Blu-ray Review: Pickup on South Street

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Samuel Fuller | CAST: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Milburn Stone
RELEASE DATE: 6/29/21 | PRICE: DVD $14.99, Blu-ray $25.01
BONUSES: New interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith; a 1989 interview with director Samuel Fuller; Fuller’s segment from a 1992 episode of the French TV show “Cinéma cinémas”; 1954 radio adaptation of the film for Hollywood Radio Theater
SPECS: NR | 80 min. | Crime Drama | 1.33:1 | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Although it as made as an “A”-budget feature, Pickup on South Street plays like the perfect “B” noir. A tight, taut little crime picture, the 1953 film benefitted from having a terrific cast, a sensationalistic element in the plot (“Commie” spies, looking to acquire microfilm with U.S. secrets!) and a master of action cinema behind the camera, Sam Fuller.

Pickup is a more “normal” Fuller film, compared to his artsy Western debut (I Shot Jesse James) and his later cult masterpieces (Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss). That doesn’t mean the film is dull — not by any stretch of the imagination. It just reflects that the fact that the film was made under the supervision of Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox. Thus, its plot is straightforward and the stars are the true focus – both A-list priorities. And yet, what could be called “the Fuller touch” — a harder edge to sequences of violence and hauntingly sad imagery — is present throughout.

The plot is utterly straightforward. Expert pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark, Two Rode Together) acquires some microfilm with U.S. secrets from a woman’s purse and is plunged into a web of no-nonsense police detectives and Commie spies, who were supposed to be the recipients of the microfilm.

In the process we become acquainted with two very memorable characters. The first is a police informant who traffics in both men’s ties and info needed by the cops. Thelma Ritter (Boeing Boeing), a mere lass of 51 when she played the role (but looking over 65), steals the picture in every scene she’s in. This by virtue of Runyonesque dialogue (“This I do not think is a very funny joke!”) and some of the sweetest, saddest lines that scripter-director Fuller ever wrote.

Her character justifies her informant status (seemingly well-known by every crook in NYC) because she is saving up for a nice funeral and burial. (Her lack of friends and $ means she will otherwise land in an unmarked hole in Potter’s Field.) Her last sequence, in which she compares herself to “an old clock runnin’ down” ensures that she is one of the more memorable supporting characters in the noir cycle.

The other memorable character is McCoy, played by Widmark in sterling antihero mode. McCoy is a cynic whose best line is spoken to the police detective who tells him he must hand over the microfilm to protect the U.S. — “Are you wavin’ the flag at me?” Widmark was so incredibly perfect as a sleazy operator that one is actually a little surprised  when he begins to do noble things in the third act of Pickup (and fulfills the fondest wish of Ritter’s character).

Fuller was known for his jarring compositions and edits (which were paid homage to by directors from Godard onward). In Pickup he achieves the remarkable feat of creating a Manhattan that was crafted in a studio and on the streets of L.A. One scene — a fight on a subway platform — looks so authentic one would swear it was shot in the actual, grubby NYC subway system.

When not behind the camera, Fuller (a former newspaper reporter and soldier who fought in WWII) shone in interviews. He spoke with relish about cinema, making proclamations and punctuating them with a drag on his ever-present cigar. In this package we have two such interviews, the first being a shard from the French TV series “Cinéma cinémas” with Fuller discussing the opening scene of Pickup.

With his characteristic enthusiasm, Sam “punches up” Zanuck’s support for the film, saying the producer “had a hard-on” for the material. He discusses the NYC subway set built in L.A. and explains his approach to visuals by saying “I write with the camera,” aiming for “the tempo of music.”

This phrase returns in a longer video interview with Richard Schickel. Fuller discusses consulting a police detective for help with the film, and also his acquaintance with petty crooks, forged during his years working for newspapers. The most striking set in the film — a desolate shack that McCoy lives in, located on the Hudson River — was based on the real dwelling of a crook Sam knew when working as a reporter.

He also talks about J. Edgar Hoover’s opposition to the film, while it was being made and after it was released. As a closer he offers advice for young directors, telling them, of course, to write with their cameras. “A director takes a song. A few scenes — it’s a song — and he makes a symphony out of it….”

Critic Imogen Sara Smith offers background information from several angles in another supplement. She comments on Fuller’s visual style, noting the various long takes in Pickup and his atmospheric cinematographic “writing.”

The cast are discussed (including Jean Peters becoming Howard Hughes’ wife in later years), as is the original script, in which a woman lawyer falls in love with her client. Most interesting is Smith’s chronicle of the film’s reception. It was a hit in the U.S. but was drubbed by French critics (who were ordinarily cultish for Fuller’s work) because of its anti-Communist aspect. This B-picture with an A-budget went on to win the Bronze Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Since Fuller was very much an expert hardboiled writer as he was a visual stylist, Smith emphasizes the film’s dialogue, in particular the way that the criminal characters acknowledge and excuse the other crooks’ actions with a verbal shrug, with lines like “She’s gotta eat” and “He’s gotta live, too….”

Buy or Rent Pickup on South Street

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”