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.