Sam Fuller on Pickup on South Street, from his memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking
Pickup on South Street is an 80-minute wonder of economical, fast-paced storytelling directed by cult filmmaker Sam Fuller. Fuller had an instinctive feel for sensationalism and pulpiness. The film “exploits the gritty reality you read about in the headlines without sacrificing the romance of the silver screen.” (Scott Nye, Criterion Blu-Ray review).
Fuller's hard-boiled style practically predestined him to be dismissed as a B director so often. Much of the movie's dialogue is right out of a dime novel.
Fuller liked to combine social commentary with brutal directness. He didn't go in for sappy backstories either. When Candy asks Skip how he became what he is, another director may have concocted a tale to make the angels weep. Not so Fuller. “Don’t ask stupid questions” is all the answer we get.
Fuller was an admirer of the Italian Neo-Realists who favored on-location shooting, but Pickup - despite its seeming authenticity and realism - was filmed almost entirely on a sound stage. Skip’s shack, the overcrowded subway that makes the audience feel the sweltering heat inside, the steam rising from the sidewalks, the seedy rooms…all Hollywood mixed with a few location shots for that true NY feeling. A NY picture shot in LA that nevertheless perfectly captures the nature of the city. Art director Lyle Wheeler was the sound stage magician. Together with cinematographer Joe MacDonald he re-created a “realism” all of its own on the Fox backlot, even if it isn’t real. We get a palpable feel for the underbelly of NYC without setting a foot into it.
Released at the height of the Red Scare, J Edgar Hoover objected to the unsympathetic treatment of the FBI and Widmark’s contempt for flag-waving, but Zanuck refused to give in. The PCA of course wanted numerous script revisions. Some violence had to be removed, but the picture is still one of the most brutal of its era, especially Candy’s ugly beating by her ex-boyfriend which looks shockingly real and was filmed without stunt doubles.
With just a few brushstrokes Fuller paints concise characterizations of kooky characters. Wonderful little touches like the trademark techniques of New York pickpockets and the way a crook named Lightning Louie snaps up his bribe money.
The opening scene is brilliantly staged, without dialogue. It starts in the subway where a pickpocket moves in beside a girl. The scene is intensely erotically charged. At first it feels like two people on a very intimate rendezvous. Skip is going through Candy’s purse as if caressing her. It’s strangely sexual until the viewer notices that the pickpocket is only after the girl's money.
Richard Widmark plays “three-time loser” and grifter Skip McCoy, the pickpocket who finds himself embroiled in Cold War espionage when he inadvertently lifts some microfilm carrying classified government information from the purse of Candy (Jean Peters), unwitting Communist courier and former girlfriend of Red spy Joey (Richard Kiley). Joey wants it back. With the help of stoolie Moe (Thelma Ritter) Candy sets to work. Skip has the film - the Feds want it, the Reds want it and Skip sees his chance for a big pay day.
Many viewers bemoaned the Commie angle, but apparently many of them didn’t look below the surface. Fuller tells his story without the requisite hysteria of other reds-under-the-bed propaganda pictures. Those took themselves seriously. They had a message. In Pickup Communism is no more than the nominal subject. The stolen microfilm is nothing but a MacGuffin, a pretext to move the plot along.
Moe says: “What do I know about commies? Nothing… but I know I don’t like ’em“, this clearly plays like a satire. Not that J Edgar would have noticed. He took things at face value. But as Fuller refused to explain himself, some critics called the film anti-Communist, some anti-American, depending on their own politics.
It’s clear where Fuller’s sympathies lie. They’re firmly on the side of life’s losers. Fuller paints petty criminals, hustlers, grifters and hookers with real sympathy.
None of Fuller’s heroes are squeaky-clean. Having friends in low places was no indication of a person’s moral worth, or lack thereof. His characters are not only survivors, they are survivalists, who’ve been knocked about a lot but somehow made it out alive. They do what they must to get by. They’re the grunts trying to survive while political loonies play their little power games.
Candy is as classy as her name implies. She’s a tart who’s “kissed a lot of guys”, but she has a heart of gold, naturally. Her dresses are so tight we wonder how she peels them off at night. Fuller had turned down several actresses as too glamorous for the role including Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe, before settling on Peters. It was a wise choice. She brings a raw and earthy sexiness to her role, mixed with toughness and vulnerability in equal measures. In her own words, playing the siren didn’t come naturally to her and she always credited Monroe with showing her the ropes.
When Candy and Skip first meet, he knocks her out cold and then pours beer over her to wake her up. It’s meet cute, Noir style. Skip almost dislocates her jaw and we still like the guy! He caresses it too right afterwards, and there I was waiting for the celluloid to burst into flames. They generate some major wattage. Some reviewers apparently mistook this for love at first sight.
Both Candy and Skip are mercenaries, both are playing each other and both want something from each other. And in the beginning it’s not sex, that’s just a means to an end. Candy wants her microfilm back, Skip wants to know what’s so important about it. Acting true to type, she tries to use sex to get her way. She knows the routine, she didn’t get all those lovely dresses by flashing her suitors nothing but a coy little smile.
But in a complete departure from the way this set-up usually plays out, Skip does the same. He isn’t a sucker. He wants money. Later she tries it on a second time and fails again.
Widmark is great as Skip. Audacious and arrogant, combining roguish charm with a capacity for easy violence, he exudes menace and shiftiness. He lives in a dilapidated bait-and-tackle shop at the Brooklyn waterfront where he keeps his beer cold in the River. It’s a classy set-up.
He’s a lowlife who’s always on the lookout for a quick buck. He’s a crook because the world is full of suckers, so why not take advantage of them? 25G for the microfilm sounds just right to him. With appeals to his patriotism the cops want him to give it up, but those appeals fall on deaf ears. “Are you waving the flag at ME?” is his incredulous answer to it. The appeals are noble platitudes spouted by flatfoots without humor. Politics and patriotism are abstractions that mean nothing to him. Skip wouldn’t let anything as small as politics come between him and his big score. To him nobody’s money stinks, not even a reds. J Edgar didn’t like it and called Fuller in for a little talk. Fuller didn’t play.
Many viewers wondered how Candy could fall for Skip so fast. Moe has the best answer to it, he gets under people’s skin. He’s an homme fatale. And Candy isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.
After Moe gets killed and Candy beaten up, Skip's grubby sense of honor is finally awakened. It’s not politics that makes him change his ways, it’s loyalty and love.
In the end it’s happiness for Skip and Candy - or the Noir equivalent of it - but damn it’s twisted. One second they slug each other, the next they lock lips. It’s some kinky stuff there. In Noirville the road to a happy ending resembles ten rounds in the ring with Jack Dempsey. Despite that their relationship is one of the most affecting I’ve seen in Noir. To me it worked just fine.
Special mention has to go to Thelma Ritter as stoolie Moe, a spot-on performance that conveys a world of quiet despair with just a few gestures. She sells her services to the highest bidder so she can buy herself a top of the line funeral with all the trimmings and not end up as another nameless corpse in Potter’s Field. “I have to go on making a livin’ so I can die,” is one of the saddest, most hopeless and nihilistic declarations ever. She’s given up on living, she just works to die.
Though Moe occasionally rats her friends out to the cops, after all everybody has to make a living somehow, she’s fond of them. She warns them about the sell-outs. Skip doesn’t hold it against her. “She’s gotta eat,” he explains. She’s cunning, noble, feisty, pathetic and endearing all at once. We can’t help but love Moe. She has dignity and emotional depth.
She has her own unwritten code of ethics too, she doesn’t sell out to commies. She dies to protect her friends.
Though Moe trades constant wise-cracks with everybody, there’s always something melancholy about her. When she says to Joey - who’s come to kill her - she’s tired, we know it’s not just physical. Her weariness goes deeper. She’s tired of life, it has beaten her down. All she has to show for at the end of her life is a shabby tenement. She accepts her death in a fatalistic fashion. Her death is the most emotionally gut-wrenching in the movie. She dies with a dignity that transcends her life as a crook. When Moe’s corpse is on its way to Potter’s Field, it’s Skip who makes sure she gets her fancy funeral, paying for it with his own hard-stolen money.
The very last scene - where Skip and Candy go off together into the sunset - didn't sit well with many viewers. In a way it rings false, it's too cheery. But knowing Fuller it's clear that saccharine-sweet happily ever after is not his style. Skip and Candy may have their little triumph for a while, but it's more than doubtful that the happy ending is really the end. Sooner or later they'll be right back in the gutter.
The film is an absolute classic that’s still as fresh as ever.