Classics Corner: ‘Pickup On South Street’

Sam Fuller’s 1953 Noir Espionage Thriller Never Goes Out Of Style

Film historian and podcaster Karina Longworth visited Austin yesterday to promote her new book Seduction, about the many actresses who fell afoul of Howard Hughes during their Hollywood careers. One of those actresses, Jean Peters, starred in Sam Fuller‘s 1953 minor noir masterpiece Pickup On South Street. So they screened it last night at the Alamo Drafthouse downtown. The people were obviously there to see Longworth, and for good reason. Still, despite a lousy print and projection problems, it’s always great when a theater’s packed for a Sam Fuller movie.

Fuller rarely made a bad picture. All his movies have a genre element to them, but they all transcend cliché and manage to surprise in one way or another. Pickup On South Street, a real two-fisted fedora-fest made at the height of the noir era, is no exception. The plot feels like typical pulp garbage. A three-time-loser pickpocket, played by Richard Widmark, unwittingly lifts some microfilm on the subway from the purse of Jean Peters’ equally unwitting moll. They get caught up in some intrigue involving the FBI and the cops and a bunch of Commie spies. Various guys, quite shockingly, cuff around Peters more often than Conor McGregor. She falls for Widmark because he’s the only one to punch her accidentally.

The story, typical of noir pics, doesn’t make a lot of sense. But Widmark and Peters are appealing and have good chemistry. Fuller takes the anti-Red script, obviously written to avoid the blacklist, and imbues it with subtle tones. The Commies are the bad guys, but the cops are a kind of chaotic neutral. Widmark and Peters represent the regular folk, just trying to find love and a little cash in the midst of a cruel Cold War.

Kiss me, you dumb mug  

Fuller clearly operated with a negative budget. There are few sets and the main players never seem to change their clothes. It’s all about sweaty closeups and weird camera angles. He stuffs basically ordinary scenes full of suspense, shooting his fisticuffs wide so you can see all the choreography unfold. A bad guy’s escape from the cops through a dumbwaiter could have been an afterthought. But in Fuller’s hands, it’s a showstopping set piece. A climactic battle in a subway station goes on for minutes, and is a master class in continuous action.

Pickup on South Street gives off a classic New York vibe. It shows a city not only pre-gentrification, but also before it all went to hell, a kind of pre-pre gentrification. Fuller’s New York is populated by mostly white people, and most of them are Irish, Jews, or vaguely Italian. Characters live in residential hotels or above tattoo parlors. Widmark bivouacs in a waterside shack at the bottom of the island. His door has no lock, he refrigerates his beer with ocean water, he sleeps in a hammock, and he relaxes by having a smoke on the pontoon. He, much like his director, has a romantic view of the city.

But Pickup’s true topper is a character played by Thelma Ritter. Moe Williams, a stoolie for the cops, also sells ties out of the suitcase on the side. She’s one of the great tragic characters in America film, worthy of a Dickens novel, the kind of soulful eccentric who used to prowl the American streets. Moe has a noble motivation. All she wants is a classy funeral. This leads her down a tragic arc that approximates Shakespeare. Her denouement is one of the saddest and most beautifully-acted scenes ever put to film.

That’s pure Sam Fuller, though. He takes ordinary pulp material and imbues it with deeply humanist impulses. You should see all his movies, but this one’s a great place to start.

Old Man Pollack approves.

 

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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