Monday, December 29, 2008

Target #43: Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller)

TSPDT placing: #737
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Dwight Taylor (story), Samuel Fuller (screenplay)
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Milburn Stone

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

Shock Corridor (1963) was my first film from Samuel Fuller, and there I was impressed with the director's astute blending of B-movie and big-budget aesthetics, even if the story itself was pure schlock. Pickup on South Street (1953) was released a decade earlier in Fuller's career, obviously produced on a larger budget from a big-name studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. Nevertheless, the visuals are still notable in that there's a somewhat raw, naturalistic element to the photography, not unlike Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) {the latter was also shot by cinematographer Joe McDonald}. In some scenes, Fuller shoves the camera so close to his actors' faces that they're out of focus, bluntly registering the intimate thoughts, emotions and brief inflections that are communicated through that most revealing of facial features, the eye. Though (unexpectedly) prone to melodrama, and with just a hint of anti-Communist propaganda, Pickup on South Street is a strong film noir that succeeds most outstandingly in its evocation of setting – the underground of New York City.When just-out-of-prison pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) snags the purse of a woman on the subway (Jean Peters), he pockets more than he'd originally bargained for. The woman, Candy, and her cowardly ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) had been smuggling top-secret information to the Communists, and McKoy has unexpectedly retrieved an important roll of micro-film. Will he turn in the MacGuffin to the proper authorities, or sell it to the highest bidder? If Pickup on South Street has a flaw, it's that the story seems designed solely to bolster an anti-Communist agenda, reeking of propaganda like nothing since WWII {Dwight Taylor, who supplied the story, also notably wrote The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), the only propagandistic movie of the series}. For no apparent reason, every identifiable character – even the smugly self-serving Skip McCoy – eventually becomes a self-sacrificing patriot, the transformation predictable from the outset. In traditional film noir, the unapologetic criminal always gets his comeuppance, the rational punishment for his sins, but apparently not when they've served their country; patriotism wipes the slate clean.

Richard Widmark, an actor who I'm really beginning to like, plays the haughty pickpocket with composure, though always with that hint of ill-ease that suggests he's biting off more than he can chew. The opening scene on the train is the film's finest, as McCoy breathlessly fishes around in his victim's hand bag, recalling Bresson's Pickpocket (1959). Thelma Ritter is terrific as a tired street-woman who'll peddle information to anybody willing to pay for it (though, of course, she draws the line at Commies). Jean Peters is well-cast as the trashy dame passing information to the other side, playing the role almost completely devoid of glamour; Fuller reportedly cast the actress on the observation that she had the slightly bow-legged strut of a prostitute. Nevertheless, Peters must suffer a contrived love affair with Widmark that really brings down the film's attempts at realism. Fascinatingly, upon its release, Pickup on South Street was promptly condemned as Communist propaganda by the FBI, and the Communist Party condemned it for being the exact opposite. Go figure.

Currently my #5 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)
3) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton)
5) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller) *
6) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
7) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)


The_Wizard_Of_Xenia said...

I love that film, it's in my top 20. I disagree with you on some of the politics to be honest, I think the film tended to show patriotism as an inescapable prison in America, and something in itself as sinful and deceiptful and the communist spying. I haven't seen it in ages though, it's in need of a rewatch...

Valerie Troutman said...

First, I totally agree about the opening scene. I would even go so far as to refer to it as a rape rather than a pickpocket. It's beautiful.

I do heavily disagree with your comments about the anti-Communist aspects. I think they are hilarious and show that you could actually be intelligent and be anti-Communist in the 1950's. The very fact that these people are scum, yet willing to die for their country only to return to being scum at the end of the picture shows that Fuller doesn't equate little pink houses with fighting Communism. This is very clever and as for the false ending of a wedding. I think it is put in their as a deliberate nod to the audience that he was forced to take on a "happy ending".

ackatsis said...

"The very fact that these people are scum, yet willing to die for their country only to return to being scum at the end of the picture shows that Fuller doesn't equate little pink houses with fighting Communism."

I didn't get that impression at all. The impression that I got was one of a married couple "walking off into the sunset."

If there's a hidden subtext that I'm missing, then I'll probably pick up on it after a second viewing, but that'll be a while down the track.

As it stands, I noticed nothing about the anti-Communist propaganda that might set it apart from, say, the anti-Nazi propaganda of the 1940s.

I much preferred the approach of Alan Ladd in "This Gun For Hire (1942)," where he (SPOILERS) momentarily becomes a patriot for the sake of a girl, and then carries out his planned assassinations, anyway.

Valerie Troutman said...

Definitely watch it again because this film is very subversive and while it is absolutely anti-Communist propaganda. That propaganda is unique and runs opposite to the whole housewives are fighting Communism by being slaves nonsense that was being spread around at the time.