PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET
What you're seeing and not seeing

a commentary by Tony McRae

Samuel Fuller is best known for his war films - and rightly so.  "The Steel Helmet," "China Gate," "Merrill's Marauders," "The Big Red One" are gritty, tough, sometimes hard to watch.  There's no sentimentality or flag waving, no big stars (unless the great Lee Marvin is your idea of a leading man).  Same with his other pictures, especially his noir and crime movies where hypocrisy and corruption are the norm. "Like the air we breathe," Fuller says, "violence is always there."  

"Pickup on South Street" opens in a New York subway.  It's rush hour and the train is packed.  The camera zeros in on a woman in heavy makeup holding onto a strap and looking bored (1).  Cut to a man staring at her (2); cut to a second man staring at her.  

The train stops.  People get off, more get on.  A man works his way through the crowd toward the camera, his eyes checking things out.  He's close to the woman now, separated by a man in an army uniform.  He reads his paper.  Cut back to the two man scrutinizing the woman.  

At the next stop the soldier gets off, the man with the newspaper moves next to woman (3).  She's staring into space.  The man opens his paper, waits, then gently opens the woman's purse.  Cut to a close up of his fingers searching her purse(4).  He finds her wallet, takes it and closes the purse.  Cut back to the two men who look puzzled, concerned.  At the next stop the doors open; the  pickpocket waits a few seconds, then quickly gets off the train, the door closing in the men's frustrated faces. 

This opening is typical Fuller: straightforward filming, clean cuts, perfect timing.  We're placed in a situation we know nothing about, forced to infer what's going on.  The woman (Jean Peters) is beautiful in a tawdry way.  Is she a hooker?  A waitress?  A shill posing as an innocent commuter?  The two men, who are clearly interested in her, could be crooks, but they look too clean cut.  Probably cops.  But the pickpocket also looks presentable: nice tie, fedora.   But this is Richard Widmark, folks, the guy who laughed as he pushed a woman confined to a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.   

We find out later the woman had no idea she was carrying microfilm for the Communists; she was doing a friend a favor.  And the two guys on the train?  FBI naturally, hoping she'd lead them to the top Reds.  Not so fast.  Along comes Skip McCoy (Widmark) who spoils everything.  

"Pickup" was made during the Cold War, so this microfilm business could be something dangerous.  McCoy couldn't care less.  He's is a pickpocket, a three time looser who's interested only in himself.  But he's no dope.  When the cops finally catch up with him, they figure to use patriotism to get him to hand over the goods.  Captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye) tells him it's his duty in this time of peril.  McCoy laughs:  "Are you waving the flag at me?"

Will McCoy eventually do the right thing?  Yes, but not for patriotic reasons.  There's an older woman, Moe (played by the wonderful Thelma Ritter) who knows just about everything that goes on on the waterfront.  She knows where Skip McCoy lives (5).  She the only person who can get under his skin.  "Stop using your hands, Skip," she tells him, "and start using your head." (6)  Only when she's killed for not telling where McCoy lives (7) does he take her advice.  His first good act is to rescue her body and give it a proper burial.  

"Pickup on South Street" is one of the few noir films of the 40s and 50s whose ending does not end on a down note.  The Reds are thwarted, and McCoy and Candy get together.  Fuller described Richard Widmark as a guy who "walked and talked like nobody else, yet there was nothing ostentatious about himself."  So when Skip finally does do the right thing, it works because he's been struggling throughout the film to find some balance, even though he doesn't know it himself.  It takes Thelma Ritter's Moe to sway both him and the audience.  

Watching Thelma Ritter on screen is pure joy:  we can believe that Moe is Skip's angel (8).  Fuller took a chance with the ending, and thanks to Ritter and Widmark it paid off.

The Criterion Collection has done their usual splendid work with a clean crisp transfer and lots of extras.

FILM NOIR PAGE 

 

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