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.
As I (not so) patiently wait for the new Sam Fuller box to roll up to my door I thought I might as well have a look at one of his other films to pass the time. It turned out to be a toss up between Forty Guns and Fixed Bayonets! (1951). Since I’ve been watching a lot of westerns lately and haven’t posted anything about war movies for a while it was the latter that won out in the end. This was Fuller’s first film for Fox, and it makes a nice companion piece to his earlier study of men in war The Steel Helmet – they’re both lean, unglamorous portrayals of the trials of enlisted men in Korea.
The plot is a very simple one – to cover the retreat of the division, a small detachment is left behind in the frozen wastes of Korea to carry out a rearguard action. This luckless group find themselves holed up in a narrow mountain pass, hoping to trick the Chinese into believing that they’re actually an advance party for the division. The focus is on Denno (Richard Basehart), a reluctant corporal who dropped out of officer training school because he didn’t want the responsibility. Not only that but he also has to deal with the fact that he finds himself unable to pull the trigger whenever he gets an enemy target in his sights. None of this would necessarily present a huge problem if it weren’t for the fact that Denno now has only three men between him and his greatest horror, the burden of command. In contrast to the sensitive, introspective corporal is Sergeant Rock (Gene Evans), the tough old pro who has stayed in the army but can’t quite put his finger on the reasons why. While the rest of the platoon have their doubts about Denno, Rock keeps faith with him as he feels he knows his man. As the Chinese press ever closer, and the casualties steadily mount, it’s obvious that sooner or later Denno will find himself the top man – the Ichiban Boy – and the only real question is how he’s going to handle it.
Gene Evans basically reprises his role from The Steel Helmet, but it’s almost the kind of part he was born to play. He really brings the battle-hardened Rock to life, full of fatalistic humour as he bullies and cajoles the grunts into doing what has to be done. If Rock is the beating heart of the platoon then Denno is the conscience, and Richard Basehart was well cast in that part. His quiet, dignified tone stands out among the casual slang of the other dog-faces around him. He was capable of that intense, repressed look that is ideal for a man being eaten up by inner turmoil. Some of the best scenes in the movie take place in the quiet moments in the cave when Rock and Denno chew the cud over the nature of soldiering and responsibility. Fuller directs these claustrophobic scenes with apparent ease, using a full 360 pan at one point to show the whole platoon (or what remains of it) looking on as the reluctant medic performs surgery on himself. He punctuates such scenes with bursts of jarring, unexpected violence and moments of incredible tension, such as Denno’s walk through a minefield at night to rescue a mortally wounded NCO. His sense of pacing and economy are spot on, with not a shot wasted as we rattle along to the climax.
The R1 DVD from Fox is a frugal affair with little in the way of extras but it does boast a generally strong transfer. Fixed Bayonets! is a fine early example of Fuller’s honest, no nonsense approach to film-making and has his unsentimental machismo stamped proudly all over it. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot – now if only that Sony boxset would turn up!
Sam Fuller made his directorial debut in 1949 with this take on the old story. I Shot Jesse James, as the title suggests, keeps the focus squarely on Bob Ford (John Ireland) and shows him in a more sympathetic light than usual. Like most film representations of these characters, there are some elements of the truth woven into the story. This film comes a little closer to reality in depicting the demise of Bob Ford than was the case with The Return of Frank James; here the name of the killer, the location and the means are broadly correct. Where the story drifts off into total fiction is the inclusion of the romantic triangle as the centrepiece of the drama.
The story opens with a botched bank robbery that leaves Bob Ford wounded and forced to lay up at the James home in Missouri. As he recuperates, he has the opportunity to visit the love of his life Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton) who is an actress in a travelling theatre company. This meeting lays the groundwork for all that is to follow. When Ford arrives to see his woman he also meets a man called Kelley (Preston Foster) – a prospector who is clearly smitten with Cynthy. And thus the aforementioned triangle is set up. Cynthy begs Ford to abandon his outlaw ways and settle down to a decent life, thereby providing the motive for the subsequent murder of his friend. The rest of the movie is a portrait of guilt and a man trying to make good on his promise to go straight, yet foiled at every turn by his past and a love destined to remain unfulfilled.
In many ways I Shot Jesse James is a slight film, no more than a B movie really. What makes it notable is the way it tries to show Ford as a real person and not the greed driven caricature of earlier versions. I can’t say I was bothered by the playing around with historical facts since the reason for this was clearly the need to provide the character of Ford with a motive that might be understood. John Ireland does a pretty good job in showing us a man who is left bewildered when his actions draw not only the scorn of strangers but drive away the very woman whose heart he’d hoped to capture. Barbara Britton is good enough too as her character goes from love for Ford, through disgust at his actions, and finally to fear of what he has become. Preston Foster, as Kelley, isn’t called on to do much more than be the strong, dependable, moral anchor but he does it capably enough.
Sam Fuller would go on to make more famous, and better films than this but there are some memorable scenes. The climactic shootout has Ford framed in inky blackness – maybe signifying the moral void he now inhabits. There’s also a great scene in a saloon where Ford listens to a travelling minstrel sing about the murder of Jesse James. This was mirrored in the recent film by Andrew Dominik, but I prefer the way it was done here. After introducing himself, Ford insists that the singer complete his ballad as he stares implacably at him. You can almost taste the man’s fear as he chokes his way through the song, and struggles to utter the words ‘the dirty, little coward’ to Bob Ford’s face.
Criterion put this out on DVD in the ‘First Films of Samuel Fuller’ set, and it’s not available separately. This is part of the Eclipse line, and hasn’t had the careful restoration commonly associated with Criterion releases. However, it still looks good enough and I didn’t find the damage marks present to be particularly distracting. All in all, I Shot Jesse James is an interesting, if minor film.
If you look at that small subgenre that is the Korean War movie, the efforts of Sam Fuller stand head and shoulders above the others. That’s not intended to disparage those other films which deal with that largely forgotten conflict such as Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill or Anthony Mann’s Men in War. However, Fuller’s Korean movies have that gritty believability that really set them apart. Both The Steel Helmet and the later Fixed Bayonets! deal with small groups of grunts caught up in desperate battles against overwhelming odds. Fuller’s presentation of war is a bleak one where there are no false heroics; just a bunch of regular guys doing what they have to in order to stay alive.
The Steel Helmet opens with Gene Evans’ Sgt. Zack, bound hand and foot, dragging himself along the ground amid the bodies of his massacred comrades. He’s just had the luckiest of lucky escapes – an execution squad bullet having entered his helmet and rattling round inside before exiting harmlessly. From here on the story follows Zack and the rag-tag bunch of stragglers he picks up as they make their way to an abandoned Buddhist temple to set up a forward observation post. Fuller never relents and the intensity of the story builds satisfyingly to the climactic assault on the temple by the communist forces.
Along the way the members of the group are revealed to us, and through this we get a glimpse of post-WWII American society. Among this odd group there’s a black medic and a Japanese-American veteran who serve to point up the racial prejudice prevalent at the time. There are also the quirky characters of the young soldier who lost all his hair through scarlet fever, and the silent G.I. whose only dialogue comes, poignantly, at the point of death. The locals are presented through the contrasting figures of “Short Round”, the South Korean boy who befriends Zack, and the malevolent, rat-like North Korean major. It is the sneering and callous reference to the boy’s fate by the red major that provokes Zack into an uncharacteristic, yet very understandable, reaction.
Which brings me to Gene Evans. His portrayal of Zack is the lynch-pin that holds the whole thing together. He is the consummate professional soldier – weary and cynical but dedicated to getting the job done and undeniably human. Evans would give a similar performance in Fuller’s next Korean drama Fixed Bayonets! and you have to wonder why his career never really took off from here. He plays the kind of three dimensional man’s man that is sadly absent in today’s cinema – well, that’s progress for you.
I’m not sure if anyone has seen any parallels between Fuller’s work and that of Howard Hawks. To me, both directors were attracted to the concept of the small group under siege and the emphasis on professionalism. However, while Hawks would use a lightness of touch, Fuller’s direction is like a pile-driver battering your senses.
Released by Criterion last year as part of their Eclipse series, The Steel Helmet comes in a set with I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona. While the film doesn’t appear to have undergone any restoration, it looks just fine and is worth the price of the set on it’s own.