly preachy tale of the ills of gangsters, women and crime.  It almost chastises you for wanting to see Rocky (Cagney) win, through it’s heavy handed message.

Don’t get me wrong, it is watchable, and even enjoyable, but only if you manage to dis-regard the flagrant moral-ism on display.  On the plus side, the ever-watchable Humphrey Bogart plays Cagney’s shady, double-crossing, lawyer accomplice.  His nervous mannerisms, and general dislike for Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan, seem to be the most enjoyable, but also the most authentic part of the whole film.

Check it out if you like early gangster flicks, but don’t bank on it being the best one you’ll ever see.  Movies that do it better… Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, The Big Sleep, the original Kiss of Death featuring the creepy Richard Widmark, and the recent Brick.  I recommend checking those out, if not instead, at least along side.