By Scott Ross
Few filmmakers reveal the general paucity of critical ideas and vocabulary more than Samuel Fuller — or inspire more overuse of verbal cliché. Scan nearly any positive piece on Fuller’s movies and, however laudatory the perspective, the words “crude” and “blunt” are virtually guaranteed to appear, sooner rather than later. The irony could not be more stark, or risible: That a man whose work so assiduously avoided cliché should find his adherents so giddily besotted with it.
What, on an admittedly limited viewing basis, seems perfectly obvious to me about Sam Fuller was an integrity, almost singular among his colleagues, whose hallmark is originality. As a former tabloid journalist (at 17, the youngest crime reporter in the country) and a survivor of a series of devastating battles during World War II, Fuller understood to his bones the importance of grabbing the reader from the first sentence. Or, to put it in cinematic terms, as a writer/director, of engaging the viewer from the opening frames. Why, then, is his very avoidance of the obvious, his refusal to resort to rote exposition, a cudgel with which to limit him? His acolytes mean it as a tribute when they burble about Fuller’s bluntness.* Perhaps it says more about them than about him, but such by-the-numbers critical verbiage may scare off more readers than it invites. It certainly helped put me off Fuller, for far too long.
In Pickup on South Street, Fuller begins his narrative with a beautifully staged, virtually wordless sequence in a New York subway car. Without resort to boring dialogue or explicit voice-over, he presents a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) plying his trade in his natural milieu. I know of no other movie of the period that gets the details so right: The way habitual underground passengers stare at nothing to avoid eye contact, leaving themselves open, as Jean Peters does here, to larceny by men they resolutely refuse to let into their self-consciously narrowed viewpoint. (Not incidentally, Fuller was virtually alone in depicting his New York as integrated; while no black characters of note appear in the movie, black extras dot the streets and subways liberally… just as they did in life. Gee. Fancy that. There’s a difference right there: Almost any white filmmaker of the time would have needed his deficiency in this area pointed out by a third party; Fuller wouldn’t have thought any other way.)†
Only once Widmark’s Skip has left the train with his swag does Fuller let us in on the set-up: Peters’ Candy is being tailed by a pair of FBI agents and what Skip has absconded with are the microfilmed secrets she was (unwittingly, as it turns out) carrying. Billy Wilder, another of the era’s important writer/directors, would call this The Wienie; Hitchcock, The MacGuffin. It’s also known as The Hook — that central, irresistible (if sometimes mystifying) conflict that drives an entire picture. If this is “bluntness,” I’ll take it, and like it.
In Fuller’s world, the details that accrete to the story support, and enrich, it. Skip’s waterfront shack, perfectly limned by the movie’s art director, Lyle Wheeler (and its cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald) provides the requisite darkness the plot demands and a splendid curlicue: The winch and pulley system Skip rigs both to keep his beer cooled in the river and to hide the loot, protected by oilcloth, he’s pocketed. It’s the single, obvious, place no one — not Peters, the cops, or the Communist agents who are soon on Skips’ trail — ever thinks to search.
For Fuller, those “Commies,” as they’re often referred to, are not, as in every other movie of the period that depicts them, the point. Candy’s one-time paramour Joey (a very young, and very effective, Richard Kiley) would sell anything to anyone. He’s an agent, motivated not by ideology but by cash… like Skip, and like Moe (Thelma Ritter) the professional stool pigeon whose informing on him Skip not only doesn’t resent, but accepts. The T-men push Skip with the usual, pat patriotic line, to which he refreshingly responds, “Are you waving the flag at me?” (A response J. Edgar Hoover personally took the expected exception to but which, to his credit, Fox production chief Darryl Zanuck refused to make Fuller edit out.)
The movie’s love-match begins with the man slugging the woman on the jaw, progresses to brittle comradeship, nearly founders on the rocks of mutual disgust, and finally blossoms through a brutal beating and attempted murder. Fuller’s startling approach to his material doesn’t end with his disdain of knee-jerk patriotism; his heart is with the petty thief, the stained B-girl and the decrepit stoolie. If there is honor in Pickup on South Street, then, it’s exclusively among thieves.
In a taut, 80-minute running time, Fuller somewhat miraculously finds the leisure to stage what, to my mind, is the single most moving sequence of the period: The resigned death of Moe. We tend to think of Thelma Ritter as the era’s quintessential all-purpose comedian, the wisecracking side-kick whose only coeval is the equally witty but somehow more patrician Eve Arden: As the mordant Sadie Dugan of A Letter to Three Wives, the acerbic Birdie of All About Eve, the philosophical Stella of Rear Window. But despite her six Oscar® nominations — that she never won the award says a great deal about that tarnished icon — we don’t necessarily remember her as an actor. Seeing her final, quietly anguished, scene in Pickup on South Street will dispel that misapprehension in your mind forever. The tearful but never maudlin resilience with which she accepts her imminent murder, the tremble of her chin, and the despairing resignation of her final words (“Mister, I’m so tired you’d be doing me a favor if you blew my head off.”) are profoundly, disturbingly, almost unbearably poignant.
While hack critics and auteurists (and that’s most of them, it would seem) reach for the hoary word “blunt” to describe a movie this visceral and artistically fresh, is it just possible that “honest” is a more appropriate alternative?
*A modest proposal: Are they confusing the man, with his ever-present stogie and emphatic, idiosyncratic proclamations, with his work?
†One suspects the omission of black extras, except as maids and shoeshine boys, was simply an ingrained habit of the time at the studios. Someone in the head office, seeing black faces in the background, might have at one time said, “Hey — Americans don’t wanna see those people on the screen” and it would have become, like L.B. Mayer’s fetish over reflective floor surfaces, company policy, un-articulated and simply second-nature to everyone who worked there.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross