(Quick aside before the actual review. Yet again. There’s a decent possibility we’re entering one of those rare [but beloved] periods on my blog where I review a bunch of really good movies in a row. Rashomon was excellent. The movie I’m about to review was also great. And the other movie I have at home is a Woody Allen film. Odds are that it will be good. I review such a wide range of films to ensure that I can practice reviewing movies I don’t like [since not every movie that a real critic reviews is a winner], but with how my blog’s list works, moments like these do happen every now and then. And thank god because they give me the energy to keep this blog going. When I review a bunch of movies in a row I don’t like, it sucks the energy out of me. End aside)
Is there anything worse than when one aspect of a film stops it from reaching perfection? There is. It’s when the aspect of the film that drags it down is an obvious (and unfortunate artifact) of the age said film was released in. Rebel Without a Cause (which I actually think is pretty much perfect so probably the wrong example to use here) had to be far too subtle about the homoerotic subtext between Sal Mineo’s Plato and James Dean’s Jim Stark. The ending of Double Indemnity the film (as opposed to the novel) was practically forced upon Billy Wilder by the Hays Code. The Hays Code remains as a fairly infamous reminder of a time when Hollywood was under strict scrutiny and any thing remotely morally subversive was doomed to wind up on the cutting room floor. The film noir classic Pickup On South Street came out at the end of the Hays era, but it’s absurd anti-Communist overtones mar an otherwise thrilling picture.
Pickup on South Street remains fresh 60 years later for a multitude of reasons (and even manages to make it’s Red Scare paranoia seem like a minor complaint). Without question, Pickup on South Street is one of the most brutal films of the Hays era that I’ve ever seen. Throw in its salacious sexual undertones, and it would appear that it was a miracle that it ever got made in the first place (much like Double Indemnity, there were many versions of the script that were deemed unacceptable by the Production Code office). Although it’s tame even by the standards of film that would get PG-13 ratings today, this film could pack more sexual sizzle into a roguish leer on the subway than some cheesy macho flick could with actual sex. More modern film makers could learn to operate by a less is more principle. One can only imagine what directors like Billy Wilder or Pickup on South Street‘s Samuel Fuller could have accomplished post-Code.
Candy (Jean Peters), an ex-prostitute, is on the subway when her wallet is nicked by two-bit pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Although Candy knows she’s delivering a package on behalf of her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), neither Candy nor Skip know that her wallet contained microfilm full of government secrets that Joey was planning on selling to Communist agents. After the feds, who were tailing Candy to bust the head Communist spies, and the local police try to lean on Skip to return the wallet’s contents (which they can’t prove he has in the first place), Skip gets wise to Communist plot. Despite falling for the tough-headed Candy, who uses her wiles to locate Skip herself not knowing she’s a pawn in espionage, Skip tries to play both sides to his advantage until his friend, a local snitch named Moe (Thelma Ritter), gets caught in the cross-fire.
From the film’s opening shot, you knew you were in for something special. It’s a long, complex scene with zero dialogue. As Skip gets on the train and unknowingly embroils himself in an international conspiracy, the camera frantically cuts back and forth between about four different faces. Every person we see has a motive. Candy wants to get to her drop-off without drawing any unwanted attention. Skip wants to distract Candy with his good looks so he can nick her wallet. And the two cops don’t want Candy or Skip to notice that they’re watching both of them. The sexual chemistry between Skip and Candy threatens to derail the entire picture in the first scene alone (and that’s before they know each other’s name or try to outmaneuver the other sexually to stay ahead). As Fuller cuts back and forth between their faces, you know this is a film that was hell-bent on crossing what “the line” meant in the early 1950s.
Richard Widmark was everything you’d want in a film noir anti-hero (and the exact opposite of every complaint I had about Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity). Never really becoming a good guy even after becoming the hero of the story, Skip is cocky, a rake, and only out for himself. He cares about people. He surely cares about Moe and even defends her when Candy lets Skip know that Moe was the one to rat him out. His attraction to Candy leads to the film’s violent climax. Yet, at the end of the day, he’s a thief and the little glimmer he gets in his eye as he nicks Candy’s purse or takes a gun off a Communist spy in a moving subway shines as bright as anything else in the film. For a textbook example of how to play a prideful but talented con man, you need not look much further than Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street.
The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called her a bland punching bag in the paper’s original 1953 review, but Jean Peters should join the pantheon of the great troubled dames of film noir. She may not have the ice cold veins of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (the film I can’t seem to help keep making comparisons to), but as a tough broad who gets caught up in a mess beyond her wildest dreams, she shines. It’s no wonder that her hard-edge and sensuality are enough to soften the armor surrounding Skip McCoy. She may not have Stanwyck’s dark side, but she can go toe-to-toe with the all time great femme fatales in the sexual heat department. She just has to flash her doe eyes and strut her flirtatious walk to get every man’s attention. While the script never came right out and said she used to be a hooker, context clues and Jean Peters’ knowing face told the audience everything they needed.
The remaining stand-out performance was the Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter as the elderly stool pigeon Moe. In a film full to the brim of fast-talkers, Moe still seemed like the blue-print for all motor-mouth hustlers to come. Whether it’s her wounded pride when Candy calls her a “stoolie” or her showmanship selling cheap ties as her front as a snitch, Ritter captures both the tiredness that Moe feels towards “the game” as well as her constant scheming and survivalism. There’s a truly wonderful scene (that also simultaneously manages to be one of the movie’s most ridiculous moments but more on that later) where Joey shows up at Moe’s place to question her about Skip’s whereabouts that Ritter truly imbues Moe with the world-weary hustler pathos that is slowly weighing this old woman down.
Much like The Grifters, the dialogue in Pickup on South Street pops with an authentic vitality. The film almost never slows down to explain to the audience the myriad street crime/police slang terms that flow out of the protagonists mouth like water. Too many films insult the audience’s intelligence by assuming we can’t keep up with insider dialogue, but Pickup On South Street trusts the audience’s ability to use context clues. It makes the film feel like the ultimate pulp dime novel turned into a film, and for aficionados of the film noir genre, it’s an aural delight. The film absolutely drips with the perfect combination of intellectual and masculine energy that it gets your blood pumping while simultaneously stimulating your deep-seated desires for an inside look at the seedier underbelly of the 1950s.
But then, there’s the anti-Communism hysterics which threaten (but fail) to distract from an otherwise remarkable picture. In the same scene where Joey confronts Moe (and she gives an excellent speech about how tired she’s become), this same stool pigeon, who was willing to sell out her friend for $50, won’t talk to Joey cause he’s a Red. Just thinking about what she says is almost enough to make chuckle. She says she doesn’t know much about Commies, but she knows one thing. “I just don’t like ’em.” The whole film is painted with this whole anti-Red McCarthyist tinge, and it gets increasingly absurd. Just about the only manner in which the film averts brow-beating jingoism is with Skip who doesn’t care that Joey is a Commie. He’s upset because he kills Moe and slaps around Candy.
For all film noir fans, it’s a no-brainer. Pickup On South Street may not have the name recognitions of the Maltese Falcons or Double Indemnitys of the world, but it’s nearly as good. It’s a tough, smart, sexy movie that skirts the production rules of the era like few films before it. So, as long as you aren’t a Red (or aren’t a liberal that can’t look past the cultural era the film was made which produces it’s one unfortunate flaw), head on down to dark alleys and crowded subways of New York City. Just make sure you keep an eye on your purse/wallet. Skip McCoy might be hanging around waiting to nick it from you.
Final Score: A