Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Based on a Story by: Dwight Taylor
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley
Running Time: 80 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I've reviewed a few Samuel Fuller films here, one not too long ago in fact (Forty Guns) and I have a habit of feeling a little disappointed after getting excited before seeing them. That's not the case with Pickup on South Street. This isn't a first time watch and I think my love for the film is partly why the last couple of titles I watched let me down a little.
Pickup at South Street is a classic film noir that opens on the subway where pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) snatches the purse out of the handbag of Candy (Jean Peters). It turns out he stole more than just a few dollars though. Candy was unwittingly on her way to give a top-secret government microfilm to a Communist agent and Skip ends up with this in his stash. Helped by professional stool pigeon Moe (Thelma Ritter), Candy, the police and the Commies all end up on Skip's doorstep, demanding the microfilm. Realising what it's worth, he tries to shake them all down for as much cash as possible. This gets him deeper and deeper into trouble though.
I love a good film noir and this has all the key ingredients of the genre that I can't get enough of. On top of the moody high contrast photography and seedy back street setting, you get sharp dialogue throughout. It's real hard boiled gutter talk in this case, with a wonderful streetwise poetry to it.
Pickup at South Street is hard boiled in general, like the best of film noir. The characters are all flawed, broken or downright nasty. Our protagonist Skip is possibly the worst of them all (in the first half at least). He's offered a good deal by the police fairly quickly, but he refuses to cave, acting like a real arsehole. His relationship with Candy is truly seedy too. Although they become close towards the end, their first few tangles see the two of them getting pretty physical (or as physical as you could get on screen at the time) even though both of them are just using sex purely to get what they want. Skip is very aggressive with her too, making for some shocking scenes. The relationship that grows after this is maybe hard to swallow due to his actions, but the film gets away with it as you believe that a girl like Candy rarely makes the right choices of men.
In amongst the dirt and grime however, the film has a powerful emotional anchor in Moe. Thelma Ritter is one of cinema's most underrated actresses. She steals the show in several classics (Rear Window, All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives and a guilty pleasure of mine - Pillow Talk) and here she truly outdoes herself. What's great here is that she does more than just offer comic relief as she does in a number of her other roles. She's as fun to watch as ever, but her character has a melancholic edge. Her only goal in life, as she reaches the end of it, is to make sure she's buried in a nice patch of land she's got reserved rather than Potter's Field, where all the bums and nobodies get dumped. So she spends her days hawking information and cheap ties to earn enough money to make her last wish come true. As she gets further embroiled in the microfilm standoff, Moe and the audience realise all hope is lost though, leading to an utterly heartbreaking scene which kickstarts the final act.
The film also contains some wonderfully tense set pieces from the opening purse snatch to the violent final chase as the police and Skip hunt down the Communist bad guy. Fuller certainly had a knack for directing action and keeps the film motoring along through its brief 80 minutes. The patriotic, anti-Commie slant could have easily turned the film into flag-waving fluff, but the director plays everything dirty with just enough heart and soul to keep you on side.
It's a lean, mean masterpiece in every way. If you haven't seen it, you should head straight to your favourite retailer to buy this new Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray/DVD re-release. You won't regret it.
Pickup on South Street is out on 17th August in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. I watched the Blu-Ray and it looks and sounds great as is to be expected from the company.
For special features you get thoughts on the film from Kent Jones (32 mins), an archive piece by Francois Guerif (23 mins) and an interview with Fuller himself back in 1980 (11 mins).
As usual with Eureka's releases, you also get a booklet included with the discs. This is as great as always, with an essay from Murielle Joudet and an excerpt from Fuller's own memoir.