WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Sam Fuller's interesting film noir Pickup on South Street contains some undoubtedly startling and even creepy moments, not least of which is a knock-down fight between and man and woman that finds the dame ruthlessly smashed against furniture and beaten mercilessly. The film also boasts moments of bravado filmmaking technique that make you stand up and take notice. It's a noir exercise that has terrific parts but doesn't quite add up to a singular achievement. There's just too much silliness at its center—thanks to a generous helping of communist paranoia—for the juicy noir to work.
The best aspect of the film is surely Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy. He has an arrogance and sure-footedness in his role as a professional pickpocket, and you can't take your eyes off him. Unfortunately, he's stuck in the middle of a strange and ultimately frustrating spy plot that involves Soviet agents clamoring for a shred of microfilm that Skip has inadvertently swiped off a woman on a subway. That clumsy story arc, which includes awkwardly drawn FBI men and slimy double-crosses, takes the lion's share of the film's running time, but more interesting are the glimpses of the streetlife we get through Skip and the Mole (Thelma Ritter), a snitch who gives up information to the coppers for a living. (Well, she sells cheap ties, too.)
And after thinking about it, I'm not really buying the central relationship that develops between streetsmart Skip and his mark, Candy (Jean Peters). But I can't deny that their strange meetings at his place on the waterfront have a creepy noir allure. They have a sensuality and violence that represent the most powerful components of Pickup on South Street. However, women will balk at the film's violence, which is entirely misogynistic.
It's a strange, frustrating film that nevertheless offers many moments of dark greatness. Watch that opening scene aboard the subway, and enjoy the way the film confidently shows you only what is precisely necessary. Watch that tight little smirk on Widmark's face twist into anger. And get a load of the two brilliantly staged fight scenes—one between a man and a woman and the other between men.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Criterion presents Pickup on South Street in an impressive full-frame transfer of the film's original 1.33:1 theatrical presentation. Criterion really knows how to do film noir. The black-and-white image comes across with terrific contrast, depth, and clarity, and the print itself looks remarkable. You get inevitable grain, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's mono audio track is surely an accurate representation of the original theatrical presentation. It sounds just fine, if a tad distorted at the high end—for example, during the whiny rumble of the subway car. Fidelity has been lost in this old track, but voices and sound effects come across just fine. The score is a tinny affair, with no low end, but it's appropriate.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Criterion gives us a modest collection of extras for Pickup on South Street. Located under a menu option called Top Secret!, they begin with the 19-minute Sam Fuller on Pickup on South Street, an interview-based featurette that includes lively footage of Sam Fuller recounting his experience making the film. He talks passionately about the director's responsibility to have a visual emotion, and he speaks interestingly about making a film in which there are no characters to "root for." I liked his thoughts on the film's comparatively realistic violence. Fuller comes across as a likable curmudgeon, a cranky old bastard in the vein of Mark Twain, and I enjoyed listening to him reminisce.
Next is Cinema Cinemas: Fuller, an 11-minute piece that features Fuller talking about the opening scenes of the film, as he watches them on a Moviola. This piece originally aired on French TV in 1982, and it comes across as a pseudo commentary.
"Headlines and Hollywood" is a text essay by film producer Jeb Brody. Interspersed with photographs, this essay is a long biographical look at Fuller.
Recollections from Richard Widmark is also text-based, a first-person account from the actor about the making of the film.
You also get an enticing collection of period Trailers that includes Fixed Bayonets, Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo, China Gate, Forty Guns, Hell and High Water, Shock Corridor, and The Naked Kiss.
Wrapping things up is a gallery of Stills and Posters.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Pickup on South Street has undeniably great noir moments, but it's not quite a home run. Give it a look for those moments. The extras are sparse but informative. Image and sound quality are better than expected.