Samuel Fuller, 1953
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter
Skip McCoy, a pickpocket, steals a young woman’s wallet while on the subway. It turns out that Candy, the young woman, was sent by her ex-boyfriend, Joey, to deliver an envelope with contents unknown to her. The envelope actually contained microfilm with stolen government secrets, because Joey is actually a communist spy. An FBI agent tailing Candy, with the help of police Captain Dan Tiger, uses other underworld contacts to find out the identity of the thief. When located, Skip denies the theft and claims to know nothing about the microfilm. Soon he and Candy meet and, though Skip doesn’t believe her, she has fallen in love with him and tries to keep him away from Joey and the other communists before it’s too late.
Director and writer Samuel Fuller – later known for such controversial films as Shock Corridor and Naked Kiss – made his mark in film noir with this grimy classic. It bears certain things in common with Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, including the star, Richard Widmark. Both films depict cities torn by war, marked with a stark, documentary-like realism that captured post-war urban life and a particularly hopeless, gritty sense of disappointed dreams, of good people driven to the underworld because they lack any alternative. Both Fuller and Dassin also fled the U.S. due to political pressures and ended their careers in Europe. While Dassin was driven out by the looming communist specter, Pickup on South Street captures this underlying sense of surveillance, claustrophobia, paranoia, and the pervading threat of Communism.
The Production Code, often a thorn in Fuller’s side, had trouble with the frequent violence, including a scene where Candy is nearly beaten to death and then shot, and another where Moe is shot in the head and executed. Unlike many other noir efforts, Pickup on South Street does not balance cops, criminals, and regular people. Here the regular people are criminals – stoolies, pickpockets, and prostitutes – and the film succeeds in portraying them as complex, feeling, and human. There is no black and white morality at work, save with the shadowy communists. They feel more like a red herring, an empty plot device meant to stir up fear in contemporary viewers.
Apparently in the French release of the film – a country with numerous communist politicians and public figures at the time – the stealing of government secrets was replaced with a loose plot referencing the drug trade. I could see either working equally well, as Fuller’s tale merely serves to locate urban suffering and both moral and physical decay, apparent in dingy apartments, dirty streetcars, dimly-lit restaurants, police precincts, and Skip’s rundown shack at the waterfront. In this way, it is similar to the previously mentioned Night and the City (1950), as well as Bertolt Brecht’s much earlier Threepenny Opera. The characters are all guilty, criminal, or untrustworthy on some level, but many of them are likable and we can’t help but root for their desperate attempts at survival.
Though Fuller’s writing and direction are incredibly solid, it’s the cast that helped make this one of the best all-around film noir efforts. I can’t imagine anyone other than Richard Widmark in this role. Though he had a diverse career – I first saw him in Kiss of Death, where he is a maniacal gangster that tortures people and pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs while laughing maniacally – he’s particularly excellent as an antihero. He has a face that just spells trouble and misbehavior, which is why he’s so effective here as the inherently good-hearted and honest “three time loser.” Jean Peters (Viva Zapata! and future wife of Howard Hughes) is lovely and likable as Candy, a foil for Skip because she falls hard and fast in love with him and he refuses to believe her. But the film perhaps belongs to Thelma Ritter (Rear Window), who gives one of the best performances of her career as Moe. She’s a tough stoolie with a kind heart, motherly concern, and the yen to have a proper funeral. She actually works as an informant to save up for a real burial plot and a fancy casket.
Pickup on South Street comes highly recommended and is a film noir that must not be missed. Fortunately, it’s available on DVD through Criterion, who have released a number of Samuel Fuller’s films over the years. If you aren’t wild about spy films or Cold War-themed movies, that theme barely factors in here and most of the film revolves around Widmark’s pickpocket and life in the New York underworld.