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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