Saturday, July 31, 2021


Twentieth Century Fox, 80m 37s

Seldom focused on binary heroes and villains, the film noir sometimes appraises diverse people from marginalized communities, battle-hardened folks barely subsisting. An 80-minute tale told with razor sharp clarity by writer/director Samuel Fuller, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is one of the most affecting instances of this variety of noir filmmaking. It is also one of the most intriguing film noirs to focus on characters driven by their own internal moral devices, society's laws and norms of behavior notwithstanding.

The opening sequence is heavy in the brand of fatalism found primarily in film noir. As an incorrigible pickpocket practices his trade in a subway train, a remarkable moment of fate comes to pass. Skip McCoy (the inimitable Richard Widmark) unknowingly takes possession of classified government information ("a new patent for a chemical formula") from the purse carried by Candy (Jean Peters). On the surface it seems a stretch that a pickpocket in search of a random victim in densely-populated NYC would manage to single out a courier for communists, but this meeting is destiny, not coincidence. To witness the theft is to feel a little guilty for watching; the crime is uncomfortably erotic. As Skip skillfully relieves Candy of her personal item, her reactions reflect an unconscious awareness of the violation going on, a wanton readiness to his touch. The tone is set for a relationship in which crime and passion coexist, one never far removed from the other.

The spine of the story is provided by Skip, a tightly-wound individual and three-time loser sought by police after a mere week out of the joint (a fourth conviction means a life sentence). Skip is no hero by any means, neither is he a villain. The only sensible description for him is the protagonist. Inside the noir sphere, such lead characters are commonplace, which makes the genre quite unique in that regard. In some ways a composite figure of cops, criminals and tough guys who came before him, Skip is tough in every way a person can be. You want tough? How about blowing cigarette smoke in a police captain's face? Now that is tough. Skip shows no tendency toward chivalry either when he punches Candy out cold after he finds her searching his premises. He awakens her by pouring a bottle of beer on her face after his kick doesn't rouse her. Hardly any way to treat a lady, and this occurs after he already victimized her in the opening segment. Then an embrace ensues! In a later encounter, again Skip treats Candy as both the object of abuse and affection. Given his instinctive pattern of behavior, the viewer is left to assume Candy is in fact turned on by Skip's darker impulses. He wrongly thinks she is a "red" (communist), but that does nothing to dissuade him from doing business with her cohorts. It would seem Skip is driven by money exclusively. A frustrated Candy clubs him over the head with a bottle in an earnest attempt to save him from his own pigheaded greed (for once she gives as good as she gets).

The film noir aggressively invites critical investigation of its stock female characters. Many times they fall into archetypal categories, i.e. femme fatale, domineering matriarch, the girl next door. The two significant females of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET are unusually nuanced, probably a lot more than the seasoned film noir fan has a right to expect. A million-dollar looker with a 10-cent education, Candy once was a goodtime gal of some notoriety. Her checkered past is suggested more than once ("You gonna throw that in my face again?"). Though whatever she used to be is left a little murky, one must assume erotic dancer or prostitute. Late in the film, when Candy's paranoid ex Joey (Richard Kiley) wants to know how she procured the coveted microfilm from Skip, she suggests she employed her physical attributes. Joey intuitively falls in line with that explanation. A tough cookie thrust into impossible situations as noir characters often are, she unknowingly serves as the go-between for communist interests (all male of course). Like Skip, she is what I would call a noir survivor, someone who never had it easy, a person who forever will have to fight for everything. She is the object of persistent physical abuse; in fact bruises are evident on her right arm in the opening sequence. Even Lightning Louie (Vic Perry) carelessly pokes her in the face with chopsticks during their brief encounter. Ironically, it is flag-waving cops who set Candy up for the most damage when Joey knocks her around with alarming force—before he shoots her! In an emotionally-charged moment, Candy proves her love for Skip when she reveals she took a beating and a bullet rather than hand Skip's address to the irredeemable Joey.

Another noir survivor, Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter, a six-time nominee for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) is a self-described "old clock runnin' down." She is more focused on securing a dignified burial plot than anything that might play out in her remaining lifetime. She does not view herself as anything beyond what she is:  an information peddler and street merchant whose tired body has betrayed her over the passage of time. If nothing else, she believes she is better than a "red" and would sooner die than do business with one. True enough, Moe dies with a dour look on her face in one of film noir's most uncompromising scenes, the noir universe functioning as pitiless enemy. There is a sound argument to be made Moe's death is the most noir of all film noir deaths. Not only does she stoically accept her fate, she says her killer is doing her "a big favor." That same attitude has cropped up in numerous noirs, that complete ambivalence, even acceptance, during the worst imaginable moment (see DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944], DETOUR [1945], THE KILLERS [1946], THE KILLING [1956]). When the condemned man (or, less often, woman) makes no attempt to slip free from the hand of fate, chances are that character is in close proximity to film noir territory.

Time and again violence is treated as a given in the noir film, either brewing or transpiring in genre classics such as BRUTE FORCE (1947), BORDER INCIDENT (1949), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) and KISS ME DEADLY (1955). The hard-hitting violence of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET often erupts without a warning shot, always with painful results for those on the receiving end. Skip gets tough with Candy (again!) after she inquires as to how he became a pickpocket. Thoroughly annoyed, he places all the blame on a grim, fatalistic noir world in his response:

"How did I get to be a pickpocket? How'd you get to be what you are? Things happen. That's how."

At this point in the film, Skip understands the noir landscape far better than Candy, who makes the mistake of implying she is better than he is. In the existential language bound to the genre, nobody is better than anyone else. Rough behavior is not limited to citizens either; Police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) was suspended in the past for assaulting Skip (the two share a mutual contempt that is borderline comical).

The streetwise types who understand each other best in Samuel Fuller's urban milieu are characterized by impoverished but functional living arrangements distinctive to down-and-outers. Consider Skip's modest waterfront residence, a bait shack without modern conveniences (he submerges his beer to keep it cold since he has no fridge). Similarly, Moe lives above a tattoo parlor in the Bowery. Cut from the same cloth, Moe and Skip identify with each other, each keenly aware of what might motivate the other, both connected to the identical moral coordinates. Skip barely reacts when he learns Moe offered his whereabouts for sale ("...she's gotta eat."). He demonstrates his capacity to do good, for the first time really, when he ensures Moe will not rest in a potter's field. He knew her well enough to know she did not wish to suffer that final indignity. The difference between people like Skip and mainstream society is evident when the G-man Mr. Zara (Willis Bouchey) gives Skip too much credit. Zara does not realize Skip would have been more than happy to do business with the commies had Candy not intervened. For Skip, getting paid always has been his top priority, and probably always will be.

As the plot unspools, Candy repeatedly sticks her neck out in the hope of converting Skip into a presentable partner, with him contesting the idea most of the way. She recognizes his best qualities long before he does, but the correlation of sex and violence that links Skip and Candy looks to be an intractable issue. One has to question their prospects for the future at least a little! Can the traditional heterosexual union that concludes the film really resolve all potential problems? That is the message we are left to consider, unrealistic as it might be. Admittedly they both look happy enough and excited about their prospects for the future, though somewhere underneath her steadfast devotion she probably wishes he had not stolen from her repeatedly.

The self-entrapped noir criminal

Hiding out

A new beginning?

Director Samuel Fuller shows a fondness for long takes, God-like POV shots and sudden zooms, especially when a character has come to terms with something of significance. His gradual zoom in on the condemned woman Moe confirms his affection for that character (she gets special treatment). In a more subtle shot, Fuller voices his approval of the pickpocket when Skip is amused to discover Candy had to purchase a tie from Moe in the interest of locating him. Fuller also handles action like nobody's business, as when Joey brutalizes Candy in demand of Skip's address. It is a genuinely disturbing sequence; Jean Peters clearly earned her paycheck. The climactic fisticuffs between Skip and Joey also are excitingly staged, with Joey dragged down a stairway face first at a particularly satisfying juncture. But the film's highlight would have to be the scene in which Skip finally sees the worth of Candy, as the complexion of their relationship undergoes an immediate change. In a movie loaded with callous, self-serving behavior, it is a welcome heartwarming moment.

The familiar noir mirror motif

Despite convincing verisimilitude, the bulk of the film was shot on the Twentieth Century Fox lot. Fuller was responsible for the design of Skip's waterfront shack along the East River. I would rank it second only to the hotel in KEY LARGO (1948) as the fictitious film noir location I would most like to visit. Fuller's other noir efforts include HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955), a color film noir he directed, and his novel THE DARK PAGE (1944), which was converted into SCANDAL SHEET (1952). As a screenwriter Fuller made an uncredited contribution to THE RACKET (1951). Based on track record alone, it is tempting to commend cinematographer Joseph MacDonald exclusively for the stylish visual schemes that compliment PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET. MacDonald handled the camera on some of the genre's most atmospheric titles, including SHOCK (1946), THE DARK CORNER (1946) and the splendid PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), as well as Fuller's HOUSE OF BAMBOO. Of course it is always tricky to ascribe credit correctly for technical achievements in cinema of this era, but it is safe to conclude MacDonald understood the dynamics of film noir very well. It is a shame Jean Peters did not leave us more films to revisit or discover. After her seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox ended, she led a reclusive private life with her husband Howard Hughes. She would not work again as an actress until her appearance in the 1973 made-for-TV movie WINESBURG, OHIO. Film noir enthusiasts should remember her best for her impressive 1953 run. Along with PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET she was cast in NIAGARA, A BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER and VICKI.

The new dual-layered Blu-ray version of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET available from The Criterion Collection replaces their DVD edition released in 2004. The film elements look better than ever in motion, with skin tones and textures that speak to the worth of the new 4K digital restoration. Framing looks appropriate at 1.34:1, though the original theatrical aspect ratio is listed at 1.37:1 according to The new Blu-ray offers more information on all sides of the frame:

Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion DVD

As for supplemental goods, a new interview (35m 48s) with Criterion favorite Imogen Sara Smith allows the author of IN LONELY PLACES:  FILM NOIR BEYOND THE CITY (2011) to discuss everything a person possibly could want to know about the feature film under review. Smith explains why Fuller was such a good match for the genre when she notes he always gravitated toward characters who existed on the fringe of society, people more inclined to follow a personal code than society standards. Often such character types are relegated to supporting roles in the film noir, but Fuller elevates them to the stars of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET. Zanuck granted Fuller a considerable amount of resources and autonomy during the filmmaker's contracted years with Fox. Though remembered as a maverick, Fuller also was noted for sticking to film budgets, a quality that endeared him to producers. Smith is correct that PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is an apolitical Cold War film, which is to say Fuller does not reinforce the agenda that was so typical of Hollywood at that time. In testimony to Fuller's talent, Smith points to THE CAPE TOWN AFFAIR (1967), a rudderless remake of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET that is not highly regarded (despite allegiance to the source material). Smith reminds us we are not asked to pity the characters of Fuller's film, instead we are encouraged to accept them as human beings, no better or worse than anyone else. Too often the cinema asks us to feel sorry for someone (a frequent complaint of film critic Armond White). The trouble with that approach to filmmaking is by default the viewer is made to feel somehow superior.

Also selectable is a radio adaptation (52m 20s) that aired June 21st, 1954 via the United States Armed Forces Radio Service. The condensed adaptation of the movie has its issues as radio drama, with the key dramatic moments from the Fuller film mostly lost in translation. Nevertheless, Ritter gives it her all before an appreciative audience in her return to the role of Moe. She is joined by Stephen McNally as Skip and Terry Moore as Candy. Audio dropout badly distorts the opening act, but the audio quality improves as the radio show progresses.

Ported from the Criterion DVD from 2004 is an engaging interview (19m 6s) with director Samuel Fuller from 1989, produced by film critic Richard Schickel in Paris. Fuller maintains he got along well with Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl Francis Zanuck. The director recalls a meeting with Zanuck and J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time. Not a supporter of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, Hoover frowned on the scene in which Skip does not appreciate having the flag waved at him. Zanuck stood by his filmmaker. Fuller contends there is nothing patriotic about Skip, even as the pickpocket beats down Joey in the final act. Skip goes on the offensive not for his country, but for his girl.

Also returning from the DVD is an excerpt (11m 5s) from the French television program CINÉMA CINÉMAS that aired December 1st, 1982. Fuller discusses the opening sequence of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET in terms of technical challenges. He has a suggestion for all filmmakers:  always put yourself in position to control what you want to accomplish since you probably will get only one chance. The lonely life of the cannon (pickpocket) was always of interest to Fuller, who mentions he never met Dwight Taylor, whose story was the basis for Fuller's screenplay.

The trailer collection includes a whopping 16 trailers for Fuller-directed films. The booklet within the Blu-ray case duplicates the writing assembled for the 2004 Criterion release. There is an essay from author and critic Luc Sante, a remembrance from filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who is known for sudden, sometimes shocking violence in his own films (it is little wonder he has been a huge fan of Samuel Fuller since the age of seven) and a chapter from Fuller’s autobiography:  A THIRD FACE:  MY TALE OF WRITING, FIGHTING, AND FILMMAKING (2002).

In 2018 the Library of Congress selected PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET for preservation in the National Film Registry.

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