Sam Fuller turns from combat in Korea to cat ‘n mouse games in New York City, with America’s stand-up defenders being exactly one low-life pickpocket and one saucy woman of the sidewalks. Richard Widmark is a charming chiseler with a wicked grin, Jean Peters is the hot number who takes a knockdown as a love pat, and Thelma Ritter steals the show as a wholly endearing snitch trying to earn money for a nice burial plot. But Fuller’s directorial powers are going full tilt, with scenes of cinematic power to match any ‘auteur’ — you’ll be mesmerized by a sordid subway encounter that could be rated X for basic erotic chemistry.
Pickup on South Street
The Criterion Collection 224
1953 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 80 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date June 29, 2021 / 39.95
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Milburn Stone, Vic Perry, Alan Reed, George E. Stone.
Cinematography: Joe Macdonald
Art Directors: Lyle Wheeler, George Patrick
Film Editor: Nick De Maggio
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Story by Dwight Taylor
Produced by Jules Schermer
Written and Directed by Samuel Fuller
“Pickup for the most part falls flat on its face and at times even borders on unfunny and presumably unintended comedy. The fault lies as much with Samuel Fuller’s screenplay, which forces a ludicrous characterization on the otherwise capable Richard Widmark, as it does with Jean Peters’ thesping, which proves that looks aren’t always a substitute for ability.”
Boy, reviewers were rough on Samuel Fuller — not enough of them were hip to his ‘cinema fist’ storytelling style. I have never attended a screening of Pickup on South Street where the audience didn’t laugh, but they were laughing with Sam Fuller’s comic-book audaciousness, not at it. A Fuller picture hits like a tabloid headline, with subtleties left on the editing room floor. This great old film has never been a mainstream ‘classic,’ and it wasn’t classy enough to be showcased on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies broadcasts that started in 1961. But it can still fill a revival house with crowds that eat up its gutsy filmmaking and pulpy dialogue, tough-guy action and Runyonesque sentimentality.
It’s easy now to find praise of Sam Fuller in print – everyone loves at least some of his pictures. Pickup on South Street is maybe his best film from his ‘swank’ period, the five years at Fox when Darryl Zanuck backed his pictures with solid studio resources and let Sam make them his own way. Showing his characteristic zeal for gritty underworld subjects, Fuller turns a trifling crisis over a piece of wayward microfilm into one of the best of the Cold War commie scare films. If Pickup is noir, it’s definitely comic-book noir: we take its conflicts and passions seriously even when the characters seem like stereotypes of stereotypes.
Pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is the least likely U.S. citizen to cooperate when cops and federal agents come calling about a particular purse he’s rifled — one that contained math formulas coveted by a foreign government. The purse belongs to the frisky urban looker Candy (Jean Peters), a hot number in anybody’s book. Candy carried the microfilm unknowingly for her boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) a craven traitor running errands for a cell of ruthless Stalinists. To locate Skip, everybody ends up going through the underworld snitch Moe Williamson (Thelma Ritter), an elderly but resilient street vendor. A four-way tangle of interests escalates the danger. Candy tries to convince Skip that she can be trusted. The Feds and the Cops try to secure cooperation, but Skip is convinced that their patriotism pitch is a trick by Police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) to put him away as a three-time loser. Skip is all ready to make a big sale to the Reds, until he learns how far Moe stuck her neck out for him. Will the loyalty of two women make Skip change his mind? What does it take to turn an apolitical scofflaw into a national hero?
Sam Fuller’s second assignment for Fox shows the director at his best — working in B&W with great studio craftsmen on a story perfectly suited to his strengths. Populated with characters that seem to have jumped from the lurid covers of detective fiction, Pickup on South Street has Fuller’s over-the-top brand of direct, aggressive dialogue that’s too stylized to be real and too adult for cartoon dialogue balloons:
“What’s the matter with you, Skip, playin’ footsies with the Commies?”
“You can do it Candy. You know the score. You’ve knocked around.”
“Aw, everybody loves everybody when they’re kissin’…”
Plenty has been written about Fuller’s first-person experience with New York life in the 1920s and 1930s, which included working as a crime reporter for a tabloid newspaper at a very young age. Fuller’s characters are broad and base but immediately likable: the petty sidewalk criminal Skip, Moe’s frail-but-tough necktie hawker and professional snitch, and the ‘bad girl’ with a heart of gold. We spend most of our time with Jean Peters’ luscious Candy, a woman who oozes sex, toughness and vulnerability in equal doses. Fuller’s best choker close-ups come in the saxophone-driven love scenes. Candy and Skip’s relationship develops as a series of punches, knockdowns and sweaty kisses that would be the envy of Mike Hammer or James Bond. The brassy love theme accompaniment was lifted from Fox picture of a few years before, Jean Negulesco’s Road House.
This has to be the best New York picture ever shot in West Los Angeles. The studio’s economizing is well disguised. Pickup is set on the streets of New York, an illusion cleverly fabricated on Fox sound stages, even the large set for a Manhattan subway station. Second-unit footage filmed in NYC cuts well with shots taken in downtown L.A.. Note that none of the mid-Manhattan buildings appear to be over five stories tall. Pete’s low-rent playhouse-shack on the wharf is really in the Fox studio’s tank — in at least one shot we can see the tank’s edge peeking into the upper left corner of the frame. Since this is 1953 and Skip lives right under the Brooklyn bridge, he should have had a front row seat for a real spectacle that came out of the East River just one month later.
Thelma Ritter’s vintage phonograph plays a vocal of the the tune Mamselle composed for yet another Fox show, The Razor’s Edge. Fox happily drops its overused Street Scene theme for a more vibrant & urgent Leigh Harline composition.
The bravura direction on view makes questions of production economizing irrelevant. An opening pickpocket scene is a masterpiece of graphic impact and montage that insinuates sexual associations: Skip’s cool insolence, Candy’s open-mouthed sensuality, the unavoidable suggestion of rape when his pickpocket fingers invade her purse. In this instance Fuller’s storytelling was plugged into 100% genuine cinema: European stylists fell over themselves praising the pickpocket set piece.
Skip McCoy must be the kind of Yankee Rick Blaine was talking about when he advised Colonel Strasser not to bring his Nazis into certain New York neighborhoods.
Fuller’s clever story approaches its ‘wave the flag’ theme from an odd angle: Commies are bad not because the government says so, but because we know it in our gut. Moe is constitutionally opposed to ‘Commies’ without even knowing what they’re about, and Fuller condones her attitude with no ifs attached. The story keeps Skip at a remove from the Red villains, suave fools that underestimate the resourcefulness of American criminal scum. For Fuller, a crook is a guy who knows the ropes, who looks out for number one at all times and isn’t about to be done in by pantywaist amateurs who call themselves spies. Skip respects Moe’s racket, even when she turns him in:
“Aw, Moe’s alright. She’s gotta make a living too.”
But Skip reacts out of personal commitment, not ideology. The lower rung of crookdom is well aware of the hypocrisy at the higher echelons, and the G-Man’s pleas for patriotism fall on deaf ears. The small miracle of Fuller’s script is that when he decides to let Skip go soft and exact retribution for Candy’s sake, we’re on his side.
When Fuller does let loose we get a small-scale storm of violence. Fuller’s camera crane orchestrates a one-take punch-out in Candy’s apartment. Fuller’s camera lurches back to record Richard Kiley literally cleaning house with Jean Peters’ body. Jean Peters must have been into it too because she allows herself to be slammed willy-nilly into furniture and lamps and whatever happens to be in the way, like a rag doll. We know it’s her, and she does it better than any stunt woman would.
For a climax, Skip gets the drop on two Red operatives in a subway restroom, and starts throwing punches. Audiences cheer when Kiley’s Joey realizes his pistol has been lifted, right out of his jacket pocket. The donnybrook transforms a subway platform into a battleground for the free world, and we get to cheer on the mayhem. Fuller’s expressive camera doesn’t hold back but rubs our face in the violence — when skip grabs Joey by the feet and drags him down some concrete stairs, Richard Kiley’s stuntman gets his nose hammered by each step, machine-gun style.
Richard Widmark turns his signature chortling laugh into an emblem for a rather seedy good guy. Jean Peters pouts, nurses her bruises and pulls us along with her when she falls for Skip, mainly because we want her to fall for us. Richard Kiley sweats up a storm in the thankless role — he’s pretty funny when cranking himself downward in a dumb waiter shaft, like Wile E. Coyote running out of options. The wonderful (and Oscar nominated) Thelma Ritter convinces us that she’s a match for crooks even as she wilts in the Summer heat. Murvyn Vye’s pushy police Captain would be a good fit in a Damon Runyon story. Willis Bouchey and Milburn Stone are the G-Men, dedicated Dans without a humorous bone between them. All is well with the world.
Apparently J. Edgar Hoover didn’t agree. As best recounted in J. Hoberman’s book Army of Phantoms, the F.B.I. chief demanded that Darryl Zanuck and Sam Fuller (who had already riled up the Army brass with his The Steel Helmet) do something to change Pickup to eliminate Skip McCoy’s anti-government, anti-F.B.I. sass. Few people knew how Darryl Zanuck stuck to his guns. Hollywood had been kissing Hoover’s feet for almost twenty years, making movies that treated G-Men with more reverence than that afforded Nuns. But the studio boss knew that Hoover’s demand was a bluff, and the movie stayed as it was.
What doesn’t get told as often is the probability that Hoover’s mission wasn’t completely thwarted. Fox removed planned advertising tag lines that referenced the agency: “…When the F.B.I. took a chance on a B-girl and won!” Export versions of Pickup were heavily censored to remove the Cold War context and the snide remarks about ‘waving the flag,’ etc.. In key foreign markets, dubbing changes and inserts replaced the ‘top secret microfilm’ with something to do with drugs. This public relations ‘American image’ BS was imposed so as to not feed ammunition to Soviet propagandists; it’s why congressmen and right-wing diplomats wanted to withhold pictures like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause from export overseas.
Although Samuel Fuller’s patriotic heroes were unabashed stereotypes, they were the kind of Americans Hoover should have appreciated — guys that do the right thing by deciding for themselves what’s wrong or right. Pickup holds audiences much better than the more laughably insulting Anti-Commie epics: The Red Menace, The Woman on Pier 13, I Was a Communist for the FBI. Fuller has a robust, individual and rather peculiar definition of Good Americanism. In Fuller the individuals that fight the hardest for their country are the ones least likely to benefit from the effort. Righteous fervor comes from the bottom up. Stiff-necked, aggressive self-interest may be the American Way, but these citizens recognize what’s wrong and what’s right and aren’t afraid to fight over it. Sam Fuller was a genuine patriot, even if it sounds like some of his heroes could be easily politicized into taking extremist positions.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Pickup on South Street is a dazzler. The Blu-ray sports a new 4K digital restoration, with the expected uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The presentation makes the same impact as the Fox studio prints that screened frequently at UCLA in the early ’70s. I note that, with 20th Fox’s resources, director Fuller was able to shoot full coverage for his scenes. Later on, in his thinly financed Globe Enterprises films, he’d shoot entire dialogue exchanges in just one angle, so that when he needed to shorten a scene, drop a bit of dialogue or whatever, he had no cutaways. He’d then have an optical house enlarge the shot, with an optical push-in. That created a cut-able piece of film but the quality dropped considerably. Frankly, such scenes in China Gate and The Crimson Kimono look like poor planning, a sloppy fix. Here in Pickup the visual flow is uninterrupted. The choker close-ups are as impressive as his cinematic pickpocket opening and the bravura action scenes.
The extras here are choice. The newest item is Imogen Sara Smith’s analytical video lecture, an assured track of well-considered fact and opinion. The older extras begin with a late-career Fuller interview by Richard Schickel, from the early ’90s. Fuller is only slightly less animated there than he is in an interview for a French documentary shot ten years earlier. In both he’s aggressive, opinionated, cocksure and snappy. He’s more than happy to recount his and Darryl Zanuck’s verbal sparring match against J. Edgar Hoover: “I was there. I was in the room,” Fuller asserts happily. We also get a radio adaptation with Thelma Ritter.
I don’t purchase the DVD versions of Criterion discs but I think that in most cases they’re identical to the Blu-rays in content and transfer source. The new DVD for this title appears to be a repressing of the 2004 disc. It doesn’t have the new 4K scan; the extras don’t include the new items, but do carry some items not on the Blu-ray, like an extensive Sam Fuller trailer reel.
There was no substitute for the experience of seeing Samuel Fuller in person. I saw him for a full day on the set of 1941, as the general in charge of interceptor command. Was Fuller’s voice so raspy because he smoked cigars? His role was just a one-day bit but his gruff authority gave the panic of the fake air raids over Los Angeles just the right kick-off. With inconclusive data coming from all sides, Fuller overrides his experts: “The hell with confirmation, they’re JAPS. Go to Condition Red! Condition Red for Los Angeles!” And the sirens start to wail. Perrrrfect casting.
I was impressed with 20th Century Fox’s seasonal promotion ads, which I believe are included on the DVD version. There next to Pickup on South Street, coming out in Spring, are Robert Wise’s Destination Gobi and the independent Edward Alperson pickup feature Invaders from Mars. Those must have been fun days at the movies. Not long after, Fox would surely be touting an all-CinemaScope menu of features, with maybe one or two 3-D attractions in the mix.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Pickup on South Street
Supplements: New interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City (Blu-ray only); Samuel Fuller interview from 1989 conducted by Richard Schickel; Cinéma cinémas: Fuller, a 1982 French television program with the director; 1954 radio presentation with Thelma Ritter, trailers. Insert booklet with essays by Luc Sante and Martin Scorsese, plus a chapter from Fuller’s 2002 autobiography.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 28, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson