Jul 19, 2021
By Ed McMenamin
Smart-mouthed pickpocket Skip McCoy, fresh out of jail from two previous charges, unwittingly steals classified microfilm when he lifts a woman’s wallet on the New York City subway. The theft lands Skip and the woman, Candy, in a Cold War battle between her communist agent boyfriend, Joey, and an FBI surveillance team tracking the film.
The tug of war for the microfilm eventually pulls Candy closer to Skip as she attempts to retrieve the film, and the two begin a fraught romance.
He’s selfish, but also charming, with a cutting smirk and bold disrespect for authority. When he learns the value of the film, he hopes to turn it into his big score, while she is looking to escape Joey’s coercion and the cop’s investigation.
Skip, Candy and a stool pigeon named Moe are the emotional core of this 1953 noir classic. Espionage drives the plot, but not the characters’ motivation.
Maverick writer-director Samuel Fuller portrayed the down-and-out with respect and without sentimentality—people are people, doing what they need to survive. That idea defines Pickup on South Street, where underworld side players have the billing often reserved for spies or detectives.
Thelma Ritter steals several scenes as the professional informant, Moe, who sells shirt ties on the side. She saves her payouts from the cops for a plot in a cemetery, rather than an unmarked grave in Potter’s field. She knows every pickpocket (called “cannons” in the film), their style and how they operate, and she sells Skip out to lead detective Dan Tiger.
Tiger finds Skip at his home, a bait shack along the banks of the Hudson. Skip keeps his beer and his stash in a crate that he lowers into the river with a rope. He has no electricity, no proper kitchen, and the microfilm could be his ticket out of poverty. Richard Widmark is excellent in the role, cast as a wise-ass anti-hero at a time when he was known as a cackling villain. Jean Peters, as well, shines as Candy, a former prostitute without a sharp wit, but with a steel resolve and loyalty that inspires Skip.
Fuller drew on his experiences as a young tabloid reporter to draw the criminals and the police. He knew that cops rarely build elaborate cases and more often relied on informants like Moe for their breaks. Fuller said in an interview that he also knew people like Skip who lived in the bait shacks along the river, and Moe, who peddled tips to cops. He admired pickpockets, who he called artists, and originally wanted to name the film simply Pickpocket, six years before Robert Bresson’s lauded French film used that name.
Pickup on South Street is a fantastic title as well, critic Imogen Sara Smith notes in a new interview included with the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release. It combines the precise—South Street—with the ambiguous—Pickup—which could mean an arrest, the act of pickpocketing or the romance between Skip and Candy. The dialogue is also peppered with fantastic slang (like “cannon”) and punched-up phrases that build a heightened reality somewhere between Fuller’s gritty experience and cops-and-robbers fantasy: Skip calls the lead detective “Big Thumb;” an underworld source named Lightning Louie slurps noodles in a Chinese restaurant and picks cash off the table with chopsticks; pickpockets who specialize in robbing women are “moll buzzers.”
Fuller’s dry sense of humor also pokes fun at both American fear and false patriotism, and the apolitical film managed to offend both J. Edgar Hoover by making the Red Scare into a punchline, and some Europeans who disliked its portrayal of communists.
A few key line deliveries give away Pickup on South Street’s true ambivalence to the Red Scare. When the law attempts to appeal to Skip’s loyalty as an American in return for the microfilm, he replies in defiance, “Don’t waive the flag at me.”
Candy, in turn, has no idea her boyfriend and handler Joey is a communist spy—she thinks he steals business secrets. In one interrogation, she summarizes an entire decade of American panic. “What do I know about commies? I just know I don’t like them!”
When Skip punches a communist in the face near the end of the film, it’s not for country, it’s for Candy. When Moe informs on Skip to the cops but later makes a personal sacrifice to protect him from the communists, it’s not political, it’s personal. Skip, in turn, shows kindness and forgiveness to Moe, a character who in most films would be regarded as the lowest of the low – a rat. They have their own code of ethics, and most importantly to Fuller, they don’t judge each other.
The Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection includes a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, a new interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith, archival interviews with Fuller, a 1982 French television program in which the director discusses the making of the film, an on-screen biographical essay on Fuller, trailers, and essays by author and critic Luc Sante and Martin Scorsese. It also includes a chapter from Fuller’s posthumously published 2002 autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.
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