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Pickup On South Street is one of the most brilliant movies ever made.
An example of the directing: When Candy (Jean Peters) starts going
through her purse and notices her wallet is missing, an alarm goes off
in the background in the building she's in -- as if it's an alarm going
off in her head. It's not cartoon-like -- it's subtly woven into the
background in a way that strikes you on a subconscious level until
you've seen the film a few times and it just "clicks" that there's an
alarm bell going off when she starts frantically going through her bag.
Richard Widmark is way on top of his game as a smart-alec -- he's really great -- but the highlight performance of the film was the first scene for "Moe," the street peddler/informer, played by Thelma Ritter. Later, in her apartment, you are not seeing a movie -- you're seeing a real person. I've never seen anyone "act" so real I felt like I was looking into a real room until Ritter's performance -- right down to the way her hair stuck out a bit when she removed her hat.
About a million other things just *worked,* from the way Lightning Louie picks up money with his chopsticks to the way Candy's jewelry clicks when she flicks Moe's hand away from her brooch, to the way Moe gets the dollars and change from the police captain across the FBI guy's chest -- and even the way the captain opens his filing cabinet, like he's been doing it in that way in that room for many years. "Pickup On South Street" is detailed moves (directing) with consummate performances (acting) and superb now-nostalgic visuals of the day, such as the panel truck, the boards leading to the shack out on the water, the dumbwaiter, -- and the unforgettable place Skip stashes his pocket pickings. Wonderful stuff.
"Pickup On South Street" is also one of the few movies where, even though the characters aren't perfect, you do care about them -- perhaps because they have been somewhat branded by their pasts in ways that are hard to escape: Skip as a "three-time loser" and Candy as a youngish woman who has "knocked around" a lot. When these people behave a little more badly than you'd expect, it's in sort of novel ways that make it seem you're looking in at people you'd never otherwise imagine -- and yet you know that they are possible because the actors make them so recognizably human.
In this excellent Twentieth-Century Fox film-noir, the metropolis is a
labyrinth of despair in which scavengers and predators survive by living off
one another. Brooding cityscapes lower over puny humanity in bleak
A prostitute has her purse snatched on the subway. It contains a microfilm, and a communist spy ring will go to any lengths to recover it. Two parallel investigations unfold as both spies and cops hunt down the precious information.
Anti-hero pickpocket Skip McCoy is played with scornful assurance by Richard Widmark. He knows the cops to be his moral equals and intellectual inferiors, so he taunts them: "Go on," he says to captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye), "drum up a charge. Throw me in. You've done it before." In this pitiless world, the cops are just one more gang on the streets. Just as Candy the hooker bribes Lightning Louie to get a lead, so the police are busy paying stool pigeons for information.
It is hard to believe that when Widmark made this film he was already in early middle age. The 39-year-old star, coming to the end of his contract with Fox, plays the upstart Skip McCoy with the irreverent brashness of a teenager. Today it may not be acceptable for the romantic lead to punch his love interest into unconsciousness then revive her by sloshing beer in her face, but by the mores of the period it signified toughness - and Candy, after all, is a fallen woman.
Jean Peters is radiant as Candy. Here, right in the middle of her five-year burst of B-movie fame, she is beautiful and engaging as the whore with the golden heart. She is the story's victim, a martyr to her beauty as much as anything else. She means well, but is constantly being manipulated by cynical men - Joey, Skip and the cops.
The real star of this movie is New York. Haunting urban panoramas and snidering subway stations offer a claustrophobic evocation of the city as a living, malevolent force. Like maggots in a rotting cheese, human figures scurry through the city's byways. Elevators, subway turnstiles, sidewalks - even a dumb waiter act as conduits for the flow of corrupt humanity. People cling to any niche that affords safety: Moe has her grimy rented room, Skip his tenebrous shack on the Hudson River. As the characters move and interact, they are framed by bridge architecture, or lattices of girders, or are divided by hanging winch tackle. The personality of the city is constantly imposing itself. The angles and crossbeams of the wharf timbers are an echo of the gridiron street plan, and the card-index cabinets in the squadroom mimic the Manhattan skyline. When Joey's exit from the subway is barred, it is as if the steel sinews of the city are ensnaring him.
A surprising proportion of this film is shot in extreme close-up. Character drives the plot, as it should, and the close-ups are used to augment character. When Skip interrogates Candy, the close-up captures the sexual energy between them, belying the hostility of Skip's words. Jean Peters' beauty is painted in light, in exquisite soft focus close-ups. The device is also employed to heighten the tension. The opening sequence, the purse snatch, contains no dialogue: the drama relies entirely on close-up for its powerful effect.
Snoopers, and snoopers upon snoopers, populate the film. Moe (Thelma Ritter) makes a living as an informant, and her place in the hierarchy is accepted, even by her victims. When Skip observes, "she's gotta eat", he is chanting a recurring refrain. Just as 'straight' New Yorkers peddle lamb chops or lumber, the Underworld traffics in the commodity of information.
And yet even the stool pigeons are superior to Joey and his communist friends. Joey's feet on Moe's bed symbolise a transgression of the most basic moral code. Joey is beyond the pale. Moe will not trade with Joey, even to preserve her life: " ... even in our crummy business, you gotta draw the line somewhere."
"Pick-Up" was made in the depths of the Cold War. Richard Nixon had just been chosen as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, having made his name with his phoney Alger Hiss expose - bogus communist microfilm and all. The McCarthy show trials were a daily reality. We see the cops in the movie inveigh against "the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb".
New York can be seen as a giant receptacle in which human offal cheats, squeals and murders. Containers form a leitmotif throughout the film. Moe carries her trade mark box of ties, and candy's purse, container of the microfilm, is the engine of the plot. Skip keeps his only possessions in a submerged crate, symbolising his secretive street-wisdom. The paupers' coffins, moving down the Hudson on a barge, are containers of just one more cargo being shifted around the pitiless metropolis.
The film is a masterpiece of composition. Candy is shown above the skulking Skip on the rickety gangway of the shack, signifying her moral ascendancy. When the gun is placed on the table, the extreme perspective makes it look bigger than Candy - violence is beginning to dwarf compassion. The lovers are eclipsed by the shadow of a stevedore's hook, reminding us that their love is neither pure nor absolute, but contingent upon the whims of the sinister city. Enyard the communist is a shadow on a wall, or a disembodied puff of cigarette smoke. He is like the lone alley cat amongst the garbage - a predatory phantom of the night. Camera shots from under taxi hoods, inside newspaper kiosks and through the bars of hospital beds constantly reinforce in us the awareness that we are all trapped in the metropolis. We are civilisation's mulch.
The best of the seven Sam Fuller movies that I've seen (including Park Row, Run of the Arrow, Verboten!, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, The Big Red One, and this film), Pickup on South Street counts as one of the best film noirs. It represents Fuller at his most controlled. I like him when he's out of control, of course, but nearly everything in Pickup is perfect. The film is absolutely beautiful. Richard Widmark stars as a pickpocket who steals some microfilm that was meant to go to communist spies. Jean Peters plays the woman who was carrying the film for her boyfriend, played by Richard Kiley. Peters is forced to find Widmark and get it back. She finds him through a stool pigeon played by Thelma Ritter. Widmark and Peters are attracted to each other, which changes Peters loyalties (that, and the fact that she learns she's working for communists; the Cold War stuff is really interesting). The love story is done a little quickly and not entirely believable, but it's not so bad that it harms the film (unlike Fuller's previous film, Park Row). Richard Widmark is great. This must be one of his best roles, but I'm not so familiar with his career that I can say that for sure. Thelma Ritter gives the most memorable performance. Her role gives the film an unexpected emotional resonance, and her final scene in this film is as touching as any you will find in the cinema. I will never forget that. 10/10.
Director Samuel Fuller concocts a brilliant visual set-up to this gritty story: cocky pickpocket unwittingly lifts some microfilm from a woman's purse; it turns out she's a courier for the Communists, and now they are both being watched by the police. The noir formula in all its 1950s glory--before the ingredients became clichés--including waterfront locales, floozies, saxophones on the soundtrack, and one hell of a climactic fistfight. Performances by Richard Widmark and Jean Peters are right on target, and the smart, sharp script is quite colorful. Fabulous Thelma Ritter received an Oscar nomination for knockout supporting role as a "professional stoolie". Exciting, atmospheric, tough as nails. *** from ****
Directed by Samuel Fuller, who also wrote the screenplay, Pickup on South Street is a tough, brutal, well made film about a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) who inadvertently aquires top-secret microfilm and becomes a target for espionage agents. Also involved are Jean Peters as a tough broad who is used as a courier by her evil ex-lover Richard Kiley. It's film-noir at its best and although the performances are very good its grand character actress Thelma Ritter who steals the movie. As Moe a weary street peddler selling neck ties (and who also sells information) she is terrific in a role that brought her another Oscar nomination. Its amazing that Miss Ritter was nominated six times for an Academy Award and she never won. This should have been the role that copped it for her!
I watched this last night on TV (HBO). I have to admit, that the tension in this movie was unsurpassed by most other FN era movies. I loved the way Chip would be all calm one moment and then VIOLENT the very next moment. It was classic. Ahh yes. The dames, the villians, the cigars and thuggish cops! It has it all. This movie delivered all the goods to me. I especially loved the way they mixed communism into the plot, very common for this era of movie. Very daring also since blacklisting was popular in those days. I rate this movie one of the best I have seen in the FN genre!
Every now and then there gets released this movie no one has ever heard
of and got shot in a very short time with very little money and
resource but everybody goes crazy about and turns out to be a
surprisingly great one. This also happened in the '50's with quite a
few little movies, that not a lot of people have ever heard of. There
are really some unknown great surprising little jewels from the '50's
that are worth digging out. "Panic in the Streets" is another movie
like that that springs to the mind. Both are movies that aren't really
like the usual genre flicks from their time and are also made with
I was really surprised at how much I ended up liking this movie. It was truly a movie that got better and better as it progressed. Like all 'old' movies it tends to begin sort of slow but once you get into the story and it's characters you're in for a real treat with this movie.
The movie has a really great story that involves espionage, though the movie doesn't start of like that. It begins as this typical crime-thriller with a touch of film-noir to it. But "Pickup on South Street" just isn't really a movie by the numbers so it starts to take its own directions pretty soon on. It ensures that the movie remains a surprising but above all also really refreshing one to watch.
I also really liked the characters within this movie. None of them are really good guys and they all of their flaws and weaknesses. Really humane. It also especially features a great performance from Thelma Ritter, who even received a well deserved Oscar nomination for. It has really got to be one of the greatest female roles I have ever seen.
Even despite its somewhat obvious low budget this is simply one great, original, special little movie that deserves to be seen by more!
I really enjoyed this film. All aspects of the film were top notch including the most important, for me anyway, the screenplay and the acting. This is definitely one of Richard Widmark's strongest roles. He is totally convincing in his performance. Just out of curiosity, imagine how Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum might have tackled this role. This is my first exposure to Jean Peter's work that I can remember. She impressed so much here that I will definitely be on the lookout for her other work. Thelma Ritter, in an unglamourous role, deserved the Oscar nomination she received for playing the informant. This film works on every level. The black and white photography is perfectly appropriate and the story hooks the viewer right from the beginning. Widmark and Peters have great chemistry in their difficult romance. Strongly recommended, 9/10.
Skip McCoy is a three time loser pick pocket, unable to curb his
instincts back on the street, he picks the purse of Candy on a subway
train. What he doesn't realise is that Candy is carrying top secret
microfilm, microfilm that is of high interest to many many
Director Samuel Fuller has crafted an exceptional drama set amongst the seedy underworld of New York City. Communist spies and shady government operatives all blend together to make Pickup On South Street a riveting viewing from first minute to the last. Based around a Dwight Taylor story called Blaze Of Glory, Fuller enthused this adaptation with heavy set political agenda, something that many at the time felt was over done, but to only focus on its anti communist leanings is doing it a big disservice.
Digging a little deeper and you find characters as intriguing as any that Fuller has directed, the main protagonist for one is the hero of the piece, a crook and a shallow human being, his heroics are not born out of love for his country, they are born out of his sheer stubborn streak. It's quite an achievement that Fuller has crafted one of the best anti heroes of the 50s, and i'm sure he was most grateful to the performance of Richard Widmark as McCoy, all grin and icy cold heart, his interplay with the wonderful Jean Peters as Candy is excellent, and is the films heart. However it is the Oscar nominated Thelma Ritter who takes the acting honours, her Moe is strong and as seedy as the surrounding characters, but there is a tired warmth to her that Ritter conveys majestically.
It's a B movie in texture but an A film in execution, Pickup On South Street is a real classy and entertaining film that is the best of its most intriguing director. 9/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SPOILERS. Sam Fuller, as someone pointed out, was usually a better
interview subject than a director. What a life he led. There's an early
photo of him as a newspaperman, feet on his desk, hat tilted back on
his head, smoking a cigarette -- straight out of "The Front Page."
Then, column two: the U.S. Army's First Division, the Big Red One, and
World War II with experiences that he could never forget. For years
afterward he could not hear a car backfire, or a knock on a door,
without jumping out of his chair. Column three: movie director.
The French adored him. His style was called "primitive" by some, and in fact it was down to earth and unsophisticated, rather like an article in, well, not the New York Times but maybe the New York Daily News. Or the Post. Well, not the Post. All of his movies moved fast, the way Fuller himself spoke. Everything seemed to tumble over itself trying to get on screen with little time left for contemplation.
I haven't seen all of his movies, but I believe he produced two unusually good ones: "Merrill's Marauders" and "Pick Up on South Street." Too many of the others come out like comic books. This one ha several excellent things going for it. First, a fine cast. Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy, the cannon, is good in a way that combines his insouciant charm and the brutality he showed in his early work. Jean Peters too is convincing in the tarty part of Candy. (Great name.) She's more animated here than in any other of her films. (In "Apache," I believe you could add up all of her lines AND her expressions on the fingers of one hand.) Fuller got a good performance out of her here. "What's the matter, Joey? You're talking' like it's HOT." She wears very heavy makeup. Her black eyelashes are the size of window awnings, even when she's bundled up in a hospital bed. She even trounces around in a sluttish way. Richard Kiley is an actor I've always admired. He's quite handsome in a blandly dark and sensitive-looking way, and his range was considerable: a villain here, a humanist there, a narrator of poetry on PBS. And then there is Thelma Ritter, who is sui generis, at the top of her form as the cynical wisecracking urbanite, perhaps more subdued here, and given a more complex part. She didn't make that many movies but she was a beacon in each one.
The plot? Let me see. Widmark, the expert pickpocket, boosts a roll of film from the innocent Jean Peters' pocketbook. Neither of them know it, but the film is a MacGuffin containing some kind of secret microfilm to be passed on to the Commies. Widmark's response when he learns this, as the cops try to pressure him into cooperating: a smile of disbelief and, "You wavin' the flag at ME?" (He's great.) Most of the movie is concerned with Kiley's attempts to retrieve the film before his bosses off him, and before the cops find out what's going on. People routinely betray one another, then forgive. They also casually brutalize one another. Jean Peters especially gets knocked around. First she's clipped on the jaw and is knocked out at her first meeting with Skip. (The movie follows the usual short-cuts: one bop and the recipient is out cold for as long as the plot requires.) The first thing Widmark does is grin widely and go through her purse, then he takes a swig of beer out of the bottle before pouring some on her face to wake her up. (As I said, all the conventions are followed because it just saves time.) But she really gets bashed by Joey, the Commie who is trying to squeeze some intel out of her. She is so vulnerable. Just out of the tub, still wet, wrapped in a white robe with a hood covering her hair. Fuller holds on the beating with a single shot and a shaky camera as the two of them reel around the room and Peters is bounced off walls and caromes into bookcases, and is finally shot and wounded. It's one of the few moments when the viewer is gripped, because the drama is not undercut by irony. The other scene involves Thelma Ritter. Jean Peters falls much too quickly for Widmark, though. You can't help noticing it because by their second meeting she is hopelessly devoted to him. It's all the more odd because Widmark can't seem to keep himself from belting her around and ridiculing her at every opportunity. Of course this sort of masculine behavior may appeal to some women. It's always worked for me. A couple of unprovoked clips on the jaw and they worship you.
How does Fuller handle all this? With aplomb. The production values don't shoot out the lights. The non-electrified shack that Widmark lives in could have been given some real atmosphere, but as it is it's nothing more than a perfunctory set, with a "Bait and Tackle" sign on the outside. What appears to be the Brooklyn Bridge can be glimpsed through the window (an obvious photo), which means that the owner of the shack used to sell fishing gear on the East River, from which nobody could pull anything but porgy with cholera sauce. Fuller ignores all this and zips through the movie headlong, the way a reporter might try to bang out an article under a deadline. Sometimes the approach works, and sometimes it doesn't. Here, it does. See it if you get the chance.
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