Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This is the way it's supposed to be. A great old film, the kind that's no longer a mainstream
'classic', but can still fill a revival house with crowds that love gutsy
filmmaking and pulpy dialogue, tough-guy action and Runyonesque sentimentality.
It's easy now to find praise of Sam Fuller in print - everyone loves at least some of his pictures.
Pickup on South Street is maybe his best film from his best period, the five years at
Fox when Darryl Zanuck let him make his pictures his own way, backed by solid studio resources.
With a characteristic
zeal for gritty underworld subjects, Fuller takes a trifling story about a crisis over a piece of
wayward microfilm and turns it into one of the best of the hardboiled films noir. This is
the kind of title we hoped Fox Home Video would eventually get around to releasing; by dint of a
miraculous deal with Criterion, Fuller's pickpocket epic is given the royal treatment we wish all
our favorites could be given.
Pickpocket and three-time loser Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) naturally suspects
everyone when spies and government agents become interested in a particular purse he's rifled -
one that contained some math formulas coveted by a foreign government. To locate Skip, both
unknowing carrier Candy (Jean Peters) and her mercenary agent Joey (Richard Kiley) end up going
through underworld snitch Moe Williamson (Thelma Ritter), an old but resilient street vendor.
A four-way tangle of interests escalates the danger. Candy tries to convince Skip that she can
be trusted, as the Feds close in on the Reds and Skip tries to make his sale.
Sam Fuller's second programmer for Fox shows him at his best - working in B&W with great studio
craftsmen on a story perfectly suited to his strengths. Set on the streets of New York (mostly
fabricated on Fox sound stages and downtown LA) and populated with characters that seem to have
jumped from the lurid covers of detective fiction, Pickup on South Street has Fuller's
over-the-top brand of direct, aggressive dialogue that's too stylized to be real and too punchy to
fit into cartoon dialogue balloons:
"What's the matter with you, Skip, playin' footsies with the Commies?"
"You can do it Candy, you know the score. You've knocked around."
"Aw, everybody loves everybody when they're kissin'..."
Plenty has been written about Fuller's first-person experience with the entire spectrum of
New York life in the 1920s and 1930s, and the effects of working as a crime detective for a
sensationalist newspaper. Fuller's characters are broad and base but immediately likeable - the
petty sidewalk criminal Skip, the frail-but-tough necktie hawker and professional snitch, the 'bad
girl' with a heart of gold. We spend most of our time with luscious Jean Peters' Candy, a woman
who oozes sex, toughness and vulnerability in equal doses. Fuller gets away with choker closeups
that don't induce claustrophobia, and Candy and Skip's relationship develops as a series of punches,
knockdowns, and sweaty kisses that would be the envy of Mike Hammer or James Bond. These are
accompanied by a brassy love theme lifted from Road House a few years before.
The studio economy effort is well disguised. The LP on Thelma Ritter's record player plays a vocal
of the the tune Mamselle composed for yet another Fox show, The Razor's Edge. Clever
(a subway station, Skip's playhouse-shack under the Brooklyn Bridge) are mixed with 2nd unit work
in Manhattan to give us a convincing New York feel. Fox happily drops its overused Street Scene
theme for a more vibrant & urgent Lionel Newman composition; this has to be the best New York picture
that was never shot there.
But the filmmaking makes questions of economy irrelevant. An opening pickpocket scene is a masterpiece
of graphic impact and montage that insinuates sexual associations: Skip's cool insolence, Candy's
open-mouthed sensuality, the unavoidable suggestion of rape when the pickpocket fingers invade her purse.
Fuller's clever story keeps Skip at a remove from the villains, suave fools who underestimate
American criminals. Skip must be the kind of Yankee Rick Blaine was talking about when he advised Colonel
Strasser not to bring his Nazis into certain New York neighborhoods. For Fuller, a crook is a guy
who knows the ropes, who looks out for number one at all times and isn't about to be done in by
pantywaist amateurs who call themselves spies. Moe is constitutionally opposed to 'Commies'
without even knowing what they're about, and Fuller condones her attitude with no ifs attached.
Skip doesn't care anything about the color of the spies' money; the small miracle of Fuller's
script is that when he decides to let Skip go soft and exact retribution for Candy's sake,
we're behind him 100%. People are waving flags at Skip and trying to motivate him with abstractions that
don't mean anything to him; he's operating at a lower level of crookdom that's well aware of
the hypocrisy at the higher eschelons. He respects Moe's racket, even when she turns him in. "Aw,
Moe's alright. She's gotta make a living too." But the G-Man's attempt to get him to act noble
fall on deaf ears.
When Fuller does let loose we get a small-scale storm of violence. Fuller's expressive camera rubs
our nose in it, just as Richard Kiley's stuntman, dragged backwards by the feet, gets his nose
hammered by the subway steps, machine-gun style. A simple donnybrook in a subway restroom becomes a
battleground for the free world, while we cheer on the mayhem. Conversely, we're shocked by the
audacity of a one-take scene in Candy's apartment. Fuller's camera lurches back to record Kiley
literally cleaning up the room with her. Jean Peters must have been into it too, because she allows
herself to be slammed around like a rag doll, willy-nilly into furniture and lamps and whatever
happens to be in the way. And she does it better than any stunt woman would.
Richard Widmark turns his chortling laugh into the emblem of a rather seedy good guy. Jean Peters
oozes sex and pulls us along with her when she falls for him. Richard Kiley sweats up a storm, and the
wonderful (Oscar nominated) Thelma Ritter convinces us that she's a match for crooks and Murvyn Vye's
pushy police Captain. Willis Bouchey and Milburn Stone are dedicated Dan G-Men, without a humorous bone between them.
In what should be an inconsequential story, Sam Fuller defines his peculiar view of Americanism from
the bottom up: stiff-necked, aggressive self-interest that when fully expressed, recognizes what's
right and what's wrong and isn't afraid to fight for it. As always in his work, the individuals who
fight the hardest for their country are the ones least likely to benefit from the effort. Sam Fuller
was a real patriot.
Criterion's DVD of Pickup on South Street is the first older title in their new arrangement with
Fox, the deal that's already given us
Naked Lunch and is promising
dream titles like Robert Altman's exquisite Three Women. The transfer is gorgeous, a mint
element given additional digital cleanup. It's better than a studio archive print.
The disc is packed with great
Fuller-mania goodies as well. Richard Shickel gives us a very late-career interview,in the early 90s, where
he's scarcely less animated than an early 80s interview for a French documentary. In both, he's
agressive, opinionated, cocksure and snappy. He's also the kind of guy you'd want on your flank if
you were ever in a foxhole ... you believe that he'd keep his word. He's more than happy to recount his
and Darryl Zanuck's verbal sparring match against J. Edgar Hoover, when the FBI chief insisted that
Pickup on South Street distorted police & G-agent procedures. "I was there. I was in the
room," Fuller retorts happily. 1
The text extras weigh heavily on exerpts from Fuller's autobiography, but the audiovisual goodies
are ripe indeed. Every still in existence from Pickup on South Street must be here, and
posters and ad art from all over the world on every one of his films, from the sublime House of
Bamboo to his later works. There's also a string of trailers for eight or nine of his pictures,
including an "Introducing CinemaScope - you see it without glasses!" winner for Hell and High
The attractive artwork and menu design utilizes NYC subway maps. What a classy package!
It was produced by Criterion's Susan Arosteguy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pickup on South Street rates:
Supplements: Interview with Samuel Fuller by Richard Schickel, excerpts from
Cinema Cinemas series with Fuller discussing the making of the film, illustrated
biographical essay on Fuller by Jeb Brody, stills gallery of photos, lobby cards, and
original paintings by noted artist Russell Christian, trailer gallery, text excerpts from
Fuller's autobiography A Third Face.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 9, 2004
1. I saw Fuller for one day on
the set of 1941, in which he played the General in charge of interceptor command. I thought his
voice was that way because he smoked cigars. His role was a one-day bit part, but it gave the panic of the
fake air raids over Los Angeles just the right kick off. With inconclusive data coming from all sides,
Fuller just overrides the experts: "The hell with confirmation, they're JAPS. Go to Condition Red!
Condition Red for Los Angeles!" And the sirens start to wail. Perrrrfect casting.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.