Pickup on South Street (1953)

“So you’re a Red, who cares? Your money’s as good as anybody else’s.”

Synopsis:
A pickpocket (Richard Widmark) unknowingly lifts government secrets out of the purse of a woman (Jean Peters) whose boyfriend (Richard Kiley) is a Communist spy. When Widmark discovers how valuable his “take” is, he tries to extort money out of both Peters (who has fallen for him) and Kiley; meanwhile, the police try to get Widmark to turn the goods over to them in exchange for leniency.

Genres:

Review:
From its opening scene on a crowded, sweaty New York subway car, Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street astonishes viewers with its no-holds-barred glimpse into the seedy lives of stoolies, pickpockets, spies, and the molls who love them. Utilizing extreme close-ups and effectively rapid-fire editing, Fuller immediately establishes a milieu in which risk and sensuality are deeply intertwined, with plenty of violence greasing the wheels of passion. Despite its Cold War setting — and plenty of anti-Commie rhetoric — Pickup is really less about patriotic fervor (a la camp favorite Shack Out on 101, made two years later) than about the shady individuals who find themselves caught up in the hubbub simply because it’s become a part of their underground survival.

South Street possesses a slew of memorable characters, including Thelma Ritter as “Moe” (an aging stoolie who wants nothing more than to earn money for a decent funeral), Richard Widmark as the cynical centerpiece of the storyline (it’s difficult to imagine the role better cast), and — in perhaps the most surprising coup of all — Jean Peters as Candy, a smitten yet gutsy and gorgeous dame who’s willing to put up with an enormous amount of guff (both verbal and physical) from Widmark in exchange for his reluctant loyalty and love. The actors are filmed to perfection by cinematographer Joe MacDonald, who encases them in a dense noir ambiance so atmospheric it nearly becomes a character in itself. Pickup on South Street ultimately works on enough levels — visually, thematically, and more — to merit multiple enjoyable viewings by film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Thelma Ritter as Moe
    POSS Ritter
  • Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy
    POSS Widmark
  • Jean Peters as Candy
    POSS Peters
  • The opening pickpocket sequence
    POSS Opening Sequence
  • Effective use of close-ups and rapid editing to convey emotional tension
    POSS Closeup2
  • Joe MacDonald’s noirish cinematography
    POSS Cinematography
  • Countless classic lines:

    “I have to go on making a living so I can die. But even a fancy funeral ain’t worth waiting for if I gotta do business with crumbs like you.”

  • Leigh Harline’s punchy score

Must See?
Yes; this excellent Cold War thriller should be seen and enjoyed by all film fanatics.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Pickup on South Street (1953)”

  1. Well, well, well – here’s a case where we seem to agree wholeheartedly and unequivocally.

    A must – one dynamite, economy-size flick that gives more on repeat viewings. I can attest to that. I’ve seen it a number of times and have just seen it again.

    Who knew that such a solid film could have its basis in the ol’ ‘Giff me ze negatives’ plot? Of course, throwing in the ‘Red scare’ for backup serves nicely to stoke the incendiary pot.

    This is among writer/director Fuller’s best, needless to say. Just grabs hold and won’t let go. Filled with people who live to scheme to get what they want, there’s barely room for the viewer to breathe.

    It’s jammed with great pulp dialogue:

    “I’ll do business with a Red, but I don’t have to believe one.”

    “You know I couldn’t take the chance.”
    “I know you’re getting paid to take them.”

    “He’s shifty as smoke, but I love him.”

    And it’s perfectly cast, with good ol’ dependable Widmark at the helm. Remarkable, however, are Peters (a ‘night’ performance compared with her ‘day’ work in ‘Niagara’) and, esp. Ritter – a phenomenal character actor who, arguably, never had a better role, even if she was always adept at stealing scenes whenever a camera was turned on her. Her incredible final scene in this film alone is reason to see it.

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