7/13/09

The Grab Bag: Pickup On South Street (1953)

I didn’t know a thing about Sam Fuller. I think somewhere along the line I had heard of his film The Big Red One because it starred Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. While flipping though the channels, I happened across Turner Classics and they were playing an interview with Fuller. In seconds, I was transfixed. There he sat in a white suit, wild white hair, and punctuating his sentences with a foot long cigar. As he told stories of his film making career, I wondered how I hadn’t seen any of his film, and I knew I had to change that.

It was quite a task to decide which one to pick first. The Big Red One looked great with Hamill and Lee Marvin, 40 Guns with Barbara Stanwick seemed like it turned Western conventions on their ear, and Shock Corridor looked like a deeply interesting film itself, but the footage they showed from Pickup on South Street immediately captured my attention.

The film tells the story of Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) a “cannon”, or professional pickpocket, who lifts a wallet out of a lady’s purse while on the subway. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to her, the girl, Candy (Jean Peters) is delivering information into the hands of a communist agent, or at least she was until her wallet got nabbed. Now the ex-boyfriend (Richard Kiley), who she was playing courier for, makes her hit the streets looking for the thief. Meanwhile, the FBI men who were tailing Candy are on the hunt for the thief too. With the help of Moe, a part time tie saleswoman/ part time stoolie (Thelma Ritter), both the cops and Candy track Skip down, but as a three time convicted criminal with everything to lose he’s only looking out for himself these days.

Before I get too deeply into the film itself, I want to put in a lengthy quote from Sam Fuller on this picture. After all, who better to describe this film than the man in the big chair?

“I got a kick out of the thought of the three main characters being a pickpocket, a hooker, and a stool pigeon/bag lady. These three, the lowest rungs on the social ladder, were in the front line of the cold war. It evolved from a courtroom drama that they wanted me to do. I told [Darryl] Zanuck I wanted to do a real story about a cannon, a professional thief, with authentic dialogue. In this story, crime pays. It's a business. They aren't criminals out of choice, because they always wanted to be; they do it because it's the only way they can make a living. This character, McCoy, he lived alone, he was alone, in his own jungle, in a cocoon. Somebody penetrated that, took a beating for him. Nobody before would ever lift a finger to help him, let alone suffer physical injury for him. Then he saw red. It became personal.

We shot the picture in 20 days, making downtown L.A. look like New York City. We had a couple of sets--the subway where the guy gets pulled down and plays chopsticks on the stairs with his chin. Richard Kiley's character is not a true believer; he's just another grifter being paid by the Commies. I really don't care about ideologies. That's all a yawn; but the people who believe, who work for, who kill for the ideologies, now those are characters that I can relate to. I played down the politics because that's boring, and I had no interest in the political structure of the Communist Party in the U.S. or anywhere else.

This is about espionage, a risk occupation just like lifting wallets--a grifter is a grifter after all whatever the grift. Even the American agents are left vague; they're just government men. There was a guy in England, Fuchs I think, who got slammed around the time I was writing the script for being a double-agent, so I threw a reference in there: "You know about Fuchs (or whatever his name was). You know what he did and what's going to happen to him." Widmark's answer is "Who cares about that?" I wanted the contrast between the political view, the Red Menace, all of that stuff, and the reality for a grifter: which is "who cares?" I'm down here two steps up from the gutter. Political motives are from the moon.”

To put it mildly, I loved this picture, and I’ve watched every little bit of the Criterion disk and the film itself three times. Pickup on South Street takes the noir genre to a different place its thanks not only to Fuller’s inventive script, but also the incredible acting on display in the film, the smooth cinematography, and a score rooted in jazz bop. The film transports you into a world where there are no good guys, and the bad guys exist only the in the margins of the story. It does not rely on action, thrills, or suspense to keep the movie interesting. Instead its strength lies squarely in being a thoughtfully crafted piece of cinema.

It’s hard to say if the acting or direction of the movie were its strongest suit, but I suppose I’ll start off with the founder of the feast, Sam Fuller. Working with cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (The Sand Pebbles (1966), Viva Zapata (1952)), Fuller created a film full of pure cinematic moments. The opening scene alone perfectly sets the tone for the film with a scene on a subway car that unfolds completely though the lens. As the camera moves from one character’s face to the next, the audience is hooked in by the intrigue that it sets up. (The opening scene is linked at the bottom of the post, and I encourage everyone to watch it and get a feel for the film.) Throughout the film, Fuller allows the scenes to be told as much visually as through the acting, and each shot is composed to further the story line.

All the stylish camera work in the world could not make up for bad acting, but thankfully there’s nothing of the sort on display here. I have to start off with Jean Peters and her excellent turn as Candy. While it’s never spelled out that Candy is a prostitute, or something of the same ilk, it definitely infers that she is. Peters, an Ohio native, seems more like she just hopped over from Brooklyn to make this film. She is also in a word ravishing. From the opening scene, I was completely taken by her, and throughout the film she proved she was far more than just a pretty face. Why she never became a big star is beyond me. This was a girl with some serious chops and a beautiful look. I will rewatch the flick many times in the future just to watch her slink her way through this sultry and sensitive portrayal.

As the jaded pickpocket, Richard Widmark made Skip a totally modern character. There were not a lot of antiheros making to the screen in 1953, and Widmark made Skip a hero who was completely flawed, sometimes despicable, but totally redeemable in a believable way. His defining scene comes when he’s being pressed by the FBI about the stolen microfilm and they accuse him of being “as bad as the people who gave the A-bomb to Stalin.” Skip looks as if he’s just been slapped across the chops and replies, “Are you waving the flag at me?” it was brave to script the character that way, but it took an actor of great skill to deliver a line like that and make the audience feel exactly what he was feeling. This is a man who’s come up rough, been chewed up and spit out by the system, and left a three time loser on the brink of being jailed for life. Skip is not a nice fellow. He slaps Candy around and puts her in quite a bit of danger, but somehow Widmark still comes out as out hero.

The greatest performance of the film comes from the actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Moe, the tie selling stool pigeon. Thelma Ritter got her start in radio, but many people will recognize her as the put upon mother in Miracle on 34th Street who can’t find the toy her kid wants for Christmas. This nomination was one of six she received in her career without ever winning the coveted award and it’s really a shame. Moe is the character that ties the action in the film together, and the emotional impact she has on the film can’t be dismissed. This is a woman who rats out other crooks to survive, but as Widmark’s Skip says, “Moe’s alright. She’s gotta eat.” Ritter’s performance should be the textbook example of how to be a supporting player in a film.

Even if you don’t have an interest in film noir, this is a film I deeply encourage people to check out. I don’t know if this film at all fit’s the definition of a cult film, but it definitely had a rabid following of one now. The dark narrative has surely had a wide influence on film over the ages, and Sam Fuller, well, if nothing else he was a visionary director who carved his way through the studio system to make a new kind of film.

Bugg Rating

Below as Promised is the trailer to the film, the opening scene, and an interview with Sam Fuller from French Tv.



3 comments:

  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJuly 13, 2009 at 6:27 AM

    lightning bug, dont tell any-one i told you this, but i used to fancy thelma ritter (no kiddin`), i thought she was quite a tasty old bird.

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  2. It's a great film, and there's a great story Fuller has told about how Daryl Zanuck stood up for him against J. Edgar Hoover when the FBI wanted to censor Widmark's dialogue in the scene where he tells the Feds not to "run up the flag" on him.

    No one's Fuller experience is really complete until they see him perform the role of a cranky vampire hunter in Larry Cohen's Return to Salem's Lot. He's the best thing about that film.

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  3. great write up. loved the cast. esp. thelma ritter. http://ow.ly/1aU07

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