Pickup on South Street. 20th Century Fox; screenplay by Samuel Fuller, from a story by Dwight Taylor; produced by Jules Schermer; directed by Samuel Fuller. Originally released as a motion picture in 1953. Performers: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Jerry O’Sullivan, Harry Carter. Summary: Petty crook Skip McCoy lifts a strip of microfilm bearing confidential U.S. secrets. Tailed by the Feds and the unwitting courier’s Communist puppeteers, Skip and Candy find themselves in a precarious gambit.
“So you’re a Red, who cares? Your money’s as good as anybody else’s.”
Surprising that so few films noirs are about espionage, given that the spy Weltanschauung corresponds so closely with that of the noir gestalt. Both abound in double and triple dealings, rampant paranoia, issues and choices always in tones of grey, never black & white, and most of all, flawed characters pushed to the edge of madness, about to descend into their own moral and emotional hearts of darkness. Moreover, the noir heyday years of roughly 1946-1953 correspond almost perfectly with the peak of anti-communist fervor in the U.S. at the time.
It all fed into noir’s sense of dread and desperation, usually as background, but in Pickup on South Street, we have that rare exception in which the Cold War, specifically its spycraft vagaries, looms front and center as an integral part of the plot. The irony of Pickup is that the protagonists don’t care a whit about all the high-powered Cold War politics, which only become a problem when it inconveniences their lives, and in most dramatic fashion. Samuel Fuller turned out to be the perfect, eminently un-auteurish, toughest-of-tough-guy directors, to helm this near masterpiece of overstated understatement.
Fuller began his career in the 1930s, writing for the New York Evening Graphic, a sleazy tabloid that was something of the National Enquirer of its day, just more so. No surprise then that even in his most polished A pictures like Pickup, he never totally shed his pulpy, journalistic instincts. His crusty cigar-chomping persona and seen-it-all background added to the mix. However, Pickup on South Street, for all its toughness, beats with a heart of exceptional warmth, all rendered through the three principal characters (a call girl, a stoolie and a professional thief), most of all through their inter-relationships. These are far from perfect human beings, but for all their failings, each has a basic streak of goodness and a kind of moral code. Thus we tend to root for them, even though their motivations and goals are often in conflict with each other.
Fuller came by his insight honestly: he knew marginal types like Candy, Skip and Moe personally through his experience as a journalist and through, well, life itself. Indeed, he probably identified with them through his perpetual outsider status in the film industry. Fuller’s lurid, un-pc side comes to the fore only once, and that’s the scene where Joey (Richard Kiley) beats up his onetime girlfriend and (probably unwitting) partner in crime Candy (Jean Peters). The sequence is done with a visceral realism and level of violence that was extreme even by the standards of film noir and still delivers a jolt sixty years later.
Are you waving the flag at me?
Richard Widmark continues the mold of self-destructive anti-heroes he created with Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death and Harry Fabian in Night and the City. He’s an amoral professional who will steal from – and deal with – anybody, and in this respect he’s not so different from the much less likeable Joey. But unlike Harry in Night and the City (‘an artist without out an art’) the character of Skip McCoy is indeed an artiste with his hands and fingers, which are employed not in musical, writerly or painterly ways but in the much dicier profession of pickpocket who has already gone to prison three times. Once more and its life.
Widmark and Jean Peters have great screen chemistry and their steamy romantic scenes entice with a deliciously languorous quality we don’t often find in this most frantic of film genres. And Thelma Ritter is terrific in her portrayal of a of a multi-dimensional, ultimately sympathetic character. The script gives her a bevy of one-liners (“I don’t know much about Commies, except that I don’t like ‘em.”), and she nails every one of them. It may well be her finest hour as an actress.
Pickup confirms Fuller’s reputation as a subversive artist, most specifically through Skip’s brutal, near homicidal, quest, which has a purely personal, not ideological basis. Skip does the right thing but for the wrong reasons, and this is apparently what J. Edgar Hoover took exception to, along with the character’s flip attitude toward patriotism and his absolute indifference to all the Cold War huffing and puffing . But Fuller offended liberals as much as conservatives throughout his career with his take-no-prisoners approach, and to be sure the film does depict the FBI agents in positive if rather bland light. In similar fashion the Joey character and his Red masters are given the obligatory treatment for films of that era: humorless, all business, effete, intellectual, and faintly lavender.
Pickup has a beautiful monochromatic look, especially the scenes of Jean Peters in white dress slinking around in the moonlight. The script also scores some of the best dialogue this side of Double Indemnity. Additional little touches surprise and beguile: a shady character named Lightning Louie slurps down Chinese food aided by chopsticks which he also uses to lift cash placed on the table; the rickety waterfront dive which serves as Skip’s retreat from the world; Skip’s terse response when he’s asked if he knows the meaning of treason: “who cares?”; the desperate, intense characters at a meeting of Reds and sympathizers, especially a sweaty, very nervous looking Joey, and Candy’s subsequent reaction as she gradually figures out what’s going on.
This is not to say Pickup a perfect film. I’m not thrilled about the jangly main title music, the cop character is a little overdone for my taste, and the ending strikes me as a bit strained. But on balance Pickup on South Street is a wonderfully entertaining, often wise film that gets better with each viewing. I’d call it my current pick as the most under-rated film noir ever.
 Pickup won the Bronze Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, selected by a Red-leaning jury. The jury’s president, Luchino Visconti, opposed giving the award to Fuller. Visconti was a committed Leftist and considered the film anti-communist. But the jury overrode Visconti’s wishes because they appreciated the film’s artistic value. Fuller didn’t care about awards, and the whole affair amused him to no end.
Further reading : Edgar Chaput, Pickup on South Street sees Cold War tensions put the ‘heat’ on the criminal underbelly; Dombrowski, Lisa. The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! Wesleyan University Press, 2008; Jon Lanthier, To Slap a Dame: Sexual Violence in the Age of Reason; Review by Robert Cashill, Cineaste, Summer 2004, pp.54-55; Samuel Fuller, “Don’t Wave the Flag at Me,” in program booklet for Pickup on South Street (DVD), Criterion, 2004.