Pickup on South Street

(USA - 1953)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley
Genre: Film-Noir
Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller based on the story by Dwight Taylor
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Composer: Leigh Harline
Runtime: 80 minutes

"What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I know one thing, I just don't like them!" - Moe Williams

Moe (Thelma Ritter) is the character that has seen it all, knows it all, and understands it all. That is, except for communism. Making her living for who knows maybe 50 years selling cheap gaudy ties on the street as a front for selling information, her job is to find it out and figure it out so she can hit paydirt. She can't observe everything, so she has to take the word of reliable sources, like the government theoretically is. It was never important for her to know about communism before - no one was paying for that kind of information - so she never took the time to find out about it. But the reasons are unimportant, the common result is.

Part of the brilliance of Samuel Fuller is his controversial films (or maybe I should just say his body of work) appeared to be supporting one stance when they were actually opposing it. This often got him into some sort of trouble, with his final American film White Dog being shelved for many years (it finally got the most minor of releases) because it was supposedly a racist film, or as Quentin Tarantino so eloquently put it "Because Paramount lost their balls". Here, it got him branded a communist. What making films in this style does though is greatly increase their viability, especially long term. Things like war, government deception, and racism never go away, but the situations change enough that any homily is going to have limited shelf after say 10 years. Fuller doesn't preach about the problems though, he puts them in your face from the point of view of the various people that are involved and affected, and hopes you also don't like what you see. Thus, his film about the red scare is more useful today than it has been in a while, now that the towelhead scare has filled that "void" in American's fears and paranoid delusions.

On the surface, Pickup on South Street appears to be more anti-Communist propaganda. It's an espionage film where a pickpocket, prostitute, and stoolie wind up caught in the middle of the FBI's attempt to stop the communists from attaining a microfilm with important government secrets. Despite being dishonest lawbreakers, the two latter draw the line with communism and the thrust of the narrative is everyone but the Commies trying to convince the former, who is in possession of the film, to conform to that line by putting his country above his own personal gain. Actually, using crooks is what makes the story work so well because in a way they are people that don't believe in America, and certainly they are the last people you'd expect to sacrifice personal gain for a greater purpose. It shows the red scare is so deeply imbedded that even these people draw the line, and it makes you wonder if they'd have more respect for the law if that kind of effort was placed elsewhere.

The communists are the clear bad guys, with the main one growing more and more over the edge (in less than believable fashion with constant sweating) to the point of inhumanity after his cohorts make it clear that failure is not an option. However, like most Fuller films, Pickup is actually about The American Lie. It's a film that subtly looks at what we believe we know about the "enemy" and why we act as we do when they are involved. It does make the communists look bad, but it also takes our governments ideas and practices and presents them in a way that looks shady, too. Basically, it shows people believe what the government wants them to not because they've examined the issue in the least, but because they are too lazy to look into it or feel their government knows best and wouldn't deceive them. The most famous line in the film, "Are you waving the flag at me?" shows the pressure to conform that comes from all sides.

This point couldn't be truer today. Sure, the communist threat, which powered by The Domino Theory caused America to constantly meddle in other countries business if not wars, and led to their support of just about any leader that wasn't communist even if they had essentially no other redeeming factors, is long gone. Now, it's been replaced by the "War on Terror", which somehow quickly turned into the war for oil (again) and Bush pride, I mean the a war on Iraq. I'm not sure why (other than the Iraq=terrorist nonsense and the Bush family and their cohorts having unresolved issues with that country), are you? I do notice that the media (which seems more and more like an extension of Bush's public relations department) and public that you hear about (it's only "newsworthy" if a celebrity is against the war since that ties in with the entertainment aspect of the media and helps sell papers/get ratings) has accepted it as a necessity and inevitability even though no such proof has (or likely ever will be) been presented.

Perhaps the war on terror has been put on the backburner (it comes up when it's a convenient justification) because - like every Vietnam type war where you go into another country with little to no idea of your enemies from your friends - it can't be won, while war on Iraq should be nothing more than a routine flexing of American muscle. I mean, what hope is there to go head on with randomly hidden underground fanatics whose belief is more important than their own lives, especially when every country has them and it's impossible to identify them all much less stop them all before they act. In the US it would be easier because we wouldn't have to deal with other countries governments and laws, but like any other criminal act one can only hope to keep it to a minimum. When I think of the "war of terror", I picture a scene from Spaceballs except it's Bush and his cabinet combing the desert.

Perhaps the stupidest thing about the "war on terror" is it plays right into the terrorist's hands. A terrorist is someone that wants to scare and intimidate you, so they are winning if they are on your mind. Instead of teaching us to see anyone of with brown skin as a threat and reassuring us through some misguided revenge plot, it would be better if the government quietly did as much as they could to prevent future acts of terrorism while publicly they mainly focused on safety. I don't mean safety from terrorists specifically because not only is there no real need to single them out, the odds of something else causing a problem for you are so much greater, and in the end all that matters is your getting out of danger unscathed.

Safety is about being aware of your surroundings so you know what you can do and where you can go should a threat arise, regardless of what that threat is from and whether it's intentional. People always think about self defense when you talk about safety, probably because it's what our entertainment promotes, but small seemingly unimportant things like knowing where an exit is or whether there's a car in the next lane can save your life. Obviously those are basic examples, but there are plenty of things one wouldn't know or would never think of that could be taught/demonstrated, but like seemingly everything else worthwhile you have to seek the information out. Anyway, I don't want to turn this review into a political spiel, but it's frustrating when your government doesn't seem to realize America is a member of the global community. It's annoying when you have idiots on the radio talking as if they were really funny about how we should bomb the French too because they are against a war. And it's downright scary that McCarthy-esque tactics are back on the rise, including this potential blacklisting that would prevent people deemed risks from flying.

Though Fuller's films address issues he's very concerned with, they are always highly entertaining. Fuller suggests, "If the first scene doesn't give you a hard on, throw the damn script away!" Pickup opens with a classic no dialogue scene on a crowded subway - the kind you are certain Brian De Palma was inspired by - where Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) makes his way over to Candy (Jean Peters) seemingly to flirt with her, but actually to lift what he expects will be a wallet full of dough. Unlike most films, the scene is highly believable because Fuller, a former crime reporter, concentrates on the technique, intricacies, and timing of the theft. The film, which has a second great pickpocket scene toward the end, was going to be named just that, but the studio (Fox) decide that was too European, you know with all those French films using English names rather than something starting with L', La, or Les, though ironically Robert Bresson used the name Pickpocket six years later. This establishment of technique is what makes the story work because the stoolie Moe knows every cannon by it, rather than her magically being always right through the usual broad non-defining descriptions like tall and skinny with dark hair.

This is one of Fuller's most mainstream pictures, but he still doesn't telegraph the events or spell them out. Instead, he lets the events play out and fills some details in later through conversations between characters that seem natural rather than existing solely to advance the plot. You can understand the kind of person Skip is - his outlook, mindset and generally how he operates - just through a few things he tells Candy. For instance, "I've been tapped three times. That's part of the business, red side of the ledger" and "I gotta believe nobody. I'll do business with a red, but I don't have to believe one."

Fuller's method of storytelling is apparent immediately when the FBI agent doesn't know what happened. He tries to follow Skip, but the subway door shuts in his face, so he keeps following Candy. It's not until Candy is distraught because she can't find her purse that the agent knows it wound up in unintended hands.

The way law enforcement operates is shown more broadly than the criminals game, and in less obvious ways. At one point an agent emerges out of the dark to clear Skip of a murder rap. It makes the agency look good, but what you can't help but noticing is that it's not only communists that are everywhere, federal workers are lurking and spying too. The film probably doesn't show anything people didn't know existed at the time, but it's more realistic because it actually showed negative aspects of law enforcers without it being for the sole purpose of making us root for the bad guy. There's a scene where Skip is brought in by two cops he's on a first name basis with because he's been in trouble so much, and he gives them both beers, allowing one to stay at his flat until he's drank his fill as long as he promises to put the beer back in cold storage (Skip is hiding out on the pier, so he lowers a cart into the river).

Probably the most memorable scene is when Candy comes back to her ex-boyfriend Joey's (Richard Kiley) to tell him Skip's demands. Being a whore and delivery girl, Candy has no problem doing things that are illegal and knows Joey is the same. The thing is she knows Joey really well, and though she doesn't always like what she sees and is glad to be getting away from him after this last delivery, she is sure she knows him well enough to know he's not a communist. She starts rambling on to Joey and two of his friends she figures are the ones Joey had her deliver it for, telling them how crazy it is that Skip wants $25,000 for that film. Totally offended and looking for some sympathy, she goes on, "He said I was a Commie! Alright, he wants to shake us down, but to start calling us Commies!" It's just classic because Joey and the others don't say a word, and Candy totally changes because she realizes why. This scene gives the film a lot of balance, I'm sure some would argue too much. I think it's purpose is more to show that so many people are involved one way or the other, but it could be used as a justification for the red hunting since closeness doesn't mean you know if people are involved and if so what side they are on. In any case, Candy's character probably doesn't work without this scene.

Her character doesn't fully work with it because Fuller's vision of falling in love is too romanticized. Fuller's films always seem more accurate, except when it comes to the love story part because he tends to go for that out of the romance paperback stuff. You know, two people from opposite sides (opposing businesses, different sides of the war, different races, etc.) fall in love immediately and put that above everything else that stands in their way. In some cases, like this and his otherwise masterful Park Row, the woman goes head over heels right off the bat and then spends much of the rest of the film trying to show/convince the man why he should do the same. His romances are of course darker, with the man starting as a user like Skip here and Tolly Devlin in Underworld, U.S.A. He wants to show that love can break down all barriers, relegate all differences meaningless. The thing is he's packing so much into such short films that he rushes it.

Fuller's only made one film longer than 1:45, The Big Red One, which barely made it since the studio butchered it by cutting around 40%. Pickup is a brisk, tight 80 minutes. It still develops and gives dimension to 3-4 characters, unlike today's Hollywood films that run twice as long but only try to do so with one, and usually don't even get that right. One way I can see Fuller's brilliance is just in looking at how much I've written here and thinking about how little I actually covered. One thing his newspaper days taught him is how to eliminate all the fat and just put out what is important.

Tarantino is a great admirer of Fuller, and I'd bet Skip is at worst one of his favorite Fuller characters. He's the intelligent, witty, wise guy, hero-villain that Tarantino always presents. Widmark, a highly underrated actor with a trademark contemptuous smirk, is perfect as the cop mocking Skip. One of the things that impresses me so much about his acting and Fuller's filmmaking is how Skip credibly changes emotions at the drop of a dime. He says, "I play everything smart" but he's also got this streak of bragging arrogance in him that can't wait to rear it's head, and always does the second he's got what he needed from someone.

The other standout performance is from Thelma Ritter, who got the films only nod from the Academy Mafia. Of course, she lost best supporting actress because they found a totally unbelievable prostitute (when they are believable they almost never get nominated because the film and their performance are too hard hitting and realistic like Jennifer Jason Leigh in Last Exit to Brooklyn, or on rare occasion like Elisabeth Shue they lose to a worse performance) to bestow, in this case Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity. Moe's purpose is to be the link between the law and the crooks, and to explain everyone's actions from their perspective. In a current Hollywood film, she might not even have any other scenes, but Fuller makes her the character you feel for the most by giving her the side story of being at the end of the line and just going on so she could afford a burial (she has no family, no one to claim her). Her justification of her own high fees is the kind of great line few filmmakers other than Fuller have given us, "I have to go on making a living so I can die."

In a way, it's odd that this is one of Fuller's best films because he's not unleashed. Though he had a lot of freedom working in the studio system because his budgets were so small and his films would make a profit (he'd lose his share on his independent pictures), this certainly wasn't a case where he was "over the top" and throwing all his "crazy" ideas out there. It's a stylish fast-paced film-noir that interrelates and entangles the characters the characters, has interesting characters and smart smile inducing dialogue, and fits of emotional violence. It's got a strong message, but it's not as dominated by it, which as a whole is probably not a positive given what Fuller can do when it is, but the other aspects the film are more successful than usual.

I say the violence is emotional because even when the blows look worked, it still has a kind of realism. What comes from the inside, the instinct and the rage, seems genuine. This is an aspect of Fuller that has particularly influenced Martin Scorsese. Not just in the violence, but as a whole he's spoken of the emotional truth in Fuller's work, how even as a young boy he knew in his soul that it was the real thing. The scene where it was the most evident is when Joey explodes and roughs up Candy. The struggle looks like it comes from someone who has seen them before (I don't know if that's the case, but what Fuller cared about was the feeling of the experience so he didn't trust second hand information and as much as possible constructed his films out of things he'd been through) and it's the kind of struggle you never saw in those days (though made possible by A Streetcar Named Desire).

Like most Fuller films, Pickup on South Street was way ahead of its time in many ways, primarily it's more realistic presentation of American problems, but has also virtually been erased by time. With all the movies I've seen, I never even heard of Samuel Fuller until a year ago when a friend sent me a link to Jonathan Rosenbaum's article on the AFI's pathetic top 100 films. Sure, it's partly my own ignorance, but since I've heard of all the AFI's picks and seen the majority of them, it must say more about the constant recycling of the same old titles and the idea that every list of the greatest films has to include the same overrated titles. Maybe I'm a nut for only including 4 of the AFI's top 10 on my great films list, but it can't be nuttier than reducing pre 1970's American film to the same few titles like most video stores and television stations do. I just wonder how many other great films and directors there are that I've never seen, or maybe even heard of?


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