Pickup on South Street (1953)

Picture 24

Director: Samuel Fuller

Producer: James Schermer (Fox)

Writers: Samuel Fuller (screenplay), Dwight Taylor (story)

Photography: Joseph MacDonald

Music: Leigh Harline

Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Milburn Stone

“It’s been said that if you don’t like the Rolling Stones, then you just don’t like rock and roll. By the same token, I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.” (A)

So says Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker profoundly and admittedly influenced by Fuller since he first experienced his work at age seven. The in-your-face violence told with equally violent camera movements has become a renowned staple of the Scorsese style, but Scorsese will be the first to acknowledge Fuller as the patriarch of such an approach. Only recently has Fuller begun to receive the kind of adulation he deserves, yet still not enough due to the B-picture mask of his movies. Throughout his impressively authentic body of work, one masterpiece stands out above the rest: Pickup on South Street.

The film focuses on the unique lifestyle of a pickpocket, in this case small-time crook Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), who couldn’t give a rat’s behind about anything beyond his day-to-day jobs — as Fuller put it, “the only use he has for a newspaper is to conceal his nimble fingers when he’s grifting a purse.” (A) On this particular day, the theft comes like so many others, on a crowded subway car with an unsuspecting victim, the incredibly sexy Candy (Jean Peters), and the editing of the dirty deed is drawn out brilliantly for suspense.

Unlike Skip’s other jobs, however, this particular victim is being watched by a cop who suspects her role in transporting microfilm to a Soviet spy. Having inadventently apprehended some top secret government information, Skip finds himself the target of the “Commie” spies to recover their microfilm, as well as the police who wish to confiscate the classified information. Both parties track Skip by way of a  “stoolie” informant named Moe (Thelma Ritter), who snitches on criminals for a handsome fee, worrying less about her death than she does the thought of an unmarked grave — her ironic quote is a critics’ favorite: “If I was to be buried in Potter’s Field, it’d just about kill me.”

The plot devices are obviously quite typical of an era where Cold War B-pictures became so common they almost merited their own genre. But it’s the approach to the material that makes Pickup on South Street such a crisp, innovative gem. To start, the casting is dead on. Widmark and his up-to-no-good face are perfect for the criminal lead, while Ritter (Rear Window) steals the show with arguably the best of her six Oscar nominations. As for Candy, tons of leading ladies were after the role — Shelly Winters, Ava Gardner, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe — but none were deemed right for the part. This is exactly what seperates the film from so many others.

Too many movies sacrifice their authenticity for starpower, but not Pickup, a project where Fuller actually threatened to walk if Candy wasn’t played by his choice — Peters. She wasn’t an unknown by any stretch — having appeared alongside Marlon Brando years before and eventually marrying Howard Hughes — but she was an actress chosen strictly for her part-identification, specifically her “bowed legs, the kind of gams you get from streetwalking.” It’s this attention to detail, not pandering to studios but pandering to reality, that gives the film its life force.

A huge fan of the Italian neo-realism that had surfaced after the war, Fuller set out to make Pickup as authentic as the 20th Century Fox soundstages would allow, and set deisgner Lyle Wheeler did that and more, recreating New York’s gritty streets and waterfront shacks. The script only accents this authenticity, with Fuller infusing the same New York underbelly that he experienced as a tabloid crime reporter at age 17, as well as similar research he did with the chief detective of the pickpocket squad of New York just prior to writing the screenplay.

What resulted was a work unwavering in its commitment to this small-time criminal reality. That didn’t, of course, prevent people from reading further into it, some calling the film anti-American, as J. Edgar Hoover charged in disgust to such lines as “Are you wavin’ the flag at me?,” others calling it anti-Communist, like French critic Georges Sadoul, a Stalinist, who claimed the film to be anti-Communist propaganda. (A) To Fuller, neither is the case, saying that Skip doesn’t care about politics it all, let alone the cold war. He lives in the here and now, the day-to-day struggle for survival. (A)Likewise, Fuller doesn’t care about a political statement of any kind. He just wants to show human beings in their most raw emotional forms, and do it with “visual emotion. He should pinpoint an emotion and milk it and not bore anyone.” (C)

His directorial style is a celluloid testament to this idea, one that often keeps the camera no more than a few inches away from the actors’ faces. The countless close-ups keep the action brutal and the emotions personal, explaining a character’s thought process just by zooming in rapidly on his or her face.

Throughout, Fuller seems to pride himself of inventing new ways to present a scene, be it positioning his camera in places walls should be (behind a bedframe), positioning actors in the frame for a desired effect (two authorities hogging the frame as they interogate Candy), keeping the camera rolling for violence-as-poetry (the scene between Candy and Joey) or by making calculated movements around a space in order to reveal another character in the room at a precise time.

This lattermost technique plays out perfectly in the film’s most beautiful scene, as a tired Ritter returns home to set up her Victrola record player to play “Mam’zelle,” a song by Grand Hotel director Edmund Goulding. As her murderer appears in the room and prepares to “blow her head off,” Fuller pans to the left, a pistol shot is heard and the record-player needle reaches the end of the record, just sitting there skipping as the perfect metaphor for death. (B).

Such direction earned Fuller a Bronze Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, though the fullness of his respect required both time and praise from those like Scorsese, who atributed their own creative juices to Fuller’s “independent style” in the face of his studio system environment. Looking back, critics and scholars adore this individuality, epitomized, they say, in Pickup on South Street. It’s a film that serves as both a taut, streetwise thriller and a quintescential noir, not just for its shadowy look and hardboiled dialogue, but more so in the motivations of its characters and the fatalism they seem to understand. Ritter may say it best right before her Victrola needle starts to skip: “I have to go on makin’ a living so I can die.”

Citations:

CITE A: Scorsese’s introduction to the book A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller, Christa Lang Fuller and Jerome Henry Rudes, 2002, Random House
CITE B: Edge of Outside, TCM Documentary
CITE C: Samuel Fuller on the Criterion DVD bonus features

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