Fantastic Fifties’ Noir – PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET
PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is what happens when a hardboiled director makes a hardboiled movie.
Samuel Fuller was a maverick filmmaker, a true independent whose direction was economical yet dynamic, filled with inventive camerawork and characters that felt grittier and more real than their mainstream counterparts. Never really achieving Hollywood success, Fuller worked on the fringes, on low-budget B-grade pictures where he could experiment without having to backlight the stars. In the 1960’s he became a darling of the French New Wave, who championed Auteurs and criticized the hacks who were killing Cinema (oh where are you now, Cahiérs du Cinema…?) Loosely adapted from a story by Dwight Taylor by Fuller himself, Pickup on South Street (1953) is a fine introduction to Fuller’s universe, where everyone is always at the end of their ropes, dregs of society just trying to survive. The underrated Richard Widmark plays Skip McCoy, a petty criminal who accidentally pickpockets microfilm on the subway and gets into a whole heap of trouble. The Feds suspect he’s involved in a Communist plot and set out to bust the spy ring, but Skip doesn’t like being pushed or manipulated, which leads him – among other things – to utter the classic anti-patriotic line, “don’t wave the flag at me!” which disturbed audiences at the time to no end. There’s an edge to the characters in this movie that you don’t get from movies of this era, in the naivete of the gorgeous-yet-victimized Candy (Jean Peters) and the backstabbing stool-pigeon (Thelma Ritter, who was nominated for an Oscar). The performances are pitch perfect and the black and white cinematography perfectly captures the urban world of gray. If you ever find yourself hankering for a good old fashioned piece of pulp, I suggest you pick this one up – it’s a masterpiece. In fact I’ll start you off, because even though there doesn’t seem to be a trailer on youtube, there is the entire movie in 9 parts. Here’s the first:
And check out Sam the man himself, as he talks about the movie’s opening and other subjects as well: