1953 (June 29, 2021)
20th Century Fox (Criterion – Spine #224)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A+
Pickup on South Street opens with a dialogue-free sequence in a crowded subway car. A couple of men are tailing an attractive woman, Candy (Jean Peters), watching her every move. Making his way through the packed car, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) positions himself next to Candy, pretends to read a newspaper, then surreptitiously removes items from her purse.
This sets the plot in motion. McCoy is a career pickpocket who has inadvertently stolen from Candy’s purse a piece of microfilm that others are intent on retrieving. The FBI and the local police pull in Candy, who knows little about what she was carrying. She was merely a courier running an errand for ex-lover Joey (Richard Kiley) who, unbeknownst to her, has been selling government secrets to communists. She can’t identify McCoy. The cops surveilling her can but to do it quickly they need to summon stool pigeon Moe (Thelma Ritter), who has assisted them before… for a price.
From the detailed description of how the pickpocket operated, Moe is able to finger the right man and soon McCoy is paid a visit. A small-time criminal but a three-time loser, McCoy knows that one more arrest will send him up the river for a long stretch, so he’s extremely careful to cover his tracks. He denies knowing anything about the microfilm and even denies having pickpocketed Candy, and the cops find nothing incriminating on him or in his hideout. When McCoy discovers what’s on the microfilm, he realizes that he and Candy are in the crosshairs of communists desperate to get it back and envisions a big payday ahead.
Director Samuel Fuller, working from his own screenplay, has fashioned a fast-paced film noir that incorporates the then-prevalent mistrust and fear of communists to drive the plot. The three main characters are colorful types who live on the margins of society, earning a living in questionable ways, but basically small-timers. Fuller creates a milieu in which these folks are far more interesting than the cops, who are portrayed as hypocritical and ill-equipped to do hard detective work, relying instead on stoolies who, for a fast buck, will help them out.
Widmark is a perfect fit as Skip. Nattily dressed, having perfected his pickpocketing skills to the level of artistry, and contemptuous of the law, he’s a loner who lives in a shack by the river, cleverly hiding his stash of stolen goods in the secret compartment of a box he lowers into the river to keep his beer cold. He knows the law and knows the cops would arrest him if they had any tangible proof that he pickpocketed Candy.
Ritter has a large supporting role as Moe, an amusing, sympathetic character who, like McCoy, lives by her wits and by keeping her eyes and ears open so she can sell information when called upon. A weary, pragmatic informant, Moe is saving up to afford a decent funeral and burial for herself. Though she’s friendly with McCoy, she has no compunction ratting on him because it’s business and she can make a quick $50 doing so. Ritter infuses Moe with a street-smart manner and a skewed sense of morality while making her an endearing character in the gritty world she inhabits.
As Candy, the communist agent’s patsy, Peters exudes a beaten-down weariness and an anxiety to get out of the game. Candy is more a dupe than a hard-boiled dame looking out only for herself. Neither a prostitute nor a gangster’s moll, she uses her looks to pass information. A contemporary term for her would be “mule,” though she transports something far more dangerous to national security than drugs. She herself doesn’t know the importance of what she’s carrying, which gets her mixed up with McCoy, the cops, and shadowy, desperate characters.
Pickup on South Street links sex and politics, romance and violence, cynicism and sentiment. It’s a post-war portrait of scavengers getting mixed up with communists and cops. Set in the waterfront haunts of low-level crooks and cops in New York City, the film takes an unjaded look at those who eke out a living the best way they know how, often displaying a unique brand of honor.
Featuring 1080p resolution, Pickup on South Street is presented by the Criterion Collection in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an Oxberry film scanner from a 35 mm negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed. Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used to eliminate jitter, flicker, small dirt particles, grain, and noise. The result is a pristine, silvery print. Details such as the sweat on Candy’s face in the subway car, Skip’s shack by the river, the pattern in Skip’s flashy suit, bruises on Candy’s face, Moe’s print dress and flowered hat, a record playing a tune in Moe’s apartment, and the suspended catwalk (a studio set) that leads to Skip’s shack are nicely delineated. A background process screen featuring the Brooklyn Bridge is used to suggest the location of Skip’s shack. Shadows combined with reflections from the river contribute to both atmosphere and suspense in a scene in which Skip attempts to evade unwanted visitors to his waterfront home. In a high angle shot early on in the film, Candy, in a white dress, walks down a New York City street. Everyone else on the street, as well as the cars, are deep grey or black, making her stand out.
The original English monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm optical soundtrack negative and is presented in Mono LPCM. Dialogue is crisp throughout. Thelma Ritter speaks in prominent “Brooklynese,” which suits her character perfectly. Both Widmark and Peters lack regional accents. Widmark delivers many of his lines with arrogance and condescension, especially when speaking to cops. A fistfight features the usual sound effects of body pummeling, bodies crashing into furniture, fists making contact with faces, and grunts. Skip’s wooden shack is quiet, with only the occasional foghorn breaking the silence. A critical gunshot occurs offscreen and is sweetened to enhance drama. The score by Leigh Harline is subtle and doesn’t hit the viewer over the head at key points in the story. It does its job of adding moody touches when needed, but is otherwise restrained.
Bonus materials include an interview with Samuel Fuller; a French television program in which Fuller describes the making of the film; an interview with the author of a book about film noir; a radio adaptation of the film; trailers for films by Samuel Fuller; and a booklet containing a critical essay.
Samuel Fuller Interview (19:06) – This interview was conducted by film critic Richard Schickel in Paris in 1989. The older, white-haired Fuller, cigar in hand, resembles Mark Twain. He recounts his experience of making Pickup on South Street and working with Darryl F. Zanuck. Fuller notes that the camera can show anything and has no limits. The director’s job is to see that the finished product is what excited him in the first place. “He has to have a feeling of visual emotion.” The director can enhance what’s in the script, making the story come to life. The power of the camera is like bold face type. The director goes by his hunch about what will work. It’s important to show, rather than tell. He got along well with Zanuck, who wanted to know who the audience was supposed to root for. Fuller had a meeting with Zanuck and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover regarding the script. Hoover objected to some of the dialogue, but it was retained. Fuller speaks highly of the skills and professionalism of the stunt team. Stunt choreography is important so that when close-ups of the actors are edited in, the scene looks authentic.
Interview with Imogen Sara Smith (35:48) – Smith, author of In a Lonely Place: Film Noir Beyond the City, speaks about the performances of Widmark, Peters, and Ritter as well as the making of the film. A pickpocket is the protagonist and a stool pigeon is depicted sympathetically. Fuller was always drawn to people on the margin—grifters, petty criminals, those who live in their own society and don’t judge each other. Fuller puts them front and center. The film is based on a story by Dwight Taylor. Taylor wrote musicals in the 1930s and a series of noir films in the 1940s. Fuller wanted to make a picture about characters from the underworld, so he pitched the idea to Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox. Zanuck shared Fuller’s love of stories and gave the director a great amount of autonomy. Fuller drew upon his own experiences as a crime reporter in the…
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