Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Pickup on South Street

Marred only by its McCarthyist Commie-bashing overtones, Sam Fuller’s ‘Pickup on South Street’ is dark, cynical, no-punches-pulled film noir the way it should be, inhabiting a milieu of lowlife crooks, hard-bitten cops, sultry dames and vicious killers, a world where everything is for sale or – if the price is too high – killed for.

Pickpocket and three-time jailbird Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), just out of the joint after his most recent spell, lifts good time girl Candy (Jean Peters)’s purse on the subway. Bad move. It contains a bit more than the expected make-up case and pocketbook.

Candy’s en route to a drop-off at the behest of her sometime boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), a man mixed up in a Communist spy ring who’s so scared of having his cover blown that he barely leaves his apartment and thinks nothing of sending Candy to do his dirty work. Candy has no idea that Joey’s a pinko, nor that the merchandise she’s dropping off (several frames of microfilm) poses a potential threat to state security.

She doesn’t know she’s being followed either. Police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) and FBI Agent Zara (Willis Bouchey) have got her under surveillance, ready to pounce when she makes the drop. They’re ready to nail the Mr Big in the spy ring. Skip’s light-fingering fandango throws a spanner in the works. Then he, ahems, skips off the train before Candy’s tails can intercede.

Tiger (appropriately named: the dude’s tenacious) calls in Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), a stool pigeon who’s address book reads like a DeBrett’s of the underworld and gets her to ID Skip based not on the physical description his men provide but on his technique in making the snatch. Moe’s a woman who knows something about everyone and will sell to cop or crim for the right price.

Skip’s also attuned to what he can get for what he’s got, whether it’s Candy’s voluptuous charms or a wad of cold hard cash. When Tiger and Zara come calling it’s not with the latter and they ain’t feminine enough to make it with the former. They appeal, instead, to his sense of patriotism. The rhetoric cuts no ice with Skip; a “three-time loser”, his next conviction means life, and Tiger has a personal grievance against him and a jones to see him go down.

Skip: You boys are talking to the wrong corner. I'm just a guy keeping my hands in my own pockets.
Agent Zara: If you refuse to cooperate you'll be as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb.
Skip: Are you waving the flag at me?

Fuller’s screenplay (from a story by Dwight Taylor) is a model of economy, setting up half a dozen characters and a handful of locations – Skip’s harbour-front shack, Joey’s apartment, Moe’s place, Captain Tiger’s office, the subway – before negotiating an increasingly labyrinthine series of permutations like a piano virtuoso executing a faultless set of variations on a theme.

Skip’s distrust of Tiger necessitates a stonewalling of the cops. Candy’s attraction to Skip (coinciding with her discovery of Joey’s political affiliations) leaves her in a no-man’s-land between cops, crims and Commies. Joey’s desperation that he won’t be able to deliver the microfilm motivates him to betrayal and violence. Moe’s reputation for selling information leads some unsavoury characters to her door.

‘Pickup on South Street’ clocks in a stripped-down 80 minutes. Every frame, every tersely quotable line of dialogue is spare and purposeful. From its claustrophic opening sequence to its noir to the nines pursuit and fistfight in the dark tunnels of the subway, ‘Pickup on South Street’ is fast-paced and purposeful. The dialogue hums. The cinematography is striking and moody. Widmark has seldom been better, while the stunning Jean Peters finds a nice balance between the feisty, smart-talking front that Candy puts on and the out-of-her-depth human being she’s finally revealed to be.

The jingoist hoo-hah that permeates the narrative is something of a sop to the prevailing political climate (‘Pickup on South Street’ was made in 1953, the year the Rosenbergs were executed) and the freighted references to the Red Menace seem a little OTT half a century down the line. Indeed, with the microfilm McGuffin figuring so prominently, you’d be forgiven in places for thinking you were watching a Hitchcock. But it ain’t Hitch at the helm, it’s Sam Fuller, and it’s not long before a brutal piece of sneering cynicism sears the screen and you’re left in no doubt about the film’s noir credentials.


Bryce Wilson said...

This would be in my personal top ten.

Just love every stinking minute of it. And in all fair to the Commie bashing, its true, but Fuller Makes it pretty clear he doesn't really like anybody.

Samuel Wilson said...

The flag-waving could have been worse, given the way that Fuller and Darryl Zanuck had to stand up to J. Edgar Hoover himself, so Fuller claimed, to keep that "Are you waving the flag at me?" line in the script. Hoover apparently objected even to a criminal failing to respond with knee-jerk patriotism to the government's call to duty, or else to the insinuation that "waving the flag" was only a cynical ploy. Overall, though, Commie spy villains were bound to show up in this period, but that doesn't mean that Fuller was waving the flag himself or defending laissez-faire capitalism. It was just a way to add contemporary relevance to a noir story.

Neil Fulwood said...

Bryce - yeah, Fuller's take on the material is certainly misanthropic. For me, that's one of the key aesthetics in noir, that sense of how low the motives are that drive people and how far they'll go if the circumstances are desperate enough. I love that nobody really knows what's on the microfilm. I pegged it as a Hitchcockian McGuffin in the review, but it goes beyond that. Hitch would have been satisfied to say "this is a microfilm, it has secret things on it, it's important" and leave it at that. Fuller has Skip McCoy take a look at a frame of it only to be bamboozled by screeds and formulas and symbols. He doesn't have a frickin' clue what it means, he just perceives it as something of worth. There's a statement on the human condition there.

Sam - that's a fascinating story about Fuller and Zanuck locking horns with Hoover and one I was unaware of. It'll definitely give me an added perspective next time I watch the film.

Thanks for commenting, guys.