Pickup on South Street (1953)

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By Scott Ross

Few filmmakers reveal the paucity of critical ideas and vocabulary more than Samuel Fuller—or inspire more overuse of verbal cliché. Scan nearly any piece on Fuller’s movies and, however laudatory the perspective, the word “blunt” is 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.

Sam Fuller, with typical cigar, around the time of "Pickup on South Street."

Sam Fuller, with typical cigar, around the time of “Pickup on South Street.”

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 cinema terms, as a writer/director, of engaging the viewer from the opening scene. 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. (A modest proposal: Are they confusing the man, with his ever-present stogie and emphatic, idiosyncratic proclamations, with his work?) 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 put me off Fuller, for far too long.

Richard Widmark rifles through Jean Peters' purse under her very nose in the masterful opening sequence of "Pickup on South Street."

Richard Widmark rifles through Jean Peters’ purse under her very nose in the masterful opening sequence of “Pickup on South Street.”

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 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.)

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, the era’s other important writer/director, 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.

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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 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 look.

The rather unsavory Captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye) with Skip, his perennial bete noir.

The rather unsavory Captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye) with Skip, his perennial bete noir.

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 does not resent. The T-men push Skip with the usual, pat patriotic line, to which he refreshingly responds, “Are you waving the flag at me?” (A line J. Edgar Hoover personally took the expected exception to but which, to his credit, Fox production chief Darryl Zanuck refused to edit out.)

Skip and Moe, the movie's tattered mother figure whose informing sets up a deadly chain of events but whose motives the pickpocket doesn't so much forgive as shrug off.

Skip and Moe, the movie’s tattered mother figure whose informing sets up a deadly chain of events but whose motives the pickpocket doesn’t so much forgive as shrug off.

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 only among thieves.

An unlikely pairing: Candy and Skip share a rare moment of tenderness. Two cynics who find common ground.

An unlikely pairing: Candy and Skip share a rare moment of tenderness. Two cynics who find common ground.

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 Eve Arden: As the mordant Sadie Dugan of A Letter to Three Wives, as the acerbic Birdie of All About Eve, as 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.

Moe confronts Joey in the movie's most deeply affecting scene.

Moe confronts Joey in the movie’s most deeply affecting scene. Donna Reed’s win over Thelma Ritter at the following year’s Academy Awards is beyond dismaying.

When hack critics and auteurists (and that’s most of them, it would seem) reach for the hoary word “blunt” to describe a movie that visceral and artistically fresh, is it just possible that “honest” is a more appropriate alternative?

Whatever the tag-line says, it's not the law that wins in the end.

Whatever the tag-line says, it’s not the law that wins in the end.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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