Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller)

Pickup on South Street is not based on a novel; the opening titles have a story by credit for Dwight Taylor, with director Fuller getting the screenplay one. The film’s got a peculiar plotting and roving protagonist, plus some terrific monologues, and I was wondering if they were Fuller or someone else.

They’re Fuller. Fuller and his actors, but it’s his script. It just makes Pickup even more impressive.

The film opens on a hot New York City morning; on the subway. Jean Peters is hanging onto a grab handle while a couple men ogle her. Fuller really leans into the creepy guy bit for a moment before Richard Widmark slides up next to her. They share a polite smile as Widmark reads his newspaper and picks her purse.

Fuller wanted to call the film Pickpocket, but the studio said no.

What Peters and Widmark don’t know is the oglers are actually government agents; they’re following Peters because she’s passing secrets to the Soviets, and one of the agents, played by Willis Bouchey, saw Widmark rob her. Jerry O’Sullivan plays the other agent; he doesn’t get credit (and barely any lines), but he’s very much part of the opening sequence tension. Fuller starts Pickup tense and never lets it slow down. Even when Widmark’s taking a break at one point, he’s got to hurry.

Bouchey heads to the cops, teaming up with captain Murvyn Vye to track down the pickpocket. Meanwhile, Peters has to explain to her creepy ex-boyfriend (a perfect Richard Kiley) about not being able to deliver the package to his boss. He’s been telling Peters it’s industrial espionage, just business stuff, barely illegal. Peters goes along with it because she was a working girl, and Kiley helped her go legit. Though it turns out his idea of legit is being a Soviet spy.

There’s a timer on the delivery; the whole point is to catch Peters’s contact, so Vye calls local stoolie and neighborhood pal Thelma Ritter. She ostensibly sells neckties, but it’s a cover for her information racket. She’s got a personal code for selling out her fellows, an arrangement she assures everyone is understood. There’s this wonderful class tension between the cops and regular crooks like Widmark, then Peters realizing she doesn’t understand how that part of the world works, even if she can navigate her way through it.

Ritter gets the film’s best scene, a lengthy monologue about her life at that point, struggling to save enough cash to ensure a proper burial and not Potter’s Field. Absolutely devastating stuff, with Fuller laying the groundwork for it from Ritter’s first scene. She and Peters will team up later on, with Peters and the cops looking for Widmark, and Ritter wants to make sure Widmark makes it out of this mess okay.

The film’s a smorgasbord of phenomenal sequences, with Fuller taking advantage of a studio budget to showcase himself and the film. Widmark and Peters have numerous sweaty, sexy scenes together as they both try to play one another. Once Peters gets some context for Widmark from Ritter—and once Ritter vouches for Peters to Widmark—the relationship gets even more layers. Unlike the Ritter monologue, I couldn’t believe the Widmark and Peters “courtship” was from a novel; it’s too filmic.

But Fuller’s also got a bunch of action sequences. There are lots of crane shots, lots of long takes with multiple actors, and a couple of harrowing scenes as the Commies get serious (and murderous).

Even with the “red herring,” the bad guys are just greedy bad guys, and Fuller never commits too hard with the jingoism. It’s all talk for Widmark, a three-time loser who’s a week out of prison and either facing a life sentence for picking Peters’s purse or some treason charge; he’s the film’s enigma. Everyone else—including Bouchey, Vye, Kiley—explain themselves at one point or another. Widmark doesn’t; can’t. So we watch the intricate plot unravel and become clear on his face, which is one of Fuller’s best moves.

Along with all the other great moves.

Pickup’s surprisingly serious. Like, it’s got a happy-go-lucky score from Leigh Harline for most of it, and there are some jokes, but it’s not funny. It’s dangerous, and it’s tragic, and it’s beautiful. Fuller, with a budget, is peerless because he’s exuberant about the film, has recurring sight gags for the audience, and invites active participation and enthusiasm.

The film takes place over about two and a half days. First day morning, Widmark picks Peters, the cops start looking for him, she starts looking for him. By that first night, she’s already negotiating to get the MacGuffin back. No one’s getting any sleep; everyone’s bouncing around with nervous and worse energy. It’s a New York movie, too; enough location shooting and solid sets (there’s a fantastic library sequence), so they’re bouncing around the big city, adding the urban isolation bit, which informs the three main characters.

It’s wonderful.

The best performance is obviously Ritter, who’s incomparable. Then Peters, then Widmark. Peters has a tricky part—tough girl stuck in the femme fatale role she doesn’t want to play—and does really well. Widmark’s just got to be a charming asshole who wises up to human connection.

All the technicals check out—Joseph MacDonald’s photography, Nick DeMaggio’s cutting, Al Orenbach’s sets, Travilla’s costumes—Pickup on South Street is an outstanding motion picture, start to finish.

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