Monday, August 3, 2015

Pickup on South Street (1953)

(SLWB April 23, 2013)
Another title that improves more and more with repeated viewings.

The cinematography of Joseph MacDonald (Niagara, Call Northside 777, Panic in the Streets, My Darling Clementine,  Viva Zapata!, Yellow Sky, The Street with No Name, The Dark Corner) combines the great 20th Century Fox studio set design seamlessly with stock NYC location footage to depict a very believe-able 3 layered Manhattan. From vaulting suspension bridges overhead, against a backdrop of Brooklyn waterfront warehouses across to a lower East Side, East River, pier-scape, with a catwalk to a crumbling bait shack, butted up to the border of Chinatown with its grifters, flophouses, cigarette machines, B-girls, and tattoo parlors perched above the labyrinthine passages of the subways with their human drain ways from the surface

Directed by Samule Fuller (House of Bamboo (1955), The Crimson Kimono (1959), Underworld U.S.A. (1961), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964)) and written by Samuel Fuller (screenplay), based on a story by Dwight Taylor. Music was by Leigh Harline

Peters approaching Moe's "above the tattoo parlor and across from the top of the stairs"
Widmark spotting a tail

Interior of swaying rush hour subway car in a neat sequence that introduces Peters, Boushey, Widmark and the plot:

After a station stop where various riders both exit and enter the car as the train starts and sways we watch as patches of Widmark, a hat brim, a corner of his eye, come into view as he jostles his way through the car of commuters...

"I've "kissed" a lot of guys" Peters
...until he stands opposite floozie "I've "kissed" a lot of guys" Peters

All of the major actors are great in their roles. Ritter in probably her best performance as Moe, she is sly, shrewd, and funny in her scenes with G Man Bouchey and cop Vye, woman to woman matter of fact with Peters, motherly with Widmark, fearless with Kiley. Fuller did an outstanding job on the screenplay and was spot on in the dialogs.

Ritter with Bouchey, rt. and Vye, lt. at precinct headquarters, selling information and ties.
Other highlights, watch for Peters dickering with Vic Perry (Lightning Louie) in a Chinese restaurant ( Perry was a real pick-pocket and was a technical advisor on that aspect of the movie.), and the brutal  fight Peters has with Kiley.

Peters taking a soak while sucking a tar bar.
 Widmark is most excellent in the culmination of all his three time looser wise ass roles, and there is real chemistry in the on screen relationship between Widmark and Peters that sparks once they quit playing each other while jockeying for the microfilm . Some question the transition to romance, but it's meant to be a little off the wall. Moe points out how Skip is some kind of chick magnet. Moe she cant figure how women seem to fall for him, I'd say it is probably the most successful depiction of a relationship in a noir, and Fuller gives it plenty of time to stew and marinate. If it survives past the end credits is anybody's guess, but the deck is stacked against them. Peters is a real cutie in this, its a shame she cut her career way too short.

Great score by Leigh Harline, Another 10/10 for me. The demise of the studio system really is apparent in Fuller's later bare bones noirs.

From IMDb:

Samuel Fuller's richest, most accomplished film noir, 7 January 2002

Author: bmacv from Western New York

Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street is anomalous: A "Red Scare" movie devoid of hysteria, in which the Communist threat is nothing more than the McGuffin that ignites the plot. Pickpocket Richard Widmark relieves loose woman Jean Peters of her wallet containing a strip of microfilm; unbeknownst to either of them, it harbors secrets vital to the Cold War. Peters, as it happens, was under surveillance by FBI agents who are as nonplussed by the theft as the man who's running her, cowardly comsymp Richard Kiley. In trying to retrieve the precious film, both sides enlist the help of Thelma Ritter, a streetwise old jane who's always on the earie and willing to sell what she hears.

Fuller draws from an opulent palette of tempos and tonalities in telling the story, which becomes a race against the clock of escalating brutality. From the subways to the waterfront, his midsummer Manhattan takes on a sweaty sheen that's almost pungent. The love scenes between Peters and Widmark become an unstable mixture of the tumultuous and the tender, and they're scored to "Again," a song introduced by Ida Lupino in Road House, also starring Widmark. The pace slackens for Ritter's beautifully written and played death scene -- among the most poignant vignettes in all noir, and a kind of mirage-oasis in a film parched of sentimentality. This is writer/director Fuller's only work in the strictest confines of the noir cycle; his later explorations of American pathology (The Crimson Kimono, The Naked Kiss, Underworld U.S.A.) never resulted in a synthesis as satisfying as Pickup on South Street.

by freudified_n_funkified (Sun May 6 2007 23:22:11)

Here's the deal with the Skip/Candy romance. From the moment she's in his shack, it's not the romance people seem to perceive it as. It's not like they're immediately in love because they're making out. They're both playing each other -- Candy to get her purse back, Skip to figure out what it's worth. Fuller himself describes it as a "mercenary kiss" and goes on to say:

"Skip quickly figures out he can get a bundle for this precious microfilm, setting himself up for the rest of his life. And he isn't going to let Candy botch up that deal. No woman is worth that. He wants nothing to do with women. Home? Family? Love? Useless middle class pipe dreams to Skip. Candy irritates the hell out of him, interfering with his work. Everything changes when Candy gets beaten up trying to save Skip's life. Why would anyone risk her neck for him? It makes no sense in Skip's primitive world, where sacrifice is laughable. Nevertheless, the seeds of love have been planted."

That's what does it for Skip. Candy, on the other hand, clearly isn't the sharpest tack and has already proved her bad taste in men. So why is it a major flaw of the movie to have them legitimately hook up at the end? They ride off into the sunset, but there's no promise as to how far they get. The upbeat little coda does ring kind of falsely optimistic, and the chances of either one of them turning their lives around and living happily ever after are completely zilch. It works on a more subversive level because if we really know these characters, we know their sunny optimism is just another impossible pipe dream waiting to crumble out from under them. Either of them or both of them will wind up as gutted and destitute as Moe, or dead or locked up before they get a chance. Fuller allows them their victory, but of all filmmakers Fuller knows that most victories, personal or grander, are short lived.

That's what I take from PICKUP anyway - one of the sharpest, most exuberant and entertaining of film noirs and one of Fuller's crowning accomplishments. In most regards I think that Fuller, who is definitely an acquired taste, towers over contemporaries like John Huston, whose best work was mere adolescent male adventure fantasy. And while Fuller's creative sensibilities seem to be just that, his heart and his insight gave genuine weight to even his most didactic or ham fisted yarns. That and they're just so much more fun to watch.


  1. Has anyone besides me noticed "The Big Red 1" patch on the soldier next to Widmark on the opening train shot?
    Fuller's army outfit later seen in his movie of 1980

  2. No I didn't, but thanks for pointing it out ;-)