PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET
Review by Michael Jacobson
Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley
Director: Samuel Fuller
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 80 Minutes
Release Date: February 17, 2004
you waving the flag at ME?”
Fuller was a great maverick director whose name doesn’t get spoken today as
much as it should. He was a crude
yet gifted artist, with a knack for telling stories, tapping emotions and
getting his own ideas across all in the span of 90 minutes to two hours worth of
engrossing screen entertainment. Because
of his singular vision, he went in his career from A list director to a B
filmmaker struggling to get his pictures made and seen. But
the clarity of his vision was never compromised by lack of interest or funds.
on South Street is a shining example of Fuller in his prime, when he still had studio
confidence, cash to play with, and a fearless, stubborn approach to what he
wanted to bring to the screen. This
1953 classic was film noir kicked up a notch:
like all movies in the genre, it was filled with shady characters, a
damsel in distress, and a bleak sense of morality, but when Fuller was at the
helm, the stakes became higher, the message more prevalent, and the sex appeal
first images of Jean Peters on the subway are among the most indelible in all of
noir for me. Before that time,
we’d seen the likes of Mary Astor, Ida Lupino, Lauren Bacall, Veronica Lake
and others, and they were all radiant and sexy in their own way, but
Peters…man. With that clinging
white dress that looks almost painted on, that smoldering gaze, and those New
York City summer beads of sweat glistening on her face, she was proof positive
that we’d only THOUGHT we’d seen it all.
plays Candy, a girl who falls victim to professional pickpocket Skip McCoy (Widmark).
Under her unsuspecting eyes (did I mention the smoldering gaze?), he
lifts her wallet. But what he does
turns out to be more than a petty crime…Candy was making a delivery of some
microfilm to her ex-boyfriend Joey (Kiley).
The film contains volatile chemical secrets that the Soviets want.
doesn’t have a clue what she was really doing, but Skip figures it out,
especially when the cops and Uncle Sam close in on him.
But there are no good guys in this picture, only intriguing protagonists.
Skip’s not interested in national security.
He figures he’s sitting on a goldmine, and whichever country wants the
secrets the most will compensate him plenty for his troubles.
Candy begins to realize the implications of her actions and fall for Skip at the
same time, the Communist agents are gathering like a Red storm.
Skip is confident and cocky, with no loyalties above the dollar, but as
we watch events unfold, we can’t help but think he’s getting in way over his
is a stylish slice of lurid pulp a la Fuller that tells a great story with
characters that fascinate us even if they don’t inspire us to like them.
The best in the bunch is Moe, played by the Oscar nominated Thelma
Ritter. She’s a paid informant
who often fingers Skip, who amusingly enough never holds a grudge.
Business is business, after all. Her
meager dream of getting enough money to be buried in a posh cemetery when she
dies is a little bemusing and heartbreaking at the same time.
Her scene with Joey is one of the most memorable and moving, as is
Skip’s final gesture toward her.
made this film during the peak of Cold War paranoia. The Korean War was underway, Communist spies were being
sniffed out in the State Department, the aftermath of the Alger Hiss hearings
was still causing bitter controversy, and worst of all, the Soviets had managed
to collect our nuclear secrets. Fuller’s
rapport with his lead character reflects his own dismissal of the Cold
War…though FBI head J. Edgar Hoover protested this film loudly and frequently,
Fuller had no problem creating a cynical character who was willing to sell out
his own country at a time when tensions were high.
politics aside, the fruit of Fuller’s passion is plain, as Pickup on South
Street offers 80 minutes of dynamite entertainment.
The story is taut and well paced, the characters move like pieces in a
fast game of street chess, and the camerawork and photography are first rate.
Fuller not only knows how to get the most out of his black and white noir
world, but he isn’t afraid to turn up the sex appeal with extreme close ups,
tight mouthed kissing or glistening sweat.
Did I mention how smoldering Jean Peters is in this film?
is definitely the work of an auteur, one who was in complete control of his
craft and pressed his personal stamp on every frame. Samuel Fuller’s passion sometimes served him well; at later
stages in his career, it made working difficult. But he left behind an important body of work that continues
to shape and influence young movie makers to this day.
is a striking black and white transfer from Criterion.
The print is clean and in good shape for a 50 year old film.
Whites are clean and clear, and blacks are deep without being murky or
grainy. The shadowy world in which
Fuller’s characters emerge and disappear is well represented, with clarity and
mono soundtrack is appropriate, with intelligible dialogue throughout, minimal
noise, and small amounts of dynamic range…no complaints.
disc contains a modern video interview with Samuel Fuller made by critic Richard
Schickel, plus an excerpt from the French program Cinema Cinemas featuring
Fuller discussing Pickup. There
is an illustrated biographical essay on fuller, plus written reflections by star
Richard Widmark. Also included are
trailers for eight Fuller films and galleries for his posters, illustrations,
lobby cards and photos. Rounding
out is a booklet featuring essays by Martin Scorsese and Fuller himself…the
latter I was a bit disappointed in, because he belittles those who give their
lives for their countries and actually defends Alger Hiss, the most notorious
traitor of the Cold War era. But
his other reflections are worthwhile.