Every Sunday (yeah, yeah, we’re late), Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week Old Ass Movies presents:
Pickup on South Street (1953)
Six years before Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, Sam Fuller tried to name one of his own films like that, but the studio told him the title was too “European”. Still there’s nothing “European” – the way the studio meant it – about Pickup on South Street, a harsh violent underworld romance set amidst Cold War paranoia that opens with a purse grifting scene comparable in every way to those of the posterior French masterpiece.
Two men in the subway watch a beautiful woman closely when a third guy approaches slowly but naturally. He flirts with his eyes as he opens his newspaper in front of her. Pretending to read, he then opens her purse and grabs her wallet just before the train reaches a stop. She’s obviously flattered and the two other guys are obviously worried. The very moment the train freezes, the grifter pushes the purse to close and walks out like a gentleman, fractions of a second before her “tails” are on to him. The technique is impeccable but it also serves as a signature, and we can suspect that our guy has probably signed on the wrong piece of paper.
The woman is Candy (Jean Peters), a sexy girl with no agenda, on her way to run an errand for her partner Joey (Richard Kiley), who’s supposedly in the industrial espionage business. She’s followed by two feds, who want to catch the guy at the other end of the delivery red-handed. But the goods are stolen by Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), a three time loser pickpocket, who faces a life sentence if he’s stuck with a fourth offense. The feds go to the local precinct where they ask Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) to cooperate with them in catching the small time crook who’s got his hands on a big time microfilm. It turns out that Joey doesn’t work for big business rivals but for the primary enemy, the communists, and the microfilm contains US state secrets. Tiger calls his “ear” on the streets, an old woman called Moe (Thelma Ritter), who sells cheap ties and information while raising the money to buy herself a nice hole in a decent graveyard. Moe identifies the technique and shows them the way to McCoy. Meanwhile, Joey sends Candy after the grifter also, to find the microfilm before trouble finds him…
Fuller’s story is very simple. A capable small timer gets, by chance, in the middle of a deal that’s part of a bigger league. Full of confidence as he is, he grabs the opportunity to play tough and make it big himself. But along the way a pretty girl, a cold blooded murder and a morality issue larger than “cops n’ thieves” throws him out of his original plan. Now he’s got to play smart also, resolve the situation, avenge a death and get the girl in one piece. In only 80 minutes of screen time, Sam Fuller gets too much plot from these simple ingredients and creates a complete cinematic experience totally enjoyable to this day. With excellent black and white photography, imaginative settings and fighting as close to the real thing as it gets in the movies. Plus some great dialogue, quotable and stylish.
In this seemingly improbable plot setting, his characters work like magic and interconnect beautifully to give a relatively believable result. Skip is the clever individualist that doesn’t give a shit for anybody but himself; Candy is the fragile street girl that searches for a cat to fall for and lean on; Joey is the sleazy traitor who feels that his time is coming; Moe is the streetwise veteran who survives in the margins between good and evil; and Dan Tiger the rough hotheaded copper who sees no further than erasing the smile off the overconfident grifter’s face. It’s a great set of characters played out by a great cast of actors.
Richard Widmark has the perfect grin and a face that makes him look capable for any kind of fight. He moves, flirts and converses with a self-confidence and an arrogance so obvious that makes him a borderline jerk. Jean Peters’s Candy, sexy and luscious as they come, falls for him at eye contact and after all, she seems like the kind of girl who falls for jerks often enough. Like Richard Kiley’s Joey, the kind of yellow, gutless jerk that nobody could ever like. He always seems to be sweating, and he reeks of self-loathing, misery and fear. They both have a chance to beat up the girl and they both do it, but in a very different way and context, and when they face off in the subway guess which jerk gets to have the last grin.
Thelma Ritter got an Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking depiction of Moe, a key female character who brings everybody together and gets sacrificed to pinpoint the glossy moral that lies on the surface. “Even in our crummy business you gotta draw the line somewhere,” she tells Skip when she learns he’s willing to get money from the commies. “You’re waving the flag too?” he tells her off like he did with the feds a few hours before. He’s not going for it, and Fuller uses his reluctance to serve the flag to undermine this general feeling of patriotic debt settlement. In another distinct moment of planted skepticism, Moe lets her feelings for the commies hang out for the traitor to hear, only a bit too honestly, this time for us to hear: “What do i know about commies? Nothing. I know one thing. I just don’t like ‘em.” Unobtrusive criticism embedded in the typical morality tale of “patriots vs. traitors”.
Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is a great showcase of entertaining filmmaking, along with excellent storyteling, original scriptwriting and credibly depicting unconventional people and situations. It leaves you without a doubt about it: good films are forever.