I’ll preface this review by saying of all the films on the iCheckMovies IMDb noir list that I am working through, this was one that I was looking forward to the most. I only own one other Samuel Fuller film – Shock Corridor – but it is a personal favourite of mine,  so I had high hopes for Pickup on South Street. I wasn’t disappointed.

Petty thief Skip McCoy (the excellent Richard Widmark whom I respect more and more as a dramatic actor every time I see him) is in the wrong place at the wrong time as he lifts a purse from the earthy, but alluring Candy (Jean Peters) on a train. Unluckily for him, she was a mule, carrying a microfilm for her weasly boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). Before long, he finds himself an unwitting player in a Communist spy ring, playing off the cops on one side and fighting for his life against the Communists on the other.

The political connotations aren’t exactly subtle, especially when you consider when this was made. No matter what side you are on in this movie, everyone hates the Commies! The attitudes of  Americans at the time are summed up perfectly in a single line by Brooklyn wise-girl Thelma Ritter. Her character – Moe Williams – is as happy to hang out with criminals as she is to sell them out to the police, but when suspected of selling out to a “Commie” she gives the deadpan reply  :

“What do you think I am, an informer?”

Thankfully, Fuller doesn’t really push this as a propagandist film, and in fact there is much to suggest this is to be taken as a satirical glance at American attitudes, rather than an anti-communist propaganda work. For example, another line given life by Ritter;

What do I know about commies? Nothing… but I know I don’t like ’em“.

Like I said, everyone hates the commies. Even the stool pigeons.

Also, the Communists create the added bonus of putting an inventive twist on the standard noir themes. Rather than just having the law and the criminals, and every shade of gray in between, the film uses the Communists as a 3rd player, creating an interesting playground wherein the law are after the criminals, and everyone is after the communists and their microfilm – giving a fresh feel to what is essentially a genre-film.

Zeitgeist political suggestions aside, this is a swift, entertaining roller coaster ride of a movie. Weighing in at a fairly lightweight 77 minutes, the film breezes along, rarely slowing down to take a breath.

The performances are excellent, with the possible exception of Richard Kiley, whose anxiety-ridden character is often tinged with wide-eyed, twitchy melodrama. Richard Widmark plays his role to perfection, one of the truly great noir anti-heroes. If a film can have you rooting for a character even after they punch out a beautful lady and laugh about it, that’s one great script and actor. When Skip isn’t dislocating the lovely Candy’s jaw, he is caressing it, and the more tender scenes between them are simply electric, with a real chemistry.

They are very nearly all upstaged though, by the afore-mentioned Thelma Ritter. Without a doubt one of the most under-appreciated supporting character actresses that ever lived. Her character is a complex one, one that works on both sides of the law. She sells her friends out to the police, and they know it, but they still have a huge amount of respect for her. In a genre that is ridden with stoolies who get their come-uppance, this is a quite a hard cliche to break, yet the combination of the excellent script, and Ritter’s pitch-perfect performance lend the film the credibility it needs to break that barrier.

Visually, the film is faultless and unique. Fuller plays with high angles, low angles, shadows, light, cross-fades etc. in a masterful way. It’s all tightly edited, with no excess baggage and underlined by an understated but desperately cool blues saxophone.

I cannot write this review without mentioning the bone-jarringly realistic fight scenes. One scene in particular, shot in a single take, is a brutal tête-à-tête between Richard Kyley and Jean Peters, and the beating he hands out to her is quite hard to watch. Slaps and punches land with convincing fervour, and the poor actress is thrown into tables and furniture as they smash on her battered body. I can honestly say that of all the films I have seen from this era, this is the first time a fight scene has made me wince in imagined pain – it is a powerful moment.

In summary, I cannot find a fault with Pickup on South Street, other than a slightly hammy perfomance at the start of the film by Richard Kiley – but even he picks up the ball and runs with it towards the end. This is a brilliantly dark, fast-paced, satirical script, with well developed characters and relationships, great set-pieces and flawless direction, as well as being an essential commentary on American political beliefs at the time. A must-see.

5/5

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