Friday Film Noir
Pickup on South Street is a Dirty, Grimy Film with Almost no Hope
A pickpocket unwittingly lifts a message destined for enemy agents and becomes a target for a Communist spy ring.
Friday Film Noir: Pickup on South Street
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the major international powers and their smaller, less imposing friends aligned themselves along two extremely divisive ideological lines: the Western pro-capitalists and the Eastern Bloc, the latter driven by a bastardized version of communism. The present column shan’t delve into lessons of political or economic history of the mid-twentieth century, save to mention the above detail and tie it into film noir. So much has been written and said about the aftermath of WWII and its impact on American cinema in the 1940s and 1950s that stumbling upon a noir film which directly relates to the terrible red scare that afflicted the United States in the aforementioned decades (and then some) comes as a surprise for the simple reason that fewer exist than one might come to expect. The much-lauded and controversial filmmaker Samuel Fuller took that very step with his 1953 effort, Pickup on South Street.
On a packed Manhattan tramway one night, slippery pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) takes notice of a young, attractive woman, Candy (Jean Peters), and more particularly her lovely purse. Executing his trademark sleight of hand with help of a folded newspaper, Skip succeeds in stealing the girl’s wallet and making his getaway before Candy realizes anything. Unbeknownst to Skip at the moment are two critical facts. First, Candy had been watched by a federal agent because, second, she had been transporting sensitive government documentation stored on a film strip. Said strip was stowed away, of course, in her wallet. From there begins an intense game of wits between law enforcement, led by Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye), the communist sleeper agent vying to get a hold of the film strip, Joey (Richard Kiley), Candy, who promised Joey (unaware of his political leanings) to deliver the article safely to a contact, and Moe (Thelma Ritter), an elderly streetwise woman who can help both sides with information…provided they pay up handsomely.
Never one to deliberately tiptoe around controversial material, writer-director Samuel Fuller brings many of strengths as an edgy storyteller to Pickup on South Street, confidently pulling most of the intricate strings of plot machinations, exploring the sentiments of fervent nationalism and belief in Western values, and finally reveling in the often-uncomfortable brutality exuded by the scheming, emotionally volatile characters that populate this seedy interpretation of New York in the early 1950s. Not everything runs like clockwork as couple story decisions and character motivations fail to come to fruition as they should, yet overall Fuller succeeds in putting his own stamp onto the genre, which is saying quite a bit considering how violent the genre is, to begin with.
Pickup on South Street sees Cold War tensions put the ‘heat’ on the criminal underbelly…
On a world-building level, Pickup on South Street makes for a compelling portrait of how the lives of various personalities from many walks of life converge with one another in episodes of great tension. During the period in which the films’ story is set, the Cold War had already been a significant element dictating geopolitical relations between the United States and the Soviet Union for some years. It was also a period of great spy stories, both fictional and in real life, with revelations of sleeper agents and betrayals making newspaper headlines. Even though a certain paranoia could and did set itself in, the reality of the situation was that authorities in the United States did genuinely have to contend with spies. Pickup elaborates on how that was much easier said than done. Contacts, informants, allies, and antagonists were not as readily identifiable or as easy to either ensnare or work alongside with as some might have wanted to imagine, the success ratio often the result of circumstance or even chance, less so the intentional planning of the players involved.
Several examples support this, the first being that Candy, the brave and willing girl caught in the middle of all the hoopla, had not the faintest idea that her former beau, Joey, for whom she had been delivering the film strip, was a communist sympathizer, putting her in an even more awkward moral position upon learning of that truth. Then there is the fact that neither Candy nor Skip are even unaware at first of what is at stake, the girl oblivious to the fact that she had been carrying the coveted film strip in her purse and Skip clueless to the fact that said strip is in his possession when he steals it. That knowledge comes to him only once is he collared by the police, the latter who can only determine Skip as the target through the help of their contact Moe, who, for the right price, can provide the correct information they require much quicker than it would take to leaf through thousands of criminal profiles. This is not to argue that the heroes and villains are passive characters, for each side certainly does try to better its situation, only that the film plays on one of the quintessential noir themes, bad luck, to send both sides into a quagmire, not just the protagonists, which is the usual occurrence. The ironic result of Skip’s unwilling act of stealing government property is that it prevents it from falling into the wrong hands.
This being a Samuel Fuller film, it would seem appropriate to spare a few words on the picture’s violence and shock value. The director is at times terrifyingly unforgiving toward his characters, both male and female, but especially the latter. Seasoned viewers know they should expect moments of visceral confrontation, although director Fuller, true to form, takes an extra step to surprise the audience. Even by modern standards, the violence depicted on screen in Pickup is at times uncomfortably misogynistic, with the recipient of men’s ire being Candy nearly every time. In an early scene she is knocked straight out cold with one solid swing of Skip’s fists (after which Skip barely cares to notice her sprawled body for reversal minutes) and later on is hit and tossed around like a teddy bear in a living room by an increasingly stressed-out Joey. For obvious reasons, some familiarity with the director’s style as an auteur and the genre’s general stance on violence, namely that it embraces it, will help viewers come to terms with the occasional misogyny. That said, it is always healthy to lend a critical eye towards such directorial choices, however much they inject films with realistic grittiness and provide a window into the dark recesses Man’s violent mind.
Lending the film its uniquely bitter character are the performances of the three leads, Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter. Widmark, who played even his heroes with an angry streak Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets), is the personification of a scumbag in Pickup. Rude, insolent, a thief, physically violent, and owing allegiance to no one but himself, Skip is the least likely protagonist a film could have. Oddly enough, the label of the protagonist does fit given how the picture harps on how vital it is to foil the communists’ plans. Under any other circumstances, Skip would be nothing more than a social parasite, but when the fight against commies beckons, even crooks are begrudgingly seen as possible allies. Widmark is extremely energetic in the role, hamming up the character’s petulance at every opportunity. Jean Peters gives the trickiest performance of the bunch. Her character is supposed to be strong-willed, and is in some ways, only that the men of her life still push her around, both figuratively and literally, from the start of the picture to the final frame. While she exudes some attitude and confidence, overall the range feels curiously restricted. There is a portion of the story when Joey sends Candy to Skip’s dockside cabin with the intent of seducing Skip into relinquishing her purse. Later on, when Candy really does begin to fall for Skip, the performance is virtually identical. The uncertainty is in whether Jean Peters is excelling at playing someone pretending to fall in love or if her performance in the latter half when she is supposed to be in love is subpar. Hampering the role is the disappointingly slight motivation for her to fall for Skip and vice versa. The script is a major letdown in that respect. When Skip finally confronts Joey in the film’s climax his motivation is his love for Candy, not patriotism, yet the viewer has not been given enough evidence as to why they should be in love in the first place. Finally, Thelma Ritter plays Moe like a warm-up for her Rear Window role. Both are sassy and they each are filled with simple, cutesy, pseudo-moralizing bits of commentary they share with sardonic humor. The socio-economic circumstances of Moe make her the slightly grittier character of the two, however.
Pickup on South Street is arguably a more difficult film to get into precisely because there is no clear-cut character filling in as an audience surrogate. Everything about the central figures is drenched in grey: no one is entirely good and everyone has a bad side. In that regard, Pickup on South Street is a very dirty, grimy film with almost no layers of hope. While that factor may have partially led Pickup to be a less fondly remembered film, it nonetheless serves as a decent thriller.