Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953) is tough and punchy; Fuller used his newspaper reporting skills to really get to the heart of life on the street, including some terrific-sounding slang. But above all, it the most physical of 1950s films noir. The opening scene shows a skilled pickpocket (Richard Widmark) lifting a package from the purse of a sensual woman (Jean Peters) in a sultry, sweaty subway, and it's almost like slow, silent sex. 20th Century Fox released it, and the Criterion Collection deemed it worthy of a DVD release in 2004. (See Luc Sante's great liner notes essay here.)
Behind the Scenes
Director Sam Fuller (1912-1997) was one of the greatest of all writer/directors. By the time he was a teenager, he was working as a hard crime reporter for a New York newspaper. He enlisted in the U.S. army and served in the 1st Infantry Division during WWII. Fuller had already written some stories (he called them "yarns") for the movies, and during the war, his novel The Dark Page was published. Upon returning home, he went to work writing screenplays again, but quickly grew tired of other directors mangling his work. In 1949, he made his directorial debut with the ultra-low-budget I Shot Jesse James (1949). Through the 1950s and 1960s, he directed a series of "B" films, thrillers, war films, Westerns, etc. Some critics described their slam-bang action and dialogue as being "like headlines."
In the mid-1960s Fuller began to have trouble raising money for movies and getting them distributed; he found his biggest supporters in Europe, and found himself appearing in films by Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders. In 1980, he made a big studio movie, The Big Red One, based on his wartime experiences; unfortunately, it was released in an edited version and went mostly unappreciated in its own time. In 2004, a restored version was released and the film took its place in the canon.
Actor Richard Widmark (1914-2008) was a brick-jawed, snake-eyed tough guy who, at this time, was best known for his Oscar-nominated performance in Kiss of Death (1947), in which he knocks an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. The very potent Jean Peters (1926-2000) had a fairly short career, but appeared in some notable movies like Viva Zapata! (1952), Niagara (1953), and Apache (1954). The most impressive cast member is character actress Thelma Ritter (1905-1969), who received six Oscar nominations -- all for Best Supporting Actress -- without ever winning. She is perhaps best known for her role as "Stella" in Rear Window (1954), though she did not receive a nomination for that one.
What It's About
Skip McCoy is an expert pickpocket -- or "cannon" -- who boards a crowded subway and sneaks a package out of the purse belonging to Candy (Jean Peters). Candy is actually smuggling the package for her boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), although she is unaware that Joey is a Commie and that the package contains sensitive microfilm. Candy finds Skip via Moe, a weary tie-salesman who makes a living on the side as a professional stool pigeon (oddly, Skip does not resent Moe for this; it's just business). Candy must use every trick in the book to try to placate Joey while she tries to get the microfilm back from Skip. Unfortunately, the FBI is following her, and she finds herself falling in love with the wiley pickpocket.
The Lure of the Underworld
Usually, a noir hero makes a bad choice that sends him running irrevocably down the wrong road, and it usually has something to do with either money or women. In this case, all of these characters are already in the underworld. Skip is a "three-time loser" and Candy is an ex-prostitute who is stuck working with Joey. And poor Moe has mostly given up; she wants nothing more than to have her own burial plot (and not to be buried in "Potter's Field"). The action does begin when Skip interrupts the course of events with his illegal pickpocketing. However, oddly, the microfilm gives them all a chance to climb out of the underworld, making this kind of a film noir in reverse. The other unique thing about this film is that it uses Communism as the actual evil, corrupting force in the film. (There's no metaphor suggesting Communism.) No matter how low our characters have sunk, they are still above the Commies.
The Femme Fatale
Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. Candy is a richer, more dimensional character than we usually get in film noir; she's street smart and wary, but she's also a bit on the helpless side, and depends on too many men to make her way in the world. She's not a typical femme fatale, in that she falls for Skip first, and he's too cynical to let her get her claws in him. She doesn't drag him down. Rather, it turns out that they are stronger together than they ever would have been apart.
Pickup on South Street does not rely much on shadows and moods. It's more about the vivid, physical details of the crime world. The film is filled with memorable little images like Moe's creaky old turntable and its sweet, soulful song; Skip's waterfront shack, and his crate of beer that he keeps cool in the river below and hauls up with some rope; the guy who eats chow fun and picks up dirty money in his chopsticks; as well as the overall heat and stench of the city air.
"Mister... I'm so tired, you'd be doing me a favor if you blew my head off." - Moe
"I don't know nothing about Commies. I just know I don't like them." - Moe
"You'll always be a two-bit cannon. And when they pick you up in the gutter dead, you're hand'll be in a drunk's pocket."
What Was Said
"This is authentic pulp cinema... Fuller was daring and relentless in knowing that an American movie could make this Skip more and more loathsome, without ever losing us. Because whatever demon lurked in Widmark, we have it, too." - David Thomson
"The film isn't boring -- there's always something going on -- but you come away with nothing." - Pauline Kael
"The climate is so brutish and the business so sadistic in this tale of pickpockets, demireps, informers, detectives and Communist spies that the whole thing becomes a trifle silly as it slashes and slambangs along, and the first thing you know its grave pretenses are standing there, artless and absurd." - Bosley Crowther, New York Times
"It isn't his best, but this 1953 feature may be the archetypal Sam Fuller film, a condensation of his themes and techniques with the steam still rising." - Dave Kehr