Thursday 11 June 2020

Movie Review: Pickup On South Street (1953)

A Cold War espionage film noir, Pickup On South Street packs thrills, romance and complex characters into the story of a pickpocket who unwittingly disrupts a communist spy operation.

On a busy subway train in New York City, courier Candy (Jean Peters) has her wallet stolen by professional pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). The theft is spotted by investigators tracking Candy, who is a mostly clueless courier working for ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), a member of a communist spy ring. Her wallet contains a valuable stolen microfiche, and now Skip is the most wanted man in the city.

Police agents seek the help of dotty underworld informer Moe (Thelma Ritter) to identify and locate Skip, while Candy uses her own contacts to find his riverfront shack. Skip now realizes he is in possession of valuable merchandise and can sell to the highest bidder, if he can stay alive. But a simmering romance ignites between him and Candy, complicating all agendas.

An uncompromising story of treason crashing upon the rocks of passionate individual desires, Pickup On South Street combines a Cold War-inspired national security thriller with intimate portraits of small people caught up in big events. Writer and director Samuel Fuller jams three character studies into 80 minutes, and still allows time for soul searching, brutality, murder and expertly crafted moments of devious suspense.

Secondary people on the margins of other films here take centre stage. Skip is cocky, sarcastic and one misstep away from lifelong incarceration. Attracting the attention of a communist ring and police investigators is the last thing he needs. And yet he recognizes the opportunity of a lifetime when he sees it, but pesky romantic feelings towards Candy start to interfere. Meanwhile she proves more resourceful and resilient than an average underworld courier, first to find Skip then understand their joint predicament. At personal cost she buys them both just enough time to manoeuver.

And finally, and most poignant, is the stoolie Moe. In many ways Pickup On South Street is the story of the eccentric informer, surviving by selling neckties for $1 and information for whatever amount she can extract from any buyer on either side of the law. Only Moe cares about Moe, and she is deeply aware how disposable and irrelevant she is. Ultimately she will have to decide if any cause actually matters more than a few crumpled bills thrown her way.

Apart from the characters, Fuller packs the film with violence, and the brutality towards women is sometimes difficult to stomach. Elsewhere suspense takes over, including a clever interlude involving a dumbwaiter.

Despite the short length some sections do drag, the romance between Skip and Candy laboriously reaching a slow boil, and the climax features a few unlikely contortions towards a brighter-than-needed ending.

But Fuller leans on his dream cast to get through the lethargic sections, and intense close-ups are rewarded with career highlights. Richard Widmark is smooth and slick, Jean Peters seductive and sly, and Thelma Ritter sad and soulful.

Pickup On South Street features one stolen wallet and three unforgettable lives changed forever.

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  1. They hired a professional pickpocket to teach Widmark how to act like one, and he turned out to have a real knack for it. He was able to do all the pocket picking himself, even the scene where he lifts the handgun from Joey. If acting didn't work out, he could potentially have made a second career.

    1. Good context, thanks. Certainly this was one of Widmark's landmark roles.


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