Blu-ray Review: Pickup on South Street

Starring: Richard Widmark, Thelma Ritter
Director: Samuel Fuller

pickup 1Samuel Fuller eschews his usual flamboyance for a lean, steely Fritz Lang-like shooting style in this tight little cold war thriller. When slicker than slick pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) rifles the purse of a girl on the subway, he suddenly finds himself in possession of a valuable microfilm laden with US military secrets. Thinking of the big score he can make by selling it onto the Commies, he laughs in the face of the authorities when they appeal to his patriotism to hand it over: “You’re waving the flag at me?”

His reaction isn’t really all that surprising, because, like most of the characters in Pickup, Skip lives on the edge on society – in his case literally, in a crumbling bait shack on the Bowery waterfront. The strength of the movie comes from its sympathetic portrait of these marginal figures who live by their own rules. Thelma Ritter is given a role that extends her range beyond her usual comedy routines as Moe, an elderly woman who sells information to the police to get by. And there’s a very well written part for Jean Peters as Candy, the girl with a chequered past who serves as the Communist’s unwitting courier and who is tasked with getting the microfilm off Skip.

The film provides a portrait of a society where no one has any reason to trust anyone, and it also rattles along nicely towards a tense conclusion. Throughout, Widmark is in his element, sneering, snapping, eyeballs rolling with paranoid watchfulness. It’s hard to think of any other film that packs so much plot and trenchant social commentary into 80 minutes. 8/10

Slight softness and graininess at times, but on the whole the smooth, evenly lit pickup 2camerawork comes across in pleasant silvery tones. The early scene where Candy enters the hotel foyer through slanting shadows looks particularly crisp, as does the shadowy denouement in the subway tunnels. Throughout, Candy’s white dress and silvery jewellery look fresh and seductive. 7/10

Wide-ranging and thoughtful 32-min interview with critic Kent Jones, who talks about Fuller’s sympathy for the underdog and reflects on the careers of the various cast members. ~ In a 23-min piece (presented in 4:3 aspect ratio), French critic Francoise Guerif discusses film noir and Fuller’s contribution to the genre. ~ Very nice 12-min featurette in which Samuel Fuller is interviewed watching Pickup on a Moviola – he discusses the origins of the story and reveals that the whole subway section was shot on a specially constructed set. 8/10


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