Pickup on South Street
d. Samuel Fuller (1953)
The Criterion Collection
Samuel Fuller always manages to make me feel like I’m standing in the picture, and usually in an uncomfortable but oh-so welcome way. Pickup on South Street begins in a miserably in a crowded subway car. It stops and jerks to a start, passengers cringe as they bunch together and try to endure the trip. People try to avoid eye contact, nonchalantly pretend they’re okay standing up against a complete stranger.
But something else is happening, and Fuller’s camera captures it in a way that both moves the narrative forward and develops the seedy world we’ll be inhabiting throughout the film.
Two men are not keeping to themselves. They look freely around the car. It’s creepy. It’s even creepier when we realize the person they seem to be watching most often is a woman (Jean Peters) who appears to be on her own. We don’t know why they are watching her. At times it seems she is aware of their gaze . . . probably because she is used to men looking at her.
Then, at one of the stops, a man (Richard Widmark) gets on the subway car and slowly makes his way through the crowd to stand next to the woman. Finally she doesn’t look so alone and vulnerable to the other men who watch them. They don’t talk, but way they look at each other suggests some kind of intimacy. Or, at least, some willingness to be flagrantly open to observe and be observed on the subway car — maybe Widmark’s character is just another creep.
It’s a remarkably ambiguous opening scene, filled with intrigue and tension. The story takes off momentarily when Widmark’s character dips his hand into the woman’s purse and removes something, folds it up in his newspaper, and escapes the prison-like subway car.
Again, we don’t know the relationship between the man and woman. Was this a deliberate hook-up and hand-off or did the man just pick the woman’s pocket? We find out soon enough; the woman gets to her destination and discovers whatever she had in her purse is missing — she is hit with a wave of dread. It turns out she was a lone woman riding the subway after all. She was aware of the men looking at her, but clearly she is no stranger to inappropriately interested men. And that man we thought might be a friend, or at least friendly? A petty crook willing to snatch whatever he can find in a woman’s purse.
The other two men on the train, it turns out, are police officers. Somehow they knew the woman was transporting something, but they failed to catch the pickpocket. To find out who it was they call upon someone who has always dwelled just underneath the lower rung of society: a woman named Moe, played by the immensely talented Thelma Ritter. Just look at how Fuller frames this image so that she dominates the head policeman:
Thelma Ritter dominates the entire film, providing nuance and heart to someone whose main goal in life is to make enough money to avoid being tossed in a potter’s field when she dies. Someone with her connections and that stark view on life can be valuable to the police. She knows the thief: Widmark’s lowlife pickpocket is Skip McCoy, a criminal who is a thorn in the side of more than a few of the other policemen.
Skip lives on the absolute outskirts of society in an old bait shop placed over the East River.
There he sleeps, drinks, and hides whatever pocket change he lifted during the day.
But he didn’t intend to steal anything too interesting from the woman, who, we learn when she confesses to her ex-boyfriend that she has lost whatever he had her transporting, is named Candy. And so Skip and Candy enter each other’s lives.
The film is dark in so many ways, each captured masterfully by Fuller. Because of his skill in coming up with a gritty story and then shooting it, Pickup on South Street is infinitely rewatchable.
This new Criterion release is sourced from a new 4K restoration of the film, and it looks wonderful. The supplements are somewhat familiar if you watched the original Criterion DVD, but there is also a new interview with noir (and film in general) expert Imogen Sara Smith. I always look forward to her work, and this supplement — which runs a half hour — is alone well worth the upgrade. She has a wealth of knowledge about the film and its principals, and she shares it enthusiastically.
This is definitely a release to consider if you’re looking for something to pick up in the Barnes and Nobel sale. I’ll recommend it year round, though!
Widmark, Peters and Ritter are all very good actors, but Thelma Ritter is the best of the lot. She was in a gazillion films and always delivered an excellent performance. She was one of the best character actors around for many years. I’d like to see this movie.