By: Melvin Cartagena
Pickup on South Street – dir. Samuel Fuller – 1953
The title crowning this piece of writing comes from the mouth of Mr. Fuller himself. In Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1965 film Pierrot Le Fou, he explains his philosophy of film to Jean Paul Belmondo as: “The film is like a battleground. Love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word…” In House of Bamboo, gang boss Sandy Dawson barges into Griff’s house while he’s soaking in the little wooden tub, shoots him dead, and then talks to the corpse, tender and bitter-like, patting the dead man’s head like it’s his betraying lover.
In Pickup On South Street, when Candy goes to Skip’s shack to talk to him, Skip knocks her out in the dark, wakes her up by pouring beer in her face, and while he touches the bruise on her lips they caress each other with the tenderness of old lovers.
“The heat of the story is what I’m interested in.” – Samuel Fuller
This is about Pickup On South Street.
In The Naked Kiss, Constance Towers’ Kelly is fighting with her pimp for owed money. Over a wild jazz score he taunts her, and eventually yanks the wig she’s wearing off her head. Now she’s pissed, and the frenzied beat of the jazz score picks up as she chases after him with a shoe, and manages to cold-cock him. She counts her money while he’s on the floor (and only the money due her, she flings the rest of the bills in his face.) She goes to the mirror, and as she resets the wig over her head the music shifts down to a dreamy saxophone-driven score that lets us recover from what we’ve just seen while the movie credits pop in and out of frame around Kelly (it’s not till a few scenes later that we learn that Kelly’s pimp shaved her head while she was sleeping, to teach her a lesson).
This is about Pickup On South Street. Really. But you can’t think about Pickup without seeing it both as a springboard and a framework for Sam Fuller. It was the peak culmination of the themes and styles explored in the films leading up to it, and the reference model that dictated the aggressive-yet-playful tone of the films that followed it.
As a crime reporter for the “New York Graphic” at seventeen, his beat covered skid row: whores, pimps, pickpockets, stick-up men, bloody barroom brawls, paddy wagon walks. Shootings, beatings, cuttings, rapes, assaults. From his years as a newspaperman he developed the lurid, semi-bombastic, tabloid-like style of reporting that informed the pulp novels he wrote in his early twenties, and provided the inspiration for Skip McCoy, Candy and Moe, among other characters.
“So I learned that the power of the camera is like boldface type. You can’t compete with it.” – Samuel Fuller
As a World War Two veteran, he brought to his movies the hard-bitten, cynical, survivalist approach to life, the code of honor that demands no-nonsense pragmatism in the face of organized lunacy—Sam Fuller’s own definition of war.
In Skip McCoy we have the prototype Fuller field soldier. He’s a two-time loser with a third strike hanging over his head, and police Captain Dan is convinced it’s only a matter of time before he hauls Skip in for good. He lives on a shack under a bridge, eking out a living through pick-pocketing the square society that’s shunned him. Skip is content to remain invisible, until he lifts a cache of microfilm containing military secrets off Candy. The opening of the movie is a series of close-ups that cut between the federal agents on her trail, Candy’s indifferent stare and Skip’s predatory one while he smoothly invades her purse, and it reveals different levels of knowledge. Candy is unaware of the feds, of Skip, and of what she’s carrying, while Skip is unaware of the feds, and the contents of the microfilm. In the larger context of the film they also don’t know what a communist is, and don’t really care. Survival is directive. When Skip learns what the microfilm contents are he sees a chance to make a juicy profit by pitting the feds against the commies in a bidding war for the prized strips of film. When Captain Dan tries to roust Skip for the microfilm, Skip fights back with insolent cockiness, daring him to either frame him or let him go. The men Captain Dan sent to Skip’s flat couldn’t find anything to hold him with. (Thanks to Skip having hidden the microfilm beforehand in a wooden box he lowers into the river via a rope.) When the feds offer to drop all charges against Skip in exchange for his cooperation, the man who lives in a shack under the bridge tells them “You waving a flag at me?”. When the feds try to appeal to his sense of patriotism the man unwanted by society barks out a laugh and says “Who cares?”
“Humanity is rude, from birth. Otherwise there’d be no conniving, no war. There’d be no spy.” -Samuel Fuller
The world of Samuel Fuller is one of chaos and irrationality; there’s no explanation for it, and no moral judgment is passed on it. It’s just the way it is. Always has been, always will be. The individual can’t change it; all he or she can do is find a niche within it to exist. Skip earns his personal nirvana through the love of Moe (Thelma Ritter) and Candy (Jean Peters.) The former is an aging police informer connected to the underworld, whose main concern in what’s left of her life is not to be buried at Potters Field, the burial ground filled with unmarked graves. The latter is a sweet tart, not smart enough to become a mistress. Content with the pretty dresses and gifts she gets from her boyfriend, Joey, in exchange for favors, such as acting as an unwitting courier for communists. After getting details of the lift from the feds, Moe describes Skip’s M.O. for them, and gives them his shack’s address—for money. Like Skip, survival is her main goal.
When Candy goes to Joey with the news of the stolen microfilm, he sends her to find it through her street contacts. A few bills to Lighting Louie gets Candy Skip’s riverside shack address, and to their first violent and tender meeting. (When Skip learns how Moe sold him out to the cops he grins and says, “Moe’s alright. She’s gotta eat.” They are both utter professionals, and know that information is the commodity in trade in their world. Existential acceptance of the way things are.) Once there, after being knocked out, revived and kissed by Skip, Candy realizes it’s Skip she’s been after all along, not the microfilm.
“I don’t want you to see what you think you’re going to see.”
Candy (caressing Skip’s fingers)
How did you get to be a pickpocket?
Skip roughly shakes his hand out of her grip.
How did I get to be a pickpocket?
How did you get
to be what you are?
Just happens, that’s all.
Take the obvious and flip it around. A romantic moment shattered by harsh subjectivity. Redemption doesn’t come easy. Skip doesn’t believe Candy’s intentions toward him, and she’s shocked when she learns of his plans. (“So you’re a Red. Who cares? You’re money’s as good as anyones.”) But she knows how desperate and dangerous Joey is. She knocks Skip out and takes the microfilm back to Joey, hoping he’ll be happy and leave her new man alone. But when he finds a frame is missing, Joey literally tosses the apartment with Candy, flinging her from one side to the other to knock furniture aside, and then shooting her and leaving her for dead.
Irony. Skip learns through Moe that Candy got hurt trying to protect him.
Double irony. Moe, who sold Skip out to the cops for fifty bucks, is shot dead when she refuses to tell Joey where Skip is. Samuel Fuller gives her one of the best lines in a film that’s bursting with one loaded line after another. (“I to go on making a living so I can die. But even a fancy funeral ain’t worth waiting for if I’ve gotta deal with crumbs like you.”)
Redemption. Skip intercepts the boat carrying Moe’s body in a plain pine coffin to Potters Field to claim her. “Are you a relative?” One of the boatmen asks Skip. “No,” he snaps in response, “I’m going to bury her.” Skip’s surrogate mother won’t be buried in a plain pine coffin.
Clarity. Visiting Candy in the hospital he finally learns what he didn’t know in the beginning. In a close up where we actually see Skip’s face light up with understanding, he learns the totality of the communist plot around him, and that Candy truly loves him. (“I’d rather have a live pickpocket than a dead communist,” Candy tells him from her bed.)
Double redemption. With the facts straight in his head, Skip stalks Joey, disarming him with the same smooth motions that he used to strip Candy of the microfilm (in a virtual repetition of the subway scenes at the movie’s beginning), he chases Joey down, smacks him around, drags his face across the platform steps, and recovers the rest of microfilm. Skip reenters society out of love, not profit.
“A director takes a few songs, a few scenes, and he makes a symphony out of it.” – Samuel Fuller
Pickup On South Street covers sweeps through an orchestra’s entire musical range. From the deceptively simple-seeming rhythm of the opening sequences to the scene in Captain Dan’s office where Moe grills the FBI agents for details, gives them Skip’s whereabouts, and reveals her fear of an unmarked grave to the Captain; from Skip cracking wise to Captain Dan while he tries to sweat him for the microfilm to the shocking-yet-appropriate second encounter between Candy and Skip; from Moe’s sad, final moment of truth to Skip doing good through the beating of Joey to everything in between. The details. Candy’s look of horror while checking her purse, and the realization of what’s just happened is complimented with an alarm going off somewhere outside. Moe’s insistence in calling the ties she sells as “a complete line of personality neckware.” The way Lightning Louie picks up the cash Candy drops on the table for him with his chopsticks, barely missing a beat in his eating.
In Pickup on South Street you get a heady dose of Fuller’s battleground theory, served up with a gutsy forcefulness of vision and originality and sheer storytelling panache that he rarely matched in his following movies, with the possible exception of Shock Corridor (1963). As a film it’s a triumph of substance and style, where Sam Fuller found ways to create inspired visual sequences, and triumphed over the budget and time constraints. (Ten shooting days.) Moment after moment, scene after scene, it never lets up, never flags, never cheats. The movie is a seventy-seven minute wild ride symphony that takes us to through highs and lows, through light and dark, through love and hate, pain and joy.
“The director’s job is to see that the finished story, or film, is what excited him in the first place.” – Samuel Fuller