For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at Sam Fuller’s 1953 film noir, Pickup on South Street.
Pickup On South Street opens with Candy (Jean Peters) on a subway. In her purse, she’s carrying an envelope that’s been given to her by her boyfriend, the rather shady Joey (Richard Kiley). Candy is delivering the envelope to friends of Joey. What Candy doesn’t know is that Joey and his friends are communists and that the envelope contains top secret micro-film. She also doesn’t know that she’s being followed by both the FBI and Skip Martin (Richard Widmark), a professional pickpocket.
Skip picks Candy’s purse and, without realizing it, steals the microfilm that everyone wants. With the help of professional informant Moe (Thelma Ritter, a great character actress who gives a great performance here), both Candy and the police track down Skip and try to get him to return the microfilm. Skip, however, has figured out what he’s stolen and announces that he’ll give the microfilm to whichever group is the first to pay him $25,000. When the FBI make the mistake of trying to appeal to his patriotism, Skip merely smirks and asks, “Are you waving the flag at me?”
In his introduction to Sam Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, Martin Scorsese writes, “(I)f you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema.” Now, I really can’t say whether that’s true or not because, while I love cinema, I’ve only seen three of the films that Sam Fuller directed over the course of his long career: The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor, and now Pickup On South Street. However, I can say that I loved all three of those films. The Naked Kiss I loved because I happen to love old films that expose the secrets of small town America. As Arleigh can tell you, I fell in love with Shock Corridor the minute that the film’s hero said, “NYMPHOS!” As for Pickup On South Street, I love it because it’s truly a great film and one of the best B-movie ever made.
And make no mistake about it — Pickup On South Street is a B-movie, a melodramatic, wonderfully sordid, and terrifically entertaining B-movie. It’s a thriller that both embraces and subverts the conventions of the genre and, as a result, it tells a story that manages to be both over-the-top and subtle at the same time. By focusing on those on the margins of society, the Skips and the Moes of the world, Fuller also forces us to confront just how little the ideology of a government means to those of us who live on the margins of society.
This is certainly made clear by Thelma Ritter’s poignant performance as Moe, one of the weary inhabitants of the margins who has been reduced to just hoping that she’ll have enough money when she dies to be buried in a decent plot. One watches Pickup on South Street and realizes that, regardless of which side ultimately end up with the microfilm, people like Moe are still most likely going to end up getting buried in an pauper’s grave.
Watching Pickup On South Street, it’s easy to see why Martin Scorsese had such high praise for Fuller. Fuller’s camera literally never stops moving, nervously darting through the urban landscape and occasionally zooming in for a close-up of either a desperate face or Richard Widmark’s smirk. And make no doubt about it — Richard Widmark’s charming but infuriating smirk tells you everything that you need to know about both the character Skip McCoy and Pickup On South Street as a film. It’s a smirk that lets us know that both the character and the film are a lot more intelligent than they initially let on.
Pickup on South Street is a film that every lover of cinema must see. And, after you’ve seen it, why not get a copy of Fuller’s autobiography? It’s an interesting read.
Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia
- Executive Action
- Winter Kills
- Interview With The Assassin
- The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
- Beyond The Doors
- Three Days of the Condor
- They Saved Hitler’s Brain
- The Intruder
- Police, Adjective
- Burn After Reading
- Quiz Show
- Flying Blind
- God Told Me To
- Wag the Dog
- Scream and Scream Again
- Capricorn One
- Seven Days In May
- Broken City