Pickup on South Street

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #224: Samuel Fuller’s Pick­up on South Street.

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I first saw this in a film noir class I took in col­lege, That same week we watched Kiss Me Dead­ly, so I got a bit con­fused and thought this film involved Mike Ham­mer and end­ed with a nuclear bomb. Woops. Def­i­nite­ly shame on me for mis­plac­ing my mem­o­ry of this sharply com­pli­cat­ed but nev­er­the­less deft lit­tle film. The most imme­di­ate­ly strik­ing aspect of this film is the dia­logue. Over­flow­ing with the argot of ‘40s small-time crime, the New York pre­sent­ed in this film is marked­ly dif­fer­ent from most por­tray­als. Like the char­ac­ters them­selves, most of the action takes place on the fringes of the city; the water­front or under­ground in the sub­way. Spaces are small, crowd­ed, claus­tro­pho­bic, in typ­i­cal noir fash­ion.

Also in typ­i­cal noir fash­ion, every­one smokes all of the time and most of the action takes places at night. But Fuller inverts some of the oth­er items on the noir check­list. The pro­tag­o­nist, while still anti-hero­ic, is not destroyed by his ambi­tion, and although the female lead, an implied ex-pros­ti­tute, starts off this trou­ble, she is more femme sauveur than femme fatale. In addi­tion to these inver­sions Fuller adds in a hefty dose of Red Threat that has echoes in Shock Cor­ri­dor ten years lat­er. The cast­ing was spot on and the act­ing excel­lent, which cou­pled with the plot, is why this film is a sta­ple of film noir.

As a side-note: my favorite trick in this film was Fuller’s con­stant empha­sis on what was not on screen; typ­i­cal­ly bound to entrances involv­ing Skip and how obser­vant he is. He enters a room, glances around, com­pletes some action [most notably the light­ing of two cig­a­rettes] and then the cam­era fol­lows him to reveal what caught his notice [usu­al­ly Can­dy].

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The plot cen­ters around Skip McCoy, a can­non fresh from the clink, who binges a dame named Can­dy of her pock­et­book on the sub­way and unknow­ing­ly ruins a gov­ern­ment sting oper­a­tion. He’s stolen some micro­film con­tain­ing secrets that would lead the gov­ern­ment to “Mr. Big.” The police call a stool pigeon to iden­ti­fy Skip and give a lead on his where­abouts. Mean­while, the com­mies are also try­ing to track him down to reclaim the micro­film. Can­dy and Skip get caught in the mid­dle of this pow­er play and it turns out the Can­dy isn’t a com­mie, just their pawn. There are a few bru­tal scenes of vio­lence against Can­dy and plen­ty of loose morals, so I doubt the film would have been approved with­out the strong nation­al­is­tic fla­vor. It could be argued that Can­dy and Moe get what is com­ing to them, the for­mer for con­sort­ing with com­mu­nists, the lat­ter for being an informer, but Moe’s mur­der is more mar­tyr­dom than pun­ish­ment. She’d inform on any­one to any­one except a com­mu­nist.

It is impor­tant to note that Skip McCoy doesn’t fight the com­mies out of a sense of nation­al­ism, [“Don’t wave the flag at me.”] but because he final­ly real­izes that Can­dy loves him. So it is strange to see that he is not affect­ed at all by the mael­strom he’s found him­self in. Per­haps because he’s such a slim cus­tomer, with a cock-eyed smar­tass smile that embod­ies a cer­tain idea of Amer­i­can pugnac­i­ty all this dra­ma is expect­ed to roll off his back. Well, it does, and he is the man, not the cops or the feds, who ulti­mate­ly breaks up the com­mie plot and cap­tures Mr. Big, all thanks to his skills as a pick­pock­et.

The resound­ing mes­sage is that while some Amer­i­cans may be ene­mies with each oth­er in civil­ian life, when a threat to the nation appears, they’ll work togeth­er to defeat the damn dirty com­mies. Just anoth­er type of exploita­tion cin­e­ma for your view­ing plea­sure.

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Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Luc Sante.
Essay by Grant Tracey.
• Bright Lights Film Jour­nal with a great arti­cle putting the film in a cin­e­mat­ic con­text.
• Sens­es of Cin­e­ma arti­cle by Richard J. Thomp­son.
• Moe ver­sus the Com­mie. Excel­lent clip from the film on Youtube.

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