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Samuel Fuller wasn't the type of director to beat around the bush, and his economic narrative style is highly evident in Pickup on South Street (1953), one of the all-time great film noir pictures. A brutal examination of losers on the outer edges of society, the story revolves around the Communist underworld. But Fuller always insisted that Pickup on South Street is apolitical, and he wasn't being disingenuous when he said it. Notice that the main characters - all of whom are exceptionally unsavory - only strike back against Communists when their own well-being is in jeopardy. They're simply looking out for themselves, regardless of who's victimizing them.
In a lot of ways, this is a mean little movie; Fuller isn't aiming to seduce anyone. The borderline ludicrous story is set into motion when, in a brilliantly-crafted opening sequence, a pickpocket named Skip (Richard Widmark) steals a wallet from Candy (Jean Peters), a low class woman who's riding on a crowded New York City subway car. Candy soon discovers her boyfriend (Richard Kiley) is a Communist spy - and now he's threatening her because he had some microfilm stashed in her wallet!
Both Candy and the Feds, who are trying to find Skip for different reasons, get information on his whereabouts from an ex-pickpocket (Thelma Ritter, in a heartbreaking, Oscar®-nominated performance) who has no problem selling what she knows to the highest bidder...until she meets a Commie. Candy, in case you couldn't see it coming, winds up falling for Skip. But Skip, who couldn't care less about Communists, only knows that the microfilm is obviously worth a lot of money. From there, it's Skip being none-too-kind to Candy, and eluding a bevy of pursuers around the city. If this movie were made today, critics would complain that there's nobody to root for, but that's half the fun. There are moments when your jaw drops over how tawdry it all is.
Fuller, a former newspaper reporter, often utilized recent headlines to add punch to his screenplays, and you couldn't get any hotter than Communists in 1953. He realized, however, that the average American didn't even know what a Communist was - they just knew that they were supposed to be appalled by their very existence. So he peppered Pickup on South Street with the Red Menace without delving into what's supposed to be so menacing about it. "I had no intention," Fuller later said, "of making a political statement in (Pickup on South Street), none whatsoever. My yarn is a noir thriller about marginal people, nothing more, nothing less."
His intention, Fuller said, was to "poke at the idiocy of the cold war climate of the fifties." Yes, he knew there were Communists who were fervent followers of Marx and Lenin, but his years on the newspaper beat taught him that there were people who would deal with literally anyone, so long as there was a decent payoff in the end. Not everybody, however, was convinced of Fuller's objective. Shortly after the release of Pickup on South Street, the director and 20th Century Fox's production head, Darryl Zanuck, were actually summoned to a meeting at a high-end restaurant with J. Edgar Hoover!
The famous FBI director, of course, was no stranger to blackmail and assorted criminal intrusions himself, but was always ready to rake the entertainment industry over the coals for its perceived threat to the American way. Years later, Fuller recalled Hoover getting especially bent out of shape by an F.B.I. agent in the movie who pays a criminal for information. Hoover insisted that the Department of Justice would never do such a thing, but Fuller was having none of it. "Mr. Hoover," he told the Director, "I was a reporter in the precincts myself. I've seen cops haggling with the Feds about fink money. I've even seen the Feds give cash to the cops for stoolies." Fuller also stood his ground on the characters' casually unpatriotic attitudes, saying that they were characters, and that their opinions in no way reflected his own.
A pair of bodyguards in black suits were sitting at a table next to Hoover's, keeping an eye on their Hollywood quarry as if they were enemy agents who might do harm to this Great American. The only harm done, however, was to Hoover's monumental ego. Neither Fuller nor Zanuck backed down, and not a second of footage was excised from Pickup on South Street. Hoover would just have to accept the unforgiving vibe, like any other viewer of a Sam Fuller picture. The difference was that other people are able to enjoy it.
Director: Samuel Fuller
Producer: Jules Schermer
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller (based on the story Blaze of Glory by Dwight Taylor)
Editor: Nick De Maggio
Cinematographer: Joseph MacDonald
Music: Leigh Harline
Art Design: Lyle Wheeler, George Patrick
Special Effects: Ray Kellogg
Set Design: Al Orenbach
Stunts: Hal Needham
Costume Designer: Travilla
Cast: Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Moe), Murvyn Vye (Capt. Dan Tiger), Richard Kiley (Joey), Willis Bouchey (Zara), Milburn Stone (Winoki), Henry Slate (MacGregor), Jerry O'Sullivan (Enyart), Harry Carter (Dietrich).
by Paul Tatara