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PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley
Director:  Samuel Fuller
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  80 Minutes
Release Date:  February 17, 2004

“Are you waving the flag at ME?”

Film ***1/2

Samuel 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.

Pickup 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 steamier.

The 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.

She 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. 

Candy 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.

As 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 head.

This 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.

Fuller 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.

But 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?

This 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.

Video ***1/2

This 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 integrity.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is appropriate, with intelligible dialogue throughout, minimal noise, and small amounts of dynamic range…no complaints.

Features ***

The 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.

Summary:

I’ve been hoping for some time now that Criterion would release more classic works from Samuel Fuller on DVD to join The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor.  Now, they’ve added a true classic to the catalog.  Pickup on South Street is pulp matter served up in a noir style that both tells an entertaining story and expresses its director’s personal vision unashamedly at the same time.  Recommended.