How the law took a chance on a B-Girl.and won!
One of the great forgotten gems of the 1950s, Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street is a top-shelf noir that, more than 50 years after its initial release, still plays like gangbusters. It's one of those pictures that fans of the noir style are going to eat up, and for anyone else discovering it for the first time, it's like finding gold in the backyard while mowing the lawn.
Facts of the Case
Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is a thrice-convicted but master pickpocket, taken to hoisting wallets on the New York City subway. One day, when he snatches a wallet from Candy (Jean Peters), Skip gets more than he bargained for—a piece of microfilm she was delivering for commie agent Joey (Richard Kiley). He's fingered for the crime by professional stoolie Moe (Thelma Ritter), and he soon finds himself on the run from Joey, the cops, and the Feds, all of whom are seeking the microfilm for their own reasons. But when Skip finds himself falling for Candy, this out-for-himself criminal soon finds his gruff exterior cracking, and he discovers that his own life might not be the only one worth saving.
When it was released in 1953, Pickup on South Street was lambasted (albeit unfairly) by political critics from both the left and the right. Leftist critics (mostly in Europe) cried foul at the film's portrayal of a communist agent as its chief villain, while those on the right (J. Edgar Hoover among them) were generally dismayed at the hero's refusal to help the federal agents, who attempt to use him to nab the commie bad guys ("Are you waiving the flag at me?" Widmark asks at one point).
Both arguments, of course, miss the point entirely, which is that Fuller's film isn't about politics at all, but about characters, and the lengths that they'll go to in order to survive. Fuller is fascinated by underworld culture, by the kinds of people that live on the fringes of society. It's not that these characters are apathetic towards the Cold War politics by choice—they simply don't have time for them. They're too busy trying to stay alive.
Take Richard Kiley's Joey, for instance, the aforementioned villain of the picture, who is trying to sell secrets to the communist spies. In interview footage recently assembled for Criterion's new Pickup DVD, Fuller is adamant about the fact that there's a difference between a communist and a communist agent, the latter category being the one into which Joey falls. The spies, Fuller argues, are the ones with the politics. The agents, on the other hand, were willing to work for anyone who was willing to pay them, and in this case, those people just happened to be the commies. Joey isn't helping them because he believes in their ideals. He's helping them because he needs the money. It's all about survival.
The hero, Skip, on the other hand, is essentially playing by the same rules in his refusal to help the feds. He's only out for himself—and here's the crucial distinction—not because he wants to be, but because he has to be. He sees the microfilm as his opportunity to be set for life, if Joey is willing to pay the right price for it. His desperation is made clear in one scene between Skip and Candy, in which she asks him why he became a pickpocket, and his reaction is to recoil in disgust. "How'd you get to be what you are?" he lashes out. "Things happen, that's all." He doesn't want to do what he does, but he sees it as the only thing he's fit for. So when he sees an opportunity to never have to do it again (especially since the next time he's caught, he'll be put away for life), you'd better believe he's going to do whatever he has to do to grasp it.
All of these threads come together in the film's climactic fight scene between these two characters, a fight motivated by emotion, not by politics. Joey, in two separate acts of desperation, threatens things that Skip loves, and it's the final act that proves to be the last straw. What these two acts are I won't divulge here, as I wouldn't want to spoil the developments for anyone coming to the film for the first time, but suffice to say that it's this emotional undercurrent that makes the confrontation resonate so much more than it would have had it been motivated simply by good-guys-versus-Reds political strife. Fuller knew that it was the relationships, not the politics, that would give the film its longevity, and this is why Pickup holds up so well today.
The performances are top-notch across the board, but the standout is Thelma Ritter as the ill-fated Moe, in a heartbreaking performance that would earn Ritter a much-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination (she would earn four nominations in six years, but never win). Like everyone else in the film, Moe is struggling to survive, and the only way she knows how to do this is to sell out petty criminals (including Skip) to the police, while selling neckties on the side. In another film, the character might have been played up as being more heroic than she is, or, because of Skip's role as the hero of the film, she might have been seen as the villain, for turning him in. But not once in the film does Skip ever hold any ill will towards Moe and, as a result, neither do we. He understands that this is what she does for a living, and he respects that. Widmark is especially deft at exhibiting Skip's goodwill towards Moe, and his refusal to judge her simply because of how she chooses to make her living adds yet another dimension to the already-layered story. All of these characters are lowlifes, no doubt, but none of them is without feeling.
And it's this emotional subtext, coupled with the Fuller's absolute technical mastery of the noir style that earn Pickup its place among the best film noirs of the 1940s and '50s. Other films in the same vein may have the same technical competence, but lack the fascinating dynamic created by Fuller's emphasis on characters instead of types, and his steadfast adherence to the idea that it's the relationships, not the style, that form the backbone of the story. Those who see the film only as a political statement are sorely missing the point, and surely denying themselves one hell of a movie experience. It's about the people, not the politics. This is a great, great film.
In terms of visual representation, Criterion's new DVD release of Pickup on South Street, one of the first in its lineup of films licensed from 20th Century Fox, is—and there's really no other word for it—miraculous. The film itself, shot by Fuller and cinematographer Joe MacDonald, is simply one of the best-looking noirs ever made, with some of the best lighting effects and shadow compositions ever crafted, effects that have been stunningly recreated on the Criterion disc. I think I noticed one (one!) visual imperfection in the transfer, which is a split-second vertical scratch that takes place during a transition and is so blink-and-you'll-miss-it negligible that I don't know why I even bothered to bring it up. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that this may be the best visual representation of the noir style committed to disc thus far. Yes, it's that good.
The audio portion of the disc, while obviously not as immediately noticeable as the video portion, is equally magnificent, especially in highlighting Leigh Harline's terrific, jazzy score. The track is presented in Dolby Mono, and both music and dialogue are crystal clear, with zero background noise or hissing effects present. Subtitles are included in English for the hearing-impaired.
The extras, while not as bounteous as some other Criterion releases, are nevertheless fascinating and informative. There's no audio commentary, but what we do get is a 20-minute deconstruction of some of the film's major points of interest and conflict from the late director Fuller, in rare footage compiled by film critic Richard Schickel. Fuller, who appears chomping his trademark cigar, speaks passionately and fervently about the specifics of making Pickup on South Street as well as the abilities and role of directors in general. He is ardent about the idea of "visual emotion" that the director is capable of communicating. "The power of the camera," he says, "is like bold-face type. You cannot compete with it. Don't talk about it. Show it."
The film's only other video supplement is a more obscure one, a 1984 French television program entitled Cinéma Cinémas that features Fuller again, this time in the editing room, showing how he constructed the film's first scene, which, with its use of quick-cutting almost-complete silence, is one of the most dynamic in the entire picture. The show isn't what I'd deem "essential" viewing—it's more of a curiosity piece. But it's worth a look for anyone interested in seeing a master magician revealing his secrets.
Also included on the disc are eight trailers for Fuller films, as well as stills galleries with a treasure trove of posters, photos, lobby cards, and original paintings.
What really stands out on this release, however, are the textual supplements. The disc itself features a multi-page illustrated biographical essay on Fuller, while the 20-page booklet included in the package contains essays from Martin Scorsese, cultural historian Luc Sante, and an excerpt by Fuller himself taken from his autobiographical book A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking. With studios like Paramount suddenly dropping booklets and paper inserts from their releases altogether, Criterion goes in the opposite direction and gives the audience what they want, showing their commitment to classic film with their understanding that these textual supplements can enhance our appreciation of the film in question and add enormous value to any release. Bravo Criterion, and boo to Paramount.
Something tells me that if one were to do a study on the correlation between Criterion Collection releases and sales of thesauruses, there would be an obvious parallel, as reviewers like myself struggle tirelessly to come up with variations on the word "great." Pickup on South Street once again has me reaching for superlatives, as it easily equals and in many cases exceeds many of their previous releases in terms of technical quality, as well as featuring extras that enhance the audience's understanding of just what makes the film in question a classic, which it undoubtedly remains. I can't recommend this release more highly.
Not guilty on all counts, and don't you dare wave the flag at me. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Interview With Director Sam Fuller
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