Widmark and Peters sizzle, but Thelma Ritter steals the show
Craggy, no-nonsense director Sam Fuller knew how to start movies. In Shock Corridor (1963), a reporter meets with his girlfriend and psychiatrist to plot his admission into an insane asylum for the purpose of solving a murder and winning a Pulitzer Prize. In The Naked Kiss (1964), a hooker with a heart of coal wallops a john while the camera records the assault subjectively from his perspective. Her wig flies off to reveal a perfectly bald head, and a great grotesque moment of film is made. In both cases, Fuller demonstrates such gritty visuals and muscular storytelling that we’re invested in these movies nearly before they’ve begun.
He shows similar fortitude in 1953’s pulpy, coarse Pickup On South Street, now on glistening display in a new DVD release from Criterion. After opening credits using Fox’s standard mid-century font, we get one quick establishing shot of a subway, then wham! we’re set in the middle of a packed train car. We see small-time hood (Richard Widmark) expertly fingering the purse of a costume bejeweled dame (Jean Peters). We also see another man eye Widmark, but he says nothing. The movie, in fact, has yet to offer one word of dialogue. Widmark scores, and he gets off at the next stop before the witness can follow him. It’s a bravura first scene, often evoked in film classes as a textbook example of a seamless blend of editing, reactions, and mood.
More importantly, that heist offers the beginnings of a complex plot whereby the audience knows not where it’s going. Neither victim nor perpetrator realizes that they’re handling sensitive government documents wanted by Communists, and there are folks willing to kill to get them back. Pickup on South Street joins the ranks of a select number of movies that exploit a narrative structure particularly well defined in American crime dramas, in which deceptive simplicity spirals into deep complexity and suspense. The Big Heat, The Killing, Kiss Me Deadly, The Hitch-Hiker, and Detour all reveal themselves in ways deliberate, teasing, and sinister, and Pickup on South Street belongs very much to this tradition.
Given its vintage, Pickup on South Street might be expected to offer testimony on the evils of Communism and the goodness of Democracy, but everyone is too busy looking out for themselves. Its canvas is decidedly small, but there is a clearly understood street hierarchy. Pickpockets, traitors, and stoolies are all low — but none are lower than the Commies. For one moment, men and women on both sides of the law unite against the Red Menace. Still, the politics of Pickup on South Street remain murky. Fuller kept the patriotism at arm’s length, stating, “I had no intention of making a political statement in Pickup, none whatsoever. My yarn is a noir thriller about marginal people, nothing more, nothing less.”
The cast is perfectly chosen. Widmark’s mouth acquired a permanent sneer ever since he pushed that old lady down the stairs in Henry Hathaway’s 1947 Kiss of Death. Peters looks like she was born sleazy, but it is Thelma Ritter as embittered, bemused, world-weary Moe who gives a performance to rank alongside the best in American film history. Every line, every gesture, every expression offers us a look at Moe’s sorry, pitiable life. Ritter lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Donna Reed, who stretched her instrument none too persuasively that year as a woman of easy virtue in From Here to Eternity. The choice today looks felonious, but such are the crimes of Oscar.
As is its custom, Criterion loaded on the extras. Here we have Fuller, a man’s man and a director’s director, holding court in two brief documentary interviews. He’s a straight talker void of the obnoxious self-regard that adheres to so many filmmakers. The 20-page booklet confirms him as a regular guy, strong enough to fight Darryl F. Zanuck on casting Betty Grable in the female lead, but personable enough to endear himself to studio people of every rank. He has modern acolytes as well, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino, Curtis Hanson, and Stephen Frears.
Pickup on South Street‘s veneer is made of neon, greasy spoons, flophouses, police headquarters, and one highly picturesque waterfront shack all finely lit in long shadows. But the fetid urban landscape is not a literal translation of Fuller’s soul. Quite the contrary. In the DVD’s booklet, he is quoted saying, “I hate violence. That has never prevented me from using it in my films. It’s part of human nature…. violence is deplorable, but alas, it’s part of our brutal heritage.” Fuller wasn’t afraid to look into the eyes of the beast — and the beast is us.