Pickup This One: a Look Back at Pickup on South Street

I love movies of all eras.  There have been good and  not so good from every decade. Just give me a good story and I am happy.  Black & white or color film, it doesn’t matter. How could it? I was raised on a 9 ” portable B&W TV that was to serve the whole family and we never went out to the movies. So you can bet, I watched a lot of old movies on TV as a kid and have a fondness for a few actors. Richard Widmark (1914-2008) is one of my favorites. Who is he, you ask?

His distinct maniacal goofy laugh launched him as 20th Century Fox’s breakout star of 1947. He had a magnificent career spanning over 4 decades working opposite such greats as Marylin Monroe, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda , John Wayne as well as more contemporary names such as Michael Douglas, John Cusack and James Spader.

“Pickup on South Street (1953)” is one of my favorite Widmark films.  I remember so clearly the feelings of bitter disappointment and anger at the injustice, when as a child, my mother decided it was far too late for me to be up watching “such a film”.  So off went the TV at the scene where Candy returns to Skip’s shack and they are outside on the “deck” becoming “further acquainted”.  Aaaagh!  It was almost 20 years later that I finally watched the remainder of the movie, which I bought on VHS and then years later splurged for the Criterion Collection DVD release which is chock-full of special features. But I am getting ahead of myself.
“Pickup on South Street” is a film noir tale about Skip McCoy (Widmark) who is a skillful pickpocket.  He lifts a wallet from Candy’s (Jean Peters) purse in the subway.  This is the opening sequence of the film, which unfolds brilliantly and almost wordlessly.

Unbeknownst to Skip (and Candy of course), Candy is being watched by the FBI as a suspected trafficer of top-secret intelligence to the “Commies”.  Poor Candy thought she was just doing a favour for an ex-boyfriend.  Skip has lifted the wallet containing the goods (documents on microfilm).  The Feds want it, the Commies want it and Candy’s ex is hopping mad.  Skip knows the value of what he’s got, once he is hauled into the police station, that is.  Unfortunately, the cops can’t find the film and time is of the essence if they want to nab the “Commies” during the transaction.  Skip is not one to cooperate unless it serves his best interests and he is trying to score big with this deal regardless of political affiliations.  How this plays out to a satisfying conclusion, I shall not spoil.  Suffice it to say, a few colorful characters are brought forth, including the Police Capt Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) and Stool Pidgeon Moe (Thelma Ritter in an Oscar nominated role).  The latter character gets some of the best dialogue!

Candy: You’ve been recommended as the best pickpocket stoolie in the business.

Moe: What kind of talk is that, calling me a stoolie? I was brought up to report any injustice to the police authority. I call that being a solid citizen.

Candy: But you get paid for it.

Moe: You gonna knock it?

Moe: You got any Happy Money?

Candy: Happy Money?

Moe: Yeah, money that’s gonna make me happy.

The plot is not too complicated. However, Sam Fuller’s trademark efficient directing and writing style along with his attention to detail make the most of every moment of a short, 80 min run time.  Everytime I watch the film (I have lost count), I catch another detail that expands my appreciation.  The dialogue is concise yet quippy.  So much is said with actions, rather than words.  When Skip offers Candy a cigarette, gentleman that he is, he uses the one he is currently smoking to light a new one and he keeps the new one and gives Candy the one he has almost half smoked.  What a guy!  I also enjoyed the sequence where Skip clearly spots the officers tailing him and decides to have fun with it.

These extra details add dimension to Skip’s character and illustrates director Sam Fuller’s knack of taking advantage of the visual aspect of film in contrast to a radioplay or a book to tell a good story. The acting is top notch all around, but this is really a great showcase for Richard Widmark’s talent as an antihero in a really fun film noir. Years after the cold war is but a vague memory, this film holds up surprisingly well. Criterion has packaged it well with tons of extras, it was premium priced but worth it.

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