Monday, November 26, 2007

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Skip McCoy is a sleazy, thieving, smart-ass. He has a gift for the grift and he’s not hesitant to use it on easy and innocent prey. If he has a middle name it may be “recidivism” as he’s been pinched by the police on many occasions for picking pockets and done jail time in three separate stints. Because of his three strikes, one more conviction for Skip and he’s going to the slammer for life. Candy on the other hand is a B-girl who has been “knocked around a lot” and seems to think its status quo for a girl like her. A svelte, good looking dame whose white dress she wares in the film looks so tight, she may need turpentine at the end of the night to peel it off. Candy gets these taut threads namely from guys with dough who want to see her in them. One could speculate that she most likely does more than simply bat her eyelashes at these same mooks to keep the duds they put her in. Lastly Moe Williams is a sub-contractor stool pigeon to the cops plain and simple. She resents the stoolie label however, stating that she “was brought up to report any injustice to the police authority.” Despite this rationalization, when the price was right she dropped a dime on Skip’s modus operandi and whereabouts to the cops when they were looking for his neck to hang a collar on. It may not seem too strange for a professional canary to sing about a lowly pickpocket, but unusual when one considers Moe has known Skip since he was a kid and genuinely professes to love him. While this triumvirate of two-bit hoods and hustlers may sound like the kind of scene you’d want to avoid at all costs, it’s these same characters you can’t afford to miss in director Sam Fuller’s masterpiece “Pickup on South Street.”

The film opens on a NYC subway car where Candy (Jean Peters) is carrying an envelope given to her by ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). As a last favor to him she is to deliver the envelope to a man at a rendezvous point and she’ll be done with Joey once and for all. Candy is unaware that the contents inside the envelope (we later learn) are strips of microfilm consisting of classified U.S. government secrets that the Russians are dying to get their pinko paws around. Joey is working for the commies and looking for a big pay day with the delivery of the film. Candy is his unknowing buffer and potential fall-gal in case the deal goes sour. The U.S. government is aware of the breach and G-Men have been following Joey and the people he associates with for six months hoping to land the big players above him. We observe J. Edgar’s agents tailing and keeping a close eye on Candy in the subway car. Unexpectedly, while the car is in motion, they witness a man position himself next to Candy in the crowded car and adroitly pluck the wallet from her purse right under her oblivious nose. Before they can react the thief is off the train at the next stop with Candy’s wallet containing the envelope and microfilm. One of the G-Men continues to tail Candy while the other visits NYC police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) to try and find out who this “cannon” is that lifted the microfilm. To expedite the process of finding out whom the pickpocket’s identity, Captain Tiger calls in one of his informants; a little old lady named Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter). Moe looks like she’s as altruistic as Florence Nightingale, but in reality the only pulse Moe has her finger on is the seedy underbelly of the NYC grifter element. This inside knowledge, coupled with the cops hitting a dead end, allows her to drop a dime on the hoods to earn a dollar. She expertly identifies the pickpocket as Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) by the G-men’s eyewitness description of his uniquely individual thieving technique. Both the G-Men and Captain Tiger’s police force know he has the microfilm and they haul in Skip attempting to pry it out of him. Skip won’t cop to possessing it, as one more conviction, added to his three, will ensure they throw away the key on him. From here on out Candy tries to use Moe to get the microfilm back from Skip. Moe tries to milk Candy’s desperation to find Skip for her own financial gain. Skip discovers the microfilm and tries to grift Candy for a big payday from Joey and the commies. I’m just scratching the surface as the story has more wonderfully crazy angles and turns than an Escher drawing. Fortunately the tale never gets convoluted in its complexity and it continues to build toward a gripping third act that stands up to any noir history.


While the screenplay (written by Fuller from a story by Dwight Taylor) is rich in dialogue, narrative, and story, the cast elevates it to a plateau of excellence that few movies in film noir reach. Widmark is outstanding as the anti-hero and gives arguably his best performance from an impressive ‘cannon’ of work. Jean Peters gives a solid performance as the manipulated moll Candy. While she may not have the otherworldly chops of Widmark or Ritter, she sells the part well enough to keep up with her co-stars. Without a doubt though, Thelma Ritter is soul of this film. Her ability to convey the vulnerability, charm, and guile of a complex character like Moe is a feat I can picture no other actress accomplishing the way she did in “Pickup.” It’s a brilliant performance that belongs in the pantheon of film. Seriously.

Visually there is plenty to appreciate and enjoy with “Pickup on South Street” but Fuller’s use of the close-up is the visual element that resonates deepest with me. He judiciously uses the tight facial frame sparingly, but maximizes its effectiveness when he does. Each main character gets a notable close-up during points in the film where a significant aspect of their character is revealed and we get a better understanding of the people occupying Fuller’s world. During Thelma Ritter’s introductory scene in Captain Tiger’s office, the camera is kept at bay until Tiger asks Moe about the status of her “kitty” (her savings which is simply a big wad of cash). Moe has been saving up scratch from her legitimate business front of selling men’s neck-ties on the street and also her informant money so she can buy herself a top of the line funeral and all the trimmings. She tells Tiger that she’s almost has enough for the headstone and the exclusive plot on Long Island where you have to be screened before they “let you in there.” Tiger warns her that she better be careful about carrying around such a large wad of cash, especially with the ne’er-do-wells she associates with otherwise she’ll end up in Potter’s Field. Tiger’s words act as a vacuum to the feisty and energetic flame in Moe’s eyes. Her face drains only to be refilled quickly with a grave look of concern that comes over her as the camera gets to an intimate distance with her face. She confides to the police Captain, “Look Tiger, if I was to be buried in Potter’s field… It’d just about kill me.” There are several moments in the film like this where such a small aspect reveals so much about the different character’s desires, fears and motivations.


As if the fantastic story isn’t enough, “Pickup” has many complex and fascinating themes permeating the film. One I discovered on a recent viewing is the interesting dichotomy between reliance on the male dominated world in which Moe and Candy operate to survive and their struggle with maintaining independence and autonomy. Moe needs men to buy her neck-ties and Captain Tiger to help feed her kitty. Candy needs men to earn a living by being the “eye” type of her namesake. The viewer gleans that Candy floats from the arm of one guy to the next but it’s not something she’s particularly proud of. When his tail is on the line and he needs a lead as to who lifted the microfilm from her purse, Joey asks Candy, “You’ve knocked around a lot. You know people who know people.” Candy’s face tenses up and Fuller gives the audience another telling close-up as she snarls, “You gonna throw that in my face again?” Due to the nature of their professions Moe and Candy can’t afford to get too close to anybody, yet simultaneously they have a pragmatic need for connecting with people. But beneath these same necessary connections of survival stirs an emotional longing to unite with others on a human level. Unexpectedly and briefly, Candy and Moe seem to find this commonality with each other via Skip acting as an inadvertent catalyst. It’s an interesting dynamic and brief exploration of such between these two women, especially for the patriarchal and straight-laced era in which the film was made.

There are so many little touches to “Pickup on South Street” that help make it one of the finest film noirs I’ve ever seen. I love the way a streetwise character named Lightning Louie uses chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant to pocket cash on the table. I adore Moe as she’s working angles as an informer and simultaneously trying to sell her ties or as she calls them “a complete line of personality neck-ware.” I never tire of the scene where Moe deduces that Skip is the microfilm thief by the individual method in which he lifts Candy’s wallet because Moe knows each pickpocket’s methods are as distinct and unique as a fingerprint. I crack up over the way Skip keeps his beer cold in his unconventional hideout and offers a cop one by nearly hurling the bottle at him from across the room. I love it when Candy realizes her wallet has been lifted while she’s inside the lobby of a building and somewhere outside the sound of an alarm goes off. I love the existential acceptance shown by Skip when he realizes that Moe told Candy where he was hiding out and he embraces her being a stool-pigeon by quipping “Moe’s alright, she’s gotta eat.” These are just a few samples of many, many details and nuances in “Pickup” that make up an aggregate of mesmerizing and near flawless filmmaking. One viewing of “Pickup on South Street” is not enough to fully appreciate its genius, but one viewing will certainly whet the thirst of any true film-lover enough to continue going back and drink from this refreshing well, again and again.


Written by Tim (aka - Mappin and Webb Ltd.)


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sam Fuller pulls no pulp punches. Loved it when the commie's chin bounced all the way down the subway stairs. And the beer cooling in the East River...that's the high life. Nice finger job on the subway too.Only thing missing from the flick is Lloyd Nolan should've played the G-man. It don't figure why Sam got exiled to France. Bum steer. This pic is true blooded Americana, and so is Skip for smacking them lousy, no-good commies good and hard.

Hard-Boiled Dick

mindy said...

I have just discovered this site and am most impressed with the articulate well structured writing.I too really liked this noir(seen as part of the tcm oscars month) and tonight will finally see tommy udo in kiss of death, even though you didn't think much of the film itself.
i just need to see this widmark performance!

th again for all your hard work. Terrific!

Amanda said...

How do you feel about the ties of betrayal and trust in relationship and institutions in this movie?

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