PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET B+ USA (80 mi) 1953 d: Sam Fuller
FBI Agent Zara: If you refuse to cooperate, you’ll be as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb
Skip McCoy: You wavin’ the flag at me?
Leave it to Sam Fuller to have his finger on a hot button issue, like trading state secrets to the commies during the height of the red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee investigations in the era of McCarthyism. Is there any lower swine than that, suggesting there is unwritten honor among thieves, where even criminals won’t cross that line, much like the contempt they show in prison for perpetrayors of child pedophilia, as evidenced in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), suggesting there is no greater crime than treason. This film is ripped from the headlines, as the espionage cases of Klaus Fuchs (Klaus Fuchs | Atomic Heritage Foundation) and Alger Hiss (Accused spy Alger Hiss convicted of perjury - HISTORY) were recently in the news, with Fuller commenting from his 2002 memoir, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, “By alluding to those cases, I wanted to take a poke at the idiocy of the cold war climate of the fifties. Sure, there were communists who believed fervently in Marx and Lenin. But, there were also crumbs…who’d go to work for any ‘ism’ if there was a payoff. People living on the edge of society don’t give a damn about politics. I wanted my film to be told through the eyes of the powerless. Cold war paranoia? Hell, these crooks were more interested in just getting by.” While the eccentric Fuller has always had a satiric streak, here he finds unorthodox ways to mock the overly zealous patriotism of conservative America during the Cold War, creating an exaggerated film noir B-movie where even American criminals hate communists, selected to the National Film Registry in 2018. A maverick Hollywood director, one of the first independents, his career trajectory moved from selling newspapers at the age of 11 to fighting on Omaha Beach as a 1st Infantry Division soldier during WWII, as well as the Battle of the Bulge, where he was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Combat Infantryman Badge, enlisting as a a private after Pearl Harbor, eventually reaching the rank of Corporal, Fuller always personified independence, a radical individualist, getting his nose dirty as a crime reporter in New York City (the youngest in the country at age 17), a freelance journalist, pulp novelist and cartoonist before writing film scripts, selling his first at the age of 24, while having ridden the rails with hobos during the Depression. According to Martin Scorsese, Fuller’s films are “blunt, pulpy, occasionally crude, lacking any sense of delicacy or subtlety…They’re simply reflections of his temperament, his journalistic training, and his sense of urgency.” With a larger than life public persona, most always seen chewing on a gigantic cigar, his bravura style was direct, to the point, and in-your-face, leaving no wiggle room for comfort or subtlety. Let’s face it, the man helped liberate the Falkenau concentration camp, attached to a larger complex of concentration camps in Bavaria, Germany, making a 22-minute film using a 16mm camera documenting his experience, Samuel Fuller's Film of Falkenau Concentration Camp. Much of the macho style of the film comes right out of the pulp fiction Mickey Spillane crime novel, where sophisticated it ain’t, but everyone speaks in the street language of film noir. Though filmed in Los Angeles, it’s meant to be the seedy atmosphere on the streets of New York City.
The postwar cynicism on display is thick enough to cut with a knife, which is its enduring charm, a specialty of Fuller’s no nonsense sensibility, suggesting people are willing to do just about anything for a price, which may be his comment on capitalism and the 50’s era of conformity. Concentrating on people living on the margins, Richard Widmark plays a lone pickpocket, Skip McCoy, a three-time convict fresh out of prison, already making his mark in the opening scenes on a subway train, setting off a chain of events after stealing the wallet out of a purse belonging to Candy, Jean Peters, playing a prostitute, the girlfriend and future wife of billionaire Howard Hughes before he became an eccentric recluse, at the time the chairman of RKO Pictures, who anonymously drove her to the set each day and waited for her. Completely unaware of what happened, Candy is shocked when she returns to her overbearing ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), presumably performing one last favor, without a secret document that Joey suggested contained trade secrets, but was actually microfilm containing top secret government information. Unbeknownst to Candy, she was being watched on the subway by FBI agent Zara (Willis Bouchey), hoping to discover the target she would pass the information to, the missing link in an underground spy network, but the mission was aborted by a mysterious pickpocket artist. In the office of Police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye), they bring in a snitch, Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), a professional informer who makes it her business to see and hear what the police can’t, then selling the information to them for a price. By getting a detailed account of the theft from Agent Zara, she provides a list of 8 known suspects, with Zara immediately recognizing McCoy from the list, but when they bring him in he plays coy, despite desperate pleas revealing the significance of the stolen merchandise. Meanwhile, Candy is on the same trail, obtaining McCoy’s address from the suddenly relevant Moe and pilfering through his East River waterfront shack in the dark, only to be decked by a McCoy sucker punch knocking her out cold, revived by beer poured on her face, which is then pawed over and kissed before leaving with a sore jaw. Browbeaten by Joey to go back and finish the job, thinking $50 bucks should do it, Candy is shocked to hear McCoy call her a commie while raising the price to $25,000. Her attempts to sexually entice him lead nowhere, despite the swelling violins, as McCoy really wants the dough. Candy isn’t actually aware of what’s happening until she sees Joey receiving a dressing down from his superiors, handing him a gun and ordering him to finish the job within 24 hours. Realizing her former lover is a commie rat leaves Candy revolted, so she sends him on a wild goose chase with misinformation, giving her time to find Moe, telling her the real danger McCoy is in, as they’re out looking for him, culminating in what is arguably the best written scene of the film, Pickup on South Street - "Fancy Funeral" YouTube (5:02), the rights to the heavily romanticized song already owned by the studio from THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1946).
Ritter was actually Oscar nominated (the last of four consecutive years of best supporting nominations) for the humanism and folksy charm she displays here, suggesting everybody’s got to make a living, yet it’s very revealing that Fuller, along with Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), are making films about informants during the height of Hollywood blacklisting, as if suggesting it’s the morally decent and American thing to do to stand up against Communism. This kind of right-wing sentiment may have felt mainstream in the 50’s, but it’s on the wrong side of history, as corruption within the corridors of political power was much more significant, destroying people’s lives and careers based on rumors and hearsay, where the zealous witch hunt to eradicate communism was an abuse of power fueled by anti-Semitism, as they were really driving the Jews out of Hollywood. Coming after what Jews experienced during the Holocaust, this was simply repugnant and despicable, as there was never any subversive communist infiltration of Hollywood, it was all a fearful, politically motivated, propagandistic charade suggesting communists could be found under every rock. Though built around a pulp fiction premise with preposterous twists and turns, Fuller’s existential film fit the anti-communist profile of the moment, where purging America from communism is the driving force of the film. Perhaps the most grotesque aspect is the manner in which Peters is treated, cast as a sex object, wearing tightly fitting and low-cut attire, only to get kicked around in a shockingly brutalistic manner, where it’s hard to think of another female character in any film who endures what she does here, the object of repeated beatings, the worst coming from Joey, who nearly kills her barehanded, and then takes a bullet as well, where her face is consistently used as a punching bag. Shot in black and white by Joseph MacDonald, who captured the vast beauty of Monument Valley in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), also the first postwar American film to be shot completely in Japan with Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), yet this claustrophobic nightmare features tight close-ups and bizarre angles, revealing a neo-realist world on the edge with cartoonish characters (like Lightning Louie!!) that defy reality, spewing hardboiled language that exists only in storybooks. While this fast-moving action spy ring thriller may have influenced Bresson, it is the polar opposite of his spare and minimalist Pickpocket (1959), an overly detached adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a nearly non-verbal choreography of repeated criminal acts, concerned with the moral implications under which it operates, while Fuller seems to forego matters of conscience, content to live in the artificially constructed lowlife underworld of his own making. According to Fuller, “All over the world, you’ll find small-time crooks like Skip, Candy and Moe living on the underbelly of society, struggling to survive with their scams, abiding by their own unwritten code of ethics. I’d seen plenty of these people firsthand when I was a crime reporter. They are individualists, trusting no one, beyond politics, changes in governments, intellectual labels and fashion.”
For real movie trivia, did you know Richard Widmark was baseball great Sandy Koufax’s father in law! Widmark’s daughter Anne was married to the legendary Hall of Fame pitcher from 1969 to 1982.