Pickup on South Street, 1953, 80 mins, Blu-ray
Another Sam Fuller picture, this time a dark crime-noir from 1953 during his spell at Fox, and two years prior to House of Bamboo which I saw back in November. Pickup on South Street his an excellent thriller, in which career-criminal Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) pick-pockets the purse of Candy (Jean Peters) and inadvertently stumbles into an espionage crisis involving Communist agents and a lot of unwelcome heat from the Feds and cops. To some extent this is a typical cold-war thriller reflecting the West vs East tensions of the time, as as such would ordinarily feel dated and an exercise in propaganda as several noir espionage thrillers of its era that I have seen are.
But of course I’m watching this when world tensions are at a fever-pitch as Russia has invaded Ukraine, and the news is endlessly discussing the collapse of relations between the West and Russia and the return of old Cold-War sensibilities. So there’s an added discomfort in this film’s depicted tensions, and what is old is new again.
Richard Widmark is very good in this, he’d memorably featured as psychopathic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death several years before, and while there’s a similar energised tone to his performance here its thankfully more restrained and grounded; Skip is much less manic than Tommy Udo but none the less convincing. I was particularly taken by the performance of Jean Peters as Candy, reluctant courier for the communists and eventual love-interest for Skip (this romance an inevitable development but one that oddly convinces). Peters is very good and lifts what could have been a one-dimensional part into something much more interesting. I wasn’t familiar with the actress and looking her up on IMDB, its little wonder- she only made 23 features, working under contract to Fox between 1947 and 1955 before then pretty much retiring from the screen to be the wife of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. There’s worse career choices I guess.
Possibly stealing the show though is character actress Thelma Ritter, who plays streetwise police informer Moe Williams. I get the feeling that she’s the character that Sam Fuller was most interested in, what could have been a minor role elevated instead to possibly the most critical part in the film. I’m rather seeing that this is a common aspect of Fuller’s writing and directing, drawn to characters who would ordinarily be in the background or of lesser importance to the usual larger-than-life heroes and villains. I’ve read that Ritter’s performance saw her nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year and I’m not at all surprised. Her final scene is outstanding, a sad and broken old lady weary of the world facing her final moments with resigned grace.
The film is also blessed by some wonderfully moody, waterfront locations that brought to mind early-sixties Spider-Man strips drawn by Steve Ditko, the eight-year old kid in me getting ridiculously excited seeing those scenes and remembering the web-slingers encounters with the mob in Ditko’s finely-drawn panels of criminal-infested waterfronts. The film is, typically of Fuller, very gritty and convincing, and indeed some of the action is quite shocking, particularly scenes of Candy getting beaten and the offscreen denouement of Moe is very effective. You can certainly tell its a Sam Fuller picture. As I have noted, in other hands a film such as this could have been just a typical anti-Commie propaganda piece of its time but Fuller lifts it into something much more. Its a very effective thriller with a great cast and screenplay, an excellent noir.