PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET
Pickup On South Street (1953) writ. & dir. Samuel Fuller (based on the story by Dwight Taylor), cine. Joe MacDonald, edt. Nick DiMaggio, music Leigh Harline star. Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Mo), Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis B. Bouchey, Milburn Stone
20th Century Fox
when women were goddesses
A pickpocket who works the city (New York or Chicago) subway steals a woman's purse but in the process unintentionally ends up with a strip of micro film in transit to a cell of communist agents. He does this in a crowded carriage under the eyes of two cops who are trailing the woman, yet manages to slip away into the streaming throng leaving his mark none the wiser and the cops scrambling to figure out just what's happened.
The execution of this opening scene is excellent. The camera is elevated, as if located in the ceiling, looks down on the passengers who stand tightly bunched, a sea of dreaming heads. You see a statuesque woman in white, could be a shop girl or some doxy on her way to the movies. You see a pickpocket move in beside her, pretend to read his newspaper, proceed to open and loot her white handbag. The action is sexual, as if the couple are enacting a rendez vous in a dream. She's watching him pretend to read while at the same time allowing his hand to explore her intimacy. This ambiguous action is observed by the two cops although their view is obscured. When Skip (Richard Widmark) suddenly exits at the next station, you too are left wondering just what has happened.
Candy (Jean Peters) certainly doesn't know. She's been made love to in a dream but now that she's crossing a crowded street, her reality is her intended dropoff, another rendez vous in which she is a dupe. When she enters the vaulted lobby of a commercial building, checks her handbag, discovers her purse has been stolen, she knows instinctively who the thief is... because, after all, she was a willing participant in the Freudian exchange. She phones Joey, a "boyfriend" for whom she has been working as a courier; this was to have been her last job for him before going her separate way.
Unbeknownst to Candy, Joey is a communist agent. He immediately orders her to do a street search, check out the stoolies, find out who grifted her purse... and recover the film strip containing the top secret chemical formula. Of course the real chemistry in this movie is between Peters and Widmark, and Candy's search is for her natural lover, not a small-time loner thief or a double-agent. Thus the pickpocket Skip McCoy becomes the man with the magic chemistry, and the moral issue one of self-interest versus country.
A lot of the action takes place at night on the waterfront, so it uses the stage expressionism typical of film noir -- landscapes cloaked in shadow, humans haloed in light, dialogue-driven action, and a sense of theatre in exchange and gesture. Peters and Widmark in medium closeup is a thing of beauty. When she surprises him in his rathole hideout down on the waterfront -- a shack masquerading as a bait and tackle shop -- he knocks her out cold... but when he turns on the light, discovers she's the "muffin" he grifted on the subway, he massages her jaw softly as she lies sprawled in his arms. While she regains consciousness, she really enters a dream -- they kiss, and she realizes her true agenda is love, not the business at hand.
I'd rather have a live pickpocket than a dead traitor
Of course, love never runs smooth. Skip still behaves as a sociopath who uses charm rather than surrenders to charm, and his natural cunning quite rightly surmises that Candy is working for someone else and that this film is worth a lot more than a simple negative of some guy's family photos. His main adversary is a cop called Tiger, who has managed to nail him three times already... and a fourth conviction will mean "life". Tiger tries to cut a deal with Skip, tries to appeal to his patriotism, but to little avail -- he figures there's a better deal to be made with Candy's "old lady".
When Joey the commie murders Mo (Thelma Ritter), the old stoolie who sells ties from a suitcase as totems for the underworld information she really sells, Skip is moved into his first selfless gesture. In one of many great photographic moments in this film, he recovers Mo's coffin from the death boat before transportation across the river to an undignified burial in Potter's Field. It is the least he can do for this quasi-mother whose last words to him to were, "Stop using yer hands, start using yer head, Skip -- the kid loves ya."
Indeed the kid does love him... and in fact puts her life on the line for him. Stolen kisses aren't the only loops in this fabulous narrative: Skip's secret stash which he keeps submerged in the Hudson at the end of a rope and pulley just outside his window is later reinvented when Joey hides in the dumbwaiter after shooting Candy... and the opening scene on the train is reenacted in a smooth circularity when Skip picks Joey on his way to a meeting with a communist colleague in the can at the Third Avenue station.
Very much a Cold War psychodrama, Pickup On South Street sees small-time hoods as heroes united against the new criminal threat to society, the communist hoodlum. Candy's amusing line "I'd rather have a live pickpocket than a dead traitor" says a great deal about a capitalist society that tolerates petty crime in contrast to its fear of ideology... because, after all, what is commerce but a form of articulate theft? The values here are old-fashioned: the love of a good woman, and the love of a good country.
© LR 7/2000
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