Pickup on South Street – dir. Samuel Fuller – 1953
Samuel Fuller didn’t fool around; he was not out to prettify film and once said being restricted to little or no budget was a blessing: “The cheaper the budget, the grittier the film”. And boy, are his films gritty! From the start of his career, Fuller fine-tuned a technique that was taut and raw, a bald tire style that makes you think everything and everyone in his films is going to explode at any moment. He did not embrace and had no patience for the lush, velour shades of a Lubitsch or a Capra; he didn’t give a damn if his pictures fell easily on the eye. He was concerned that they depict accurately that slice of the world he grew up in and knew, a world where you could as easily be kissed as killed,where one minute, you are being romanced by a handsome thug and being rubbed out by him like a half-smoked cigarette the next. Fuller celebrated low-life and the denizens of New York the way children celebrate birthdays — with noisemakers, pop guns and glee, and he made no apologies for accusations that he glorified crime – being Sam Fuller meant never having to say you’re sorry. His films were not blockbusters in their day; Time has turned them into lasting gems for now we see the honest tales they told; time capsule artifacts of a period in our history that truly was unique.
The best of these, I think, is Pickup On South Street. Not the first noir to ever hit the silver screen but certainly one of the most successful, it packs a wallop from beginning to end and captures so well the grimy underbelly of small-time crime and criminals, its alley blacks and streetlight whites as stark as a Weegee news photo; its two-timing scamps, vamps and peddlers unable to love each other because they love being bad even more.
The great Richard Widmark, who died this year, was born to play bad, laughing at his own cutthroat nature, rubbing his city slang all over us the way he rubs Jean Peter’s cheek in one especially seductive scene. Fuller used his camera to capture thought and here, it is Widmark’s face he uses as his canvas. No actor brought more charm to the role of the sadistic snake (Think Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death) than Widmark. He revels in his own oiliness and ambiguity, KOs us with that sneer of a smile. Pure evil — and trying hard to stay that way.
Any picture with the incomparable Thelma Ritter is worth its weight in gold; we would line up to hear her read the proverbial New York City phone book, so impeccable is her comic timing, the punch-and-jab of her wit and pathos makes us sit up straight in our seat.
The plot — the theft and sale to the Commies of a new chemical weapon patent — is of little consequence. We come for Fuller’s near-naked style, for Ritter’s magic act, for Peter’s sultry tease. Most of all, we buy our ticket to Pickup to see Widmark’s gaunt, haunted eyes, to hear his Satanic laugh, to watch him make being a creep seem sexy. As Thelma Ritter’s character, Moe, says of him, “He’s as shifty as smoke but we love him…”