Pickup on South Street is one of the greatest of film noirs and one of Sam Fuller’s greatest works as well (Park Row giving me pause right now). It may not be mentioned as often as Double Indemnity or Out of the Past but if it isn’t right there, it trails those films by only a half-step. It doesn’t have the trademark noir voice-over, but it is certainly captures the moody, seedy underworld of inner-city/crime America (is there any other kind in Fuller’s world?) and has a femme fatale of sorts (Jean Peters as “Candy” who was picked over Marilyn Monore).
A strong opening- a silent scene where Richard Widmark picks the pocket of Jean Peters on a crowded subway.
A reoccurring shot in Fuller’s oeuvre of a fast dolly-in on a close-up, here showing panic on the face of Richard Kiley who plays Joey.
Fuller is aware of his world—long before Tarantino had his characters smoking red apple cigarettes Fuller has a soldier in the subway here wearing the #1 from the Big Red One unit of the army (which Fuller was in and is his 1980 film) and Peters uses “Park Row” matches to lit a cigarette.
The communist and microfilm here as a McGuffin
The story is brilliant- after the stolen pickpocket you have Widmark, Peters and then the two parties (cops and communists) looking for it. You throw in Thelma Ritter’s magnificent character Moe— bliss.
Ritter is absolutely commanding. She’s good in everything she’s in from All About Eve to Rear Window (this is a stretch 1950-1953 where she was nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award four years in a row). She’d be nominated a total of six times (never won), Brooklyn born and first movie credit at age 45. She plays the street-wise Moe and she’s a perfect match for Fuller’s sordid world and the cracking hot dialogue. She has bags under eyes, playing cops against robbers, giving information, selling ties as a front. She has a great scene with Widmark (man, are they good together) in the coffee shop and then her death scene soliloquy is perfect street poetry. The “I’m so tired” speech and the song on the record ends and the camera pans… gunshot (I mean Fuller behind the camera is one hell of a dance partner for her but still). Ritter is levitating.
Jazzy score- heavy lone trumpet and saxophone adds to the atmosphere
The fishing tackle shack on the water where Widmark lives is a great set piece—he grabs beer (and other things) from the robe and barrel through the window.
The dialogue contains all this great jargon- “cannons”, “muffin” “commies”- “let’s have a small dose of straight talk”
I’m 93% sure this is Widmark’s best work as well as Ritter’s. He has a great scene with Peters where he massages her face (after smacking it) and just like the big kiss scene in Park Row. Fuller directs the hell out of their embrace—obstructing the frame.
Shot of Ritter at 49 minutes between stockings is a good one
When Ritter’s character passes, and Widmark’s character saves her body from being dumped in potter’s field you’re aligned with him
Sweaty and violent
The subway again at the end with a pickpocket scene for nearly perfect bookends if it isn’t trumped a little by an unnecessary fight and a bit of a slapdash happy ending.