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.
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 reconstructions (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 Water.
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:
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.