PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET—search director-writer Samuel Fuller’s cinematic vocabulary for nice. If found, it’s most likely followed by punch or shot. Nobody is nice in this 1953 escapade into the noir gutter. Some characters are just less venal, cynical or brutal than others. 63rd in line that year when it came to picking pockets at the boxoffice, a cut of $1,900,000 clipping a sneaky bet of $780,000, its look was applauded by critics but the tonal nastiness put them off. Fuller’s rediscovery and lionization (fittingly overcooked, like his screenplays) has this trim 80-minute battering elevated to classic status, along with the years other violent thumb-in-the-eye, The Big Heat.*
Working the subway crowd, amoral, low-rent pickpocket ‘Skip McCoy’ (Richard Widmark) scams something from the purse of pigeon ‘Candy’ (Jean Peters). Her sweaty boyfriend (Richard Kiley), the FBI and the cops want it back. It’s microfilm—part of a Commie plot, but appealing to Skip’s patriotism just makes him chuckle. Bring on threats, a philosophical stoolie (Thelma Ritter), desperate vamping by Candy—we assume she is either an ex or still part-time hooker, socks to the kisser, kisses that mean more than they should faster than they would, and a couple of vicious beatings. Nice ain’t on the menu.
Forget the pulp plot holes you could steer a barge through and mark the excellent camera work from Joseph MacDonald, crackling dialog, assured direction and editing. Good acting, with the superb Ritter getting an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress and the underrated Peters sexy enough in her steamed-on white dress to trip a citywide power blackout.
Typical of Fuller’s take-few-prisoners oeuvre (French word spell-checked by critics as fancier way to say ‘stuff’) is snarling anti-Red venom mixed with equally disgusted swipes at authority (even J. Edgar Hoover complained), giving whatever sympathy he sees fit to impart to the ordinary losers caught in the middle. Widmark signed on with him again for the silly but fun Hell And High Water. Peters scored the same year in another class noir melodrama, but as a nice gal, balancing Marilyn Monroe’s vixen in Niagara.
With Murvyn Vye, Willis Bouchley, Milburn Stone and Parley Baer.
* The Big Heat is more infamous for meanness, but it’s mostly off-screen, while here with Kiley slamming Peters around furniture and Widmark’s stuntman dragging Kiley’s stuntman teethfirst down a flight of steps deeds veer about as in-your-mug as the day would allow. That said, while most 1953 fare was wholesome, there was cynicism (Stalag 17), adultery (From Here To Eternity) and gunshot-blasts-backwards-into-the-mud (Shane). Yet in those, and Niagara, and even fleeting in The Big Heat–‘nice’ was present. Sam Fuller was too busy pounding the typewriter senseless with the script for Pickup to give a damn.