Pickup on South Street (1953) Samuel Fuller (2x)
Eureka! Masters of Cinema Blu-ray (UK)
It’s just another job for pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark, right)… He spots a woman on a New York City subway train, lifts her wallet, and is on his way. He’s done it a thousand times and hardly has to even think about it. But this time Skip has picked up more than he’s bargained for. The wallet contains microfilm filled with top-secret government information. The woman named Candy (Jean Peters, left) was going to deliver the microfilm to her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiely). Joey had told Candy that the envelope she was delivering contained stolen business documents. Candy doesn’t know that Joey is really a communist spy and Skip doesn’t know what he’s got. They’re both in a world of trouble.
Pickup on South Street is a terrific film noir, made more interesting with the added Cold War element. Richard Widmark is, of course, excellent (When is he not?), but the big surprise here is Jean Peters, who landed the role after Sam Fuller turned down Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, Ava Gardner and Betty Grable. As Candy, Peters is tough, yet vulnerable, not knowing exactly what she’s getting herself into, but smart enough to know it’s big and loaded with danger.
Yet it’s Thelma Ritter who steals the picture as Moe, a professional informant who’s always looking to sell information for a few bucks. Ritter was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, recognition that rarely came to film noir pictures.
Criminals in the movies do pretty much what we expect them to, but when Skip refuses to play ball with the law to help fight communism, we’re still somewhat shocked. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was shocked as well. He hated Fuller’s work and Pickup on South Street in particular. Hoover told Fuller and 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck that Skip’s unpatriotic attitude was offensive, but Fuller and Zanuck refused to tone it down, offering only to remove any references to the FBI in its marketing of the film.
The film suffers a bit in its final scene which seems a bit soft compared to everything that’s come before, but you could also wonder what’s going to happen to these characters a day, a week, or a month later. Probably nothing the Hallmark people would be interested in, but we’re certainly interested.
Photos: IMP Awards, Movie Title Stills Collection, Film Forum, The Cambridge Room, The Brattle Theatre