Movies that focus on the post-war obsession with the Red Scare can be a bit trying to watch with modern eyes. The forced patriotism and tendency towards speech-making rarely add up to a satisfying viewing experience. But on occasion, they can work and rise above the poisonous politics of the time to present a genuinely good film. Pickup on South Street (1953) is an excellent example - Sam Fuller’s commie baiting has a cynical, sardonic edge that makes it almost refreshingly subversive, especially given the climate in which it was produced.
Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is a small time grifter, a pickpocket back plying his trade on the subway just after being released from prison. He’s also a three time loser (one more conviction and he gets life) and may have taken a step too far this time. In one of the most erotically charged pieces of larceny committed to film, he eases a wallet out of the purse of a girl in a crowded carriage. The girl, Candy (Jean Peters), unfortunately happens to be under observation by the FBI, who want to trace the man she’s to deliver the contents of the wallet to. McCoy’s light-fingered work leaves everyone in a spot: Candy can’t make the drop and has to break the bad news to her communist boyfriend, the Feds have had the perfect sting snatched away from them, and McCoy finds himself with a piece of microfilm that both the law and the reds are prepared to nail him to get. The result is that McCoy winds up walking an especially precarious tightrope, holding the cops at arm’s length while he attempts to extort $25,000 from the communists. All the while, Candy is asked to use her ample charms to retrieve the coveted microfilm one way or another. In the end, McCoy does what the Feds want and eventually gives up both the film and the spy ring. What distinguishes this movie from the standard anti-communist fare of the time though is the attitude and motivation of McCoy throughout. He quite literally sneers at the earnest appeals to his patriotism that the FBI man naively hopes will sway him. When he does finally look beyond narrow self-interest it’s not because he just thought about the flag and suddenly felt all mushy inside, it’s because he has witnessed the brutality of the people he’s trying to bargain with and owes a debt of loyalty and gratitude to friends. So, while McCoy ultimately “does the right thing”, his own personal integrity and disdain for authority remain more or less intact.
Pickup on South Street represents Sam Fuller at or near his best; the stripped down plot, the cheap, hard-boiled idiom of the dialogue that snaps like a whip, and the pulp trashiness of the characters all combine with the director’s gut-punching bluntness to deliver eighty minutes of great cinema. Some of the best scenes in the movie take place in McCoy’s waterfront shack, where Joe MacDonald’s camera makes the most of the shadows and confined space to create mood and atmosphere. Of particular note is the sequence when McCoy returns to find Candy searching the place by torchlight. Not even suspecting that it’s a woman, he slugs the half seen figure full on the jaw and lays her out, then casually brings her to by pouring his river chilled beer over her. What follows is a sexy and darkly romantic scene, where McCoy gently massages Candy’s bruised face as the two of them draw ever closer, and the camera moves in for an increasingly tight close-up. In a completely different but equally effective scene, Fuller and MacDonald have the villain holed up in the smallest, darkest space imaginable – a dumb waiter stalled between floors as the Feds peer through the openings above and below – and once again use the tight framing to great effect.
Pickup on South Street was the first of two movies Richard Widmark would make with Sam Fuller (the other was the following year’s Hell and High Water - a glossier, more cartoonish and less interesting work) and it provided him with one of his better roles. He’d moved on from playing out and out villains and seemed to enjoy the anti-heroic status of the part. Skip McCoy is an unapologetic thief, with a streak of mild sadism too, who revels in his life outside the law and normal society. Widmark was probably the ideal choice as a character whose default reaction to noble ideals and patriotic fervour was a curled lip and stinging sarcasm. As the foil, and romantic interest, for this cocky and contemptuous figure, Jean Peters was another fine piece of casting. As Candy, she exudes a kind of earthy sexuality that’s incredibly attractive in a cheap, slightly sleazy way. It’s never made exactly clear what her background is, but there are allusions to a tawdry past that she’s trying to live down. Also, the fact that she endures fairly rough treatment at the hands of McCoy (including a full-on punch in the face) and a bad beating from her boyfriend without a whimper of self pity indicates that she’s familiar with the unsavoury side of life. While these two dominate the film’s narrative, the show is damned near stolen every time Thelma Ritter’s Moe makes an appearance. Her world weary stoolie, who dreams only of scraping together enough cash to ensure she avoids a pauper’s funeral, is highly memorable. Aside from the fatalism and melancholy of her character, she draws a huge amount of sympathy from the viewer just by appearing plainly human. As such, it’s no surprise that it’s the fate of Moe which affects McCoy deeply enough to take decisive action. The main villain is Candy’s boyfriend, played by Richard Kiley. He’s the stuff of stereotypes, all sweaty and gutless, but the movie needs such a figure to act as the focus for the audience’s resentment.
The UK DVD from Optimum offers a very strong transfer of the film. It’s clean, sharp and has good contrast. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no extras included on the disc. In terms of supplementary material, the US Criterion release is clearly the way to go. However, if you just want to see the film itself given a fine presentation then it’s hard to beat the Optimum release – especially if you take the difference in pricing into account. Pickup on South Street remains one of the best examples of Sam Fuller’s talents, a first rate film noir where he never allows the political backdrop of the tale to bog down or derail things. In fact, the picture was initially released in France in a dubbed version where all references to the red spy ring were excised in favour of a storyline involving narcotics – which goes to show that the core narrative is strong enough to stand alternative interpretations being welded on. An excellent movie all round.