Thursday, February 25, 2010

#55: Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)

Released: June 17, 1953

Director: Samuel Fuller; Screenplay: Samuel Fuller based on a story by Dwight Taylor; Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald; Music: Lionel Newman; Producer: Jules Schermer; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Moe), Murvyn Vye (Captain Dan Tiger), Richard Kiley (Joey), Willis Bouchey (Zara), Milburn Stone (Winoki)

- "Are you waving the flag at _me_?"

We’re to the point in the countdown now where distinguishing many of the films, and putting them in precise rankings, is a herculean task. I try to be as precise as possible, crafting a favorites list that will hold up for at least some period of time. As all of the other list junkies in the blogosphere know, it’s impossible to create a list that will remain completely fixed and unchanging. So much just depends on one’s outlook, mood, or recent viewing, all of which are things that can change rapidly. At this moment, I could be high on a particular movie, the next my passion might have inexplicably tapered. That’s just how it goes with list making, I suppose, but it’s still worth pointing out, because even I am somewhat shocked at slotting in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street at #55. When I made my original rough draft for the project, I had Pickup in the Top 40 and was fairly certain that it remained my favorite Fuller film. But for the sake of completeness, I re-watched a number of films to solidify the ordering, and this was one that I revisited. As you can probably surmise from this opening paragraph, something about this viewing experience was not as powerful as in the past.

This is not to say I am no longer a big fan – look where I rank it and some of the classics that are solidly behind it in the countdown. I still consider it among my two or three favorite Fuller films. What struck me about Pickup this time around was the impression that, similar to Wise’s Born to Kill, it ultimately comes up a bit short of fulfilling the promise of some outstanding individual elements.

The story is set up right from the opening sequence, as the camera follows the work of professional pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Recently released from jail after his conviction was tossed out due to dubious police practices, McCoy is looking to make a profitable score. Instead, he picks the pocket of Candy (Jean Peters), the girlfriend of a Communist spy. Rather than lifting money, McCoy lifts a roll of microfilm that Candy has been sent to deliver to a Communist cell. The result is that McCoy quickly becomes the target of two very different groups – the police and FBI are after him in order to grab the microfilm before it falls into enemy hands, while the Communists scurry to grab the film before it’s too late. Caught in the middle is Skip, the unscrupulous crook who begins to play both ends against the middle. Things become even more complicated as Skip and Candy begin to develop an attraction, meaning that simple monetary gain does not remain Skip’s only focus.

The high points of the film are quite high. Fuller’s direction is at times flawless. The opening, wordless subway sequence, in which the camera follows the maneuvering of McCoy as he works to stealthily to pick Candy’s pocket, is incredible. The trademark Fuller zooms and close-ups abound, making it obvious who is in the director’s chair. The other Fuller trademark is the ability to create seedy underworlds, subcultures and, even more impressively, the underbelly of legitimate worlds. The three-dimensional feel of the underworld is driven home in the hunt for McCoy, as the police go through a list of usual suspects and informants to track down a single “cannon” as they call him. The Communist ring feels equally as shady, even though very little is revealed about them. Even the police are shown to be far from spotless, as it is revealed that the hard-charging Captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye) has been charged with brutality. Few men could match the ability of Fuller to make the entire world feel so seedy. And this knack is given even greater force by the contribution of Joseph MacDonald. It’s like a broken record in this countdown, but if you still haven’t had the point drive home – Joseph MacDonald is one of the finest cinematographers to ever work in film. Period.

So why did this one not remain in the Top 40 where I originally had it? Like I said, the main reason would be simply that I didn’t respond to it as passionately as I had in the past. Maybe it’s a copout to say this, but it just lacked “something” for me. Pinpointing precisely what that “something” is would be difficult, which is what makes it so easy to attribute it to just a slight shift in mood or personal taste. I do know, though, that outside of Widmark’s fiery performance – he is nothing short of brilliant – the other performances now seem less impressive. Thelma Ritter was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and she is entertaining, but camp elements of the performance stood out to me this time around. Jean Peters is also solid, but the romance between Skip and Candy never feels completely natural. In the end, though, these individual reason are just nitpicking as I try to make out some kind of concrete explanation for dropping it in the rankings. I really don’t have one, other than that mysterious “something.”

This review has been almost entirely critical, focusing on Pickup placing lower than expected, but the only reason that I am this critical is because it is probably a film that deserves to be ranked higher. It is still a very good movie and arguably the quintessential Sam Fuller film. Perhaps I’ll regret the placement when everything concludes, but for now, I’ll stay with my instinct.


  1. I'm 100% with you on this one. One of my favorite noir films, and also one of my favorite Fuller films. I commend you on your extraordinarily impressive list.

    And I thought I knew noir. Ha.

  2. I understand what you mean by "something". I have similar feelings about Panic In The Streets which I watched the other day. Its a good film but is lacking a unidentifiable element of greatness overall for me. Saying that, this movie would make my own personal top 40. I don't see the camp element in Thelma Ritter's performance and enjoy all the acting by the cast. I agree with the cinematography being wonderful and the realistic seediness of the underworld. The only flaw is the communist sub plot which I always viewed as a Mcguffin anyway.....M.Roca

  3. Dave, I can't judge your judgment until the next time I watch Pickup. I liked it quite a bit the first time I saw it but I did feel some slight reservations about Ritter's character, who may be more Runyonesque than Fulleresque. Overall I enjoyed the atmosphere of the picture, from the subway to the shack on the river where Widmark lives. He's very good here, but I expect he'll be heard from again further up the chart.

  4. Still one of my favorite noir films, and probably the best Jean Peters performance. Very interested to see where D.O.A. (1950) falls on your list, as it's another personal favorite. Great work, Dave!

  5. I am ambivalent about Pickup On South Street. Somehow the gestalt is off: the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.

    A weak story is propped up by Sam Fuller’s spirited direction and strong performances. The repartee in Fuller’s script is great and adds to the enjoyment. But I was left flat by the pat resolution and feel-good ending.

    While Pickup On South Street is not readily identifiable as a noir, there is a noir sensibility. Flawed characters are portrayed sympathetically and redeemed by their essential humanity. As Fuller said in a 70s interview, he is not really concerned with the wider “reds under the bed” plot, but with how the drama of the lives affected plays out.

    But the flaws in the film are there and limit its impact. The strongest scene in the film should have been when the bag-lady, Moe, confronted late at night in her apartment by the commie stooge, goes into a relatively long monologue on her fate. An excellent performance by Thelma Ritta is undermined by an unconvincing delay, as the stooge waits for her to finish her story (which he is patently not interested in) before plugging her.

  6. I watched this about as year ago or so for the umpteenth time and still find it enthralling. As you mention, Fuller’s use of the camera. For me, this is trademark Widmark. Ritter is excellent and the scene Tony describes is one of the best. Peters never looked better.

  7. Jeffrey - I love hearing that you are enjoying the countdown! I'm sure many more of your favorites will pop up as we continue.

    M.Roca - Interesting to hear that you have the same feeling toward this one. This time around there was just a minor "something" that didn't quite feel right.

    Samuel - No doubt, Widmark will be making many more appearances before we are finished. I'd be interested to hear what you think if you re-watch this one. I obviously really like it, but not quite as much as I once did, when it was a cinch for the Top 40.

    Anonymous - Thanks! Stay tuned, I'm not revealing too much in saying that D.O.A. will show up at some point.

    Tony - Interesting that we're somewhat on the same page here, though it seems that I enjoy Pickup a bit more than you do.

    John - I remembered this being a favorite of yours... I too really like it, but others have just moved ahead of it in terms of ranking noirs.

  8. An awesome movie. Loved it, esp. Thelma Ritter (she's one of my all-time faves) and Richard Widmark.

  9. It's funny Dave, I'd rank both Pickup and House Of Bamboo much higher, but I really understand what you mean here, that sometimes you can't put your finger on why a movie isn't working quite right, even though you know it isn't. I think Pickup does work on every level, but I really like how you articulate that, and it's certainly true for me of other movies.

  10. Quirky Character - Glad to hear you love this one, it's definitely one that everybody needs to see.

    Doniphon - Yes, I was hoping that it would make sense when I tried to explain that, rather than just me struggling to say it. I still really like this one, but something just felt a little "off" on this viewing instead of the nearly flawless previous ones.

  11. Well, I am definitely a fan of this film, though I know Tony has some reservations, which he noted compellingly in his own piece here:

    I agree with you on the work of Joseph MacDonald, who as you rightly note is one of the greatest of all cinematographers, and his work in the film is superlative. (I know he has appeared on this countdown a few times before this!) Thelma Ritter is gives a superlative performance, in what does indeed make a strong play as Fuller's best film. Great essay here!

  12. Romance between Skip and Candy is hard to believe. They fall in love while she's threatened with violence and he's sought after by police.