55 of 55 people found the following review helpful
This is one of the finest low budget crime films of the fifties, one that manages to get an extraordinary number of things right. After a dozen years of film noir and tough detective films, one would have imagined that most of the angles would have been tried and worked to exhaustion, but PICKUP ON NOON STREET managed to be amazingly fresh and original. It is also a multi-layered film. On one level, it is an espionage film, with federal authorities, with the help of local police in New York, on the trail of a group selling secrets to the Communists. Interestingly, the collaborators are not treated as political individuals, but utterly unprincipled capitalists. As Joey, Richard Kiley's character, puts it early in the film to his former girlfriend Candy, "How many times do I have to tell you we're not criminals. This is big business."
The film features a first rate cast. Except possibly for his screen debut in KISS OF DEATH, Richard Widmark was never better than he was in this film as three-time loser pickpocket Skip McCoy. The ultimate anti-hero, McCoy's motives are complex and opaque, even at the end. Jean Peters, later Mrs. Howard Hughes (to whom she was married from 1957 to 1971), is fetching as Candy, a shady dame with a past but with the proverbial heart of gold. Richard Kiley is suitably slimy as Joey, the seller of secrets to the Communists. Kiley would later (after his voice darkened) become the narrator for dozens upon dozens of National Geographic specials (such a familiar voice that they joke in JURAISSAC PARK about getting him to do the voice over for their guided tour). Thelma Ritter, as she did so often in the forties and fifties, steals every scene she is in as the necktie-selling, police informing Moe Williams, who is saving up for her gravestone and burial plot ("If they buried me in potter's field, it would just kill me").
The psychology of the characters comes straight from Mickey Spillane. A notable instance is the way Candy falls for Skip McCoy. This aspect of the film isn't merely improbable: it is impossible. Skip picks her pocket. He causes her to go on a long search for him while paying off stoolies along the way. He slugs her upon their next meeting when he finds her going through his things, robs her purse while she is unconscious, and then pours beer on her face to wake her up. After kissing her, he unceremoniously tosses her out on the street. When she returns, he kisses her some more, before pushing her down, taking all the money out of her purse, and then shaking her down for more money. And, of course, by this time she is hopelessly in love with him. In what universe is this possible? None, but for the sake of the drama we accept it effortlessly.
The film is stuffed with marvelous details, whether dialogue, music, or sets. No one seeing the film could ever forget Skip's bizarre waterfront lodgings, in which he cools his beer (and stores his booty) by lowering a wooden box into the East River with a rope. Among dozens of great touches, one of my favorites is when a stoolie, eating Chinese food, takes his tip money and puts it in his pocket using chopsticks. The score, by the relatively unknown Leigh Harline, nonetheless manages to be almost as edgy as Edward Hermann.
Interestingly, for all the film's cynicism and edginess, it actually ends up with a more conventional happy ending than most of the hardboiled crime films of the forties and fifties. The guy and the gal end up together, and perhaps even happy. Moe tells Skip, "Stop using your hands, Skip, and start using your head." He does, and all ends well. By the end, the bad guys are all either dead or in jail. What is fascinating about all this is that it was a direct violation of the Code, which decreed that all characters who engage in crime must be shown as paying for those crimes by the end of the film (which is why all those Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney villains of the thirties always died by the end of the film). Skip McCoy is not only a creep, he is a thief, yet at the end he is not only punished: he is given a clean bill of health for cooperating in taking down Commies. As such, he is one of the most unique anti-heroes of the age.
This is an absolute must-see film though I would like to add that for a Criterion film, this has perhaps the smallest number of first-rate features that I can recall. The print itself is pristine and gorgeous, but you get no additional video features. All the features are either articles or printed interviews.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2004
For those who appreciate the fine acting of Thelma Ritter, this film is a must-have (along with Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window"). Her portrayal as the informant is a classic role for one of the best supporting actresses Hollywood has ever seen.
Richard Widmark also lends one of the greatest performances of his career, right up there with his roles in "Kiss of Death" (1947) and "Judgement at Nuremburg" (1961). The Criterion release provides a magnificent restoration of this underrated film noir gem.
I am rather baffled as to the clueless wonder at Amazon.com who tagged this motion picture with an NC-17 rating. Either that person didn't see the film, or the lights are on but nobody's home. "Pickup on South Street" isn't a skin flick. It is one of the greatest dramatic thrillers of the 1950's.
Get this DVD on Criterion. It's an essential classic for any serious film collector.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2001
The face of film noir wouldn't have been the same without the distinctive face of Richard Widmark who exploded into the genre with his memorably over-the-top performance as baddie Tommy Udo in 1947's Kiss of Death. For my money, however, it's the underrated Victor Mature who really carries that film, although Widmark gets all the flashy scenes (his pushing of a wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down the stairs is widely considered one of the cruelest in film history).
In Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Pickup on South Street, however, Widmark truly comes into his own with two of the finest film noir performances of all time. The stage trained actor had added some substance to the flash. You find yourself sympathizing with the callous Skip McCoy (Pickup on South Street) and nervous Harry Fabian (Night and the City) despite their bad qualities. There's an underlying vulnerability behind all the tough talk and rough gestures (the fact that Widmark looked so undernourished in the '50s may have also had something to do with it).
With the uncompromising Sam Fuller (Shock Corridor) at the helm and Thelma Ritter (All About Eve, Rear Window) in a scene-stealing supporting role, you can't go wrong. An essential release for the film noir afficionado.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2004
The camera angles, the emotion, the violent outbursts of its characters and the suspense can be sensed in every frame of this film. Sam Fuller did create a masterpiece and it won him the Best Film Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1954 - deservedly!
The acting: Widmark is at his best. His Skip is a bomb threatening to explode any time. This is probably Jean Peters's best acting job in a movie. This actress has a lot of fire in her that she seems to keep under control, but - like Widmark - you can sense it can explode any time. Thelma Ritter (who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance) is tops as well and so is Richard Killey. These four actors in fact should have all been nominated for awards and certainly the film should have been - but that was Hollydwood in the 50's - the film was controversial, a film noir at that and Cinemascope and spectacles had entered the picture and sweeping all the awards then selected by fools enchanted with special effects, color and big screens.
This film is a jewel and it should be given more attention, more credit, and you should see it!!!
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2003
Better than most film noir entries, Samuel Fuller's PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET explores the life of a pickpocket who gets in over his head. Skip McCoy picks a pocket on the subway, and gets classified government documents for his troubles.
The police convince a woman to help them find Skip and the microfilm, and heavy drama ensues. Thelma Ritter is especially good as the informant. Today her acting would be considered over-the-top and unconvincing, but for the time, it was a standout performance. Widmark is excellent as the pickpocket, with his portrayal only rivalled by his work in KISS OF DEATH (also a must-see film noir).
As a landmark film for Widmark and Ritter, as well as for director Samuel Fuller, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is a must-see for fans of 1940s cinema and film noir.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2005
I saw that someone categorized this as a mystery, and after watching Pickup on South Street (1953) last night, and I wondered if we saw the same film. I certainly wouldn't classify this as a mystery but a hard-boiled (just like I like my eggs) thriller/caper populated by interesting characters caught up in a situations beyond their control. Well, as my sweet, old Gammy always said, opinions are like fecal orifices, in everyone has one (technically, fecal orifices wasn't the exact term she would use, but common decency and review guidelines prevent me from printing what she would use). Written and directed by the legendary Hollywood curmudgeon Samuel Fuller (I feel comfortable enough calling him a legend since his passing in '97), the film stars Richard Widmark (Halls of Montezuma) and Jean Peters (Viva Zapata!), who was once married to famously nutty billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. Also appearing is Thelma Ritter (Rear Window, Pillow Talk), Murvyn Vye (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court), Richard Kiley (Blackboard Jungle), and Willis Bouchey (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Panic in Year Zero!).
Widmark plays Skip McCoy, a pickpocket (or cannon, as referred to in the film) and a three-time loser (meaning he was convicted and sent over three times, with a fourth conviction translating into life in prison) whose troubles began the day he picked the wrong pocket book on a crowded subway, one belonging to a comely muffin (seriously, the men kept calling her this in the film) named Candy (Peters). Seems Candy was enlisted by her ex-boyfriend Joey (Kiley) to deliver an envelope containing top-secret information (she was unaware of the contents of the envelope), and was being trailed by federal agents, interested in busting up a ring of suspect Reds (the Red Menace was everywhere in the 50's). Soon everyone wants Skip, including Candy (at least before she found out she was an unwitting dupe of the Reds), the bulls (that's cops to you and me), the feds, and the Reds...noticing all kinds of interest being developed in his relatively petty theft, Skip finally gets wise to what he has, and sees visions of a score of a lifetime, treading the line between two-bit hustler and vile, traitorous slime, that is if he can only keep from getting pinched by the cops or being killed by the Communists...
Of all the `noir' films I've seen (surprisingly not as many as one may think), Pickup on South Street rates very high (it's also my first Fuller film). The story is kept lean and mean, allowing for very little, if any, extraneous material to clutter up the proceedings. The pacing is brisk (the film has a running time of 80 minutes), and rarely lets up. All of the performances worked, but I especially liked Widmark, as he really brought his character to life, that of a slick, scheming, slightly misogynistic two-bit grifter looking at all the angles, trying to stay one step ahead of the law (and the commies). I know Skip was a criminal, and an extremely smarmy one at that, but I couldn't help liking him, as despite his seemingly noxious exterior, at his core he possessed some inherit, humanizing qualities that many of us strive for (specifically the scene where he made arrangements for Moe the stool pigeon, played by Thelma Ritter, even despite the knowledge that she was the one that fingered him, in a roundabout way, to the cops). But then this was buffeted by his apparent willingness not to be swayed by the patriotic meanderings of the law enforcement officials, his interest lying in his own potential gains, "So you're a Red, who cares? Your money's as good as anybody else's."...a complicated character, for sure. I also thought Thelma Ritter was wonderful, especially the scene where her character relates her deteriorating physical state to Candy's ex-boyfriend, as he searches for Skip. I could feel the extremity of her state, and understand her motivations of earning enough to die properly (she was deathly afraid of dying poor and having the state bury her in potter's field, a place the state interred those unknown or indigent peoples). The slang vernacular utilized by many of the characters in the film felt very natural, and presented me with the notion of not so much watching a movie but witnessing events as they transpired in a reality outside of my own (okay, okay, the whole microfilm/commie angle may seem a little jive, but required only a meager suspension of my disbelief as the movie was just so damn good). One thing I really noticed about this film was the usage of minimal sets (often confined to small rooms), along with peculiar and odd angles for various shots...extreme close ups, high and away, slightly skewed...I think the unconventional nature of said shots within the tight, limited spaces really served well to add to the atmosphere of the film, and tweak the tension inherit within the story, leading up to a violent and brutal all out brawl between Skip the Pickpocket and a member of the Order of the Profusely Sweaty (seriously, if you've seen the film, you know who I'm talking about...that guy was in a perpetual state of perspiration).
The full screen (original aspect ratio 1:33.1) picture on this Criterion release looks beautiful, and the sound comes through crisp and clean (the case indicates both were restored). Criterion editions may cost a bit more, but I've never felt I wasn't getting my money's worth, and here is no different. Along with providing a superior print, there are literally scads of extras, including a 20-minute interview piece with writer director Sam Fuller, excerpts from Cinema Cinemas series, an illustrated biographical essay on Fuller, a complete Fuller poster filmography, theatrical trailers for 8 Fuller films, an informative 20-page booklet, and stills gallery of photos, lobby cards, and original paintings by artist Russell Christian.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2000
Shot in just ten days on the mean streets of NYC, this Samuel Fuller film epitomizes the essence of noir. Grifters, detectives, and spies emerge as stark characters interwoven in a plot tainted with desperation, betrayal, and loneliness. Pick Up On South Street is the canvass that reveals urban realism painted in its most blackest and whitest. Every aspect of the film-from the gritty on site location shooting to the effective use of close up facial shots warrants uncompromising attention. Manhattan's apartments, streets, subways, and harbor are masterfully landscaped into a montage of darkened shadows highlighted by light grays and luminious whites. Richard Widmark has never been better as Skip McCoy the two-bit pickpocket whose multi-layered persona slowly unravels within this seventy minute thriller. Jean Peters is equally convincing as the street tough who conceals her vunerability with a tight dress and a loose mouth. Thelma Ritter steals every scene she appears in as the aging grifter who has the dope on every hood worthy of a police record. At the time of the film's release (1953) American loyalty and patriotism in society was being tested by the fervor caused by McCarthyism. A shift from the threat of gangsterism to Communism had engulfed the American psyche. The FBI had proclaimed that the most notorious gangsters from John Dillinger to Al Capone no longer roamed the country. Instead an even more menacing evil was threatening the sanctity and integrity of American morality and only a vigiliant public- be it cops or crimminals could combat this covert force. In the wake of the McCarthy hysteria, a pickpocket was frowned upon,a Red was condemned to purgatory. No film captured the triangle of forces- crime, Communism, and American justice as deftly as Pick Up On South Street. For all fans of noir classics, this is one to own and enjoy.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2002
A rough and brutal melodrama set against the backdrop of New York's seedy underworld which delves into the secret workings of federal agents and Communist spies. Widmark plays the petty crook, the proverbial three-time loser, whose actions are motivated solely by greed. When he lifts a wallet from the purse of Jean Peters, he gets himself into deeper trouble than he could ever imagine...A truly provocative film, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET was originally a simple story about drug pushers. Originally cast in the Peters role was Betty Grable(!). Shelley Winters was also considered (a much better choice). This film is quite complex with some intricate depth: miles beyond a mere anti-Communism film - this was filmed during the infamous McCarthy era - it unfortunately is viewed as such by many. Thelma Ritter steals the show as the seedy but much-loved Moe. The viewer is captivated by her natural acting technique: when she dies by Kiley's wicked hand while listening to the phonograph, the viewer is spellbound. Ritter won an Oscar nomination for her outstanding work.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2005
Pickpocket, b-girl and pinko nabbed in bizarre love triangle
According to the Inspector, they "wasn't good and they wasn't smart." After the cannon grifted the dame on the train, he was hot. The law wanted to pinch the booster on a fourth offence and send him up for good. The muffin wanted to make happy her pinko boychik, who was just in it for the glory of Uncle Joe. The stool pigeon wanted to make enough bingo to keep out of Potter's Field.
Okay, enough of that silliness. Listening to filmster Samuel Fuller on the extras on PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET makes you want to speak in slang and punch in some yellow journalism touches (Fuller started out working for a yellow rag, one of the text specials tells us.) This is the second Fuller film I've seen and the first one I could tolerate. The characters here - Richard Widmark's pickpocket, Jean Peter's b-girl, Richard Kiley, Thelma Ritter, are all living on the edge of society and emotions.
PICKUP is one of those convergence-of-the-stars movies where just about everything works at a high level. Widmark and Ritter are brilliant and the rest of the cast is excellent. The plot is smart and uncluttered and Fuller's direction is driving and emotional. Highly recommended.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2004
Samuel Fuller's "Pickup on South Street" is easily one of his better films and as cynical and tough as crime dramas got in the 50's. Richard Widmark is excellent as a cocky pickpocket who swipes the wallet of sexy Jean Peters that contains microfilm of government secrets to be delivered to a Communist agency. Peters is unaware of the Communist angle and is only doing a "job" for her slimy ex-boyfriend Richard Kiley (who's also excellent). Getting mixed up in the mess to get back the microfilm is street peddler/police informant Thelma Ritter who sells information to whoever wants to buy it. The film is gritty and unsentimental and none of the characters are saints. New York City is depicted as a tough place to survive especially on the dirty waterfront where Skip McCoy (Widmark) lives and stashes his loot and Moe Williams (Ritter) plies her trade. Candy (Peters) is a girl who's been around due to a shady past and never known a decent man in her life. She's trying to survive too. Peters (who's miles away from her ingenue in "Niagara" also the same year} is sexy and streetsmart with the bad-girl swagger that only Gloria Grahame knew how to pull off. Ritter earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Moe and she is simply fantastic as a doomed fringe-dweller who's getting tired. The film is a good hard look at crime and the school of hard knocks. The Communist plot line is only that---a plot line. The film takes no political stand. It's a story of people doing what they do to survive and the understanding between them that "everybody's gotta eat". "Pickup on South Street" is a fine noir crime film and another excellent DVD package from Criterion with lots of good extras. THIS is a collector's item.