Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pickup on South Street (1953)

By Eric Jessen 2/11/10

The train rocks and Skip McCoy moves closer. He's picked his target: a young woman with a surprise waiting for him. A sea of people force his body up against hers. As the train starts to move again he slips his hands down by her waist, pretending to hold open a newspaper. One sway of the train and he's unfastened her purse. Two government agents stand maybe ten feet away, their eyes fixed on his every move. His fingers delicately sift through a handkerchief, some makeup, then pluck out her wallet. As the train comes to a stop he bumps her closing her purse then rushes off to find out how big he's scored.
Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) must be dim. He's definitely backward. Why if he's a “three time loser” would he risk getting caught a fourth time with his hand down a woman's purse and by state law guarantee himself life behind bars?
The simple answer given by Pickup on South Street and most film noir, crime genre movies is that he just doesn't know any better. Once a “two-bit canon,” always a two-bit canon as Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) would say. In the world of gangs, hoods, mugs and stoolies there's no turning back. And as much as that may sound like a hell for the criminals who find themselves down the wrong path, the same movies routinely finish them off with a moral tongue lashing.
Perfect for director Samuel Fuller that such a routine exists. Fuller is an iconoclast, a maverick, a cynic if there ever was one. I must admit he is a favorite. His willingness to shock and appall is refreshing. Fuller is a master of the underground, a quintessential termite-filmmaker. And during the 50's the former tabloid journalist made a series of no-fluff B-classics.
His filmography could only have been made in pulp heaven: a murder mystery at a mental hospital (Shock Corridor); a prostitute fleeing the big city to the suburbs and finding herself handcuffed by a kind of man much worse than a pimp, a child molester (The Naked Kiss); a landowner (played by Barbara Stanwyck) with her forty body guards at her back and a U.S. Marshal finding they love the click of the trigger, and BANG of their pistol more than they care for each other (Forty Guns). And on top of that, no description of Fuller's pulp legend is complete without mentioning one simply nutty opening voice over - as a man in pajamas chases a toddler and a puppy through a destroyed city we hear, “In this ravaged city where people are starving, all the dogs have been eaten except one” (China Gate). Writing these descriptions I can't help but giggle.
It's true, any thought of sensitivity has never stood in Samuel Fuller's way. To call him “heavy-handed,” “over-the-top,” “primitive” or merely “fast, flashy, and essential empty minded” (as Pauline Kael did) would be an understatement. Fuller's movies can get downright absurd, and their violence bludgeoning. I prefer Manny Farber's description of Fuller: the first director to attempt “poetic purity” through “unlimited sadism, done candidly and close up.”
A convention commonly disregarded in Fuller movies is that the good eventually defeats the bad. Or, that the bad sooner or later get their comeuppance. In a Fuller movie like Pickup on South Street the bad don't necessarily defeat the good. Instead the bad – McCoy, a pickpocket, Candy (Jean Peters), a prostitute, and Moe (played fantastically by Thelma Ritter), a police informant – defeat those even worse – Commies.
Fuller prefers the “alternate path” not as a success story, where turning to crime is rewarded, but as a vehicle for a thrill ride and occasionally a message. No matter if that message is sometimes simple-minded or heavy-handed. Along with his best B-movies that sport hilarious tag lines, every so often Fuller delivers a gem, Pickup on South Street certainly being one.